I’m not in the habit of writing book reviews, but this one has inspired my response. Although it’s entertaining and well-written, I ended up feeling “slimed” by the book, under attack by a strangely dark vision of hopelessness conflated with Ms Shriver’s personal issues.
I heard author Lionel Shriver speak in an interview on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC. The subject matter is relevant to topics important to me; the protagonist is a jazz musician with addiction and food issues. Both Leonard Lopate and Lionel Shriver remarked on the timeliness of the book’s release, given the obesity epidemic plaguing the country. I’m concerned and passionate about this subject, as a musician having experienced recovery, both from chemical dependency and obesity, myself. I had to read the book.
Lionel Shriver is a fluent writer with clipped, glib, shorthand literacy with refreshing insights about many things. She’s got a feel for contemporary culture, aware of jargon, trends, some insider knowledge of jazz, dropping names with some fluency, although the jazz patois coming from her brother has odd, non-idiomatic usage at times in the author’s voice rather than an authentic jazzer’s. More often than not, though, she’s given voice to her inner dialog in a way that resonates, characterizing silences between people comparing her perceived feeling of the silence to characteristics of food, as one example. It’s a rewarding, compelling read for much of the book.
Having just seen episodes of HBO’s “Weight of the Nation,” it’s clear to me that the conventional wisdom sees losing weight as “complex” and “difficult.” Failure rates are high. The diet industry depends on failure for repeat business, and the food industry depends on consumer addiction to foods with the highest profit margins, e.g. those cheapest to make and distribute having long shelf life and attractive taste characteristics. The United States – and much of the Industrialized world – is an “ obesogenic environment .” If we believe advertising and do what appears to be encouraged and expected of us today, we will become obese. Two thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese .
Recovery is elusive. Sufferers of obesity are frequently despondent about their condition, feeling lost and frustrated by recurrent failure, lack of reliably coherent direction, and without hope. Recovery is difficult – but it need not be complex, and it’s not impossible nor hopeless. Although the majority tend to fail within the current environment given the information and conventional treatments available, millions are succeeding, and millions more are preventing the onset of diabesity and metabolic syndrome though lifestyle and prevention methods including healthy choices, intelligent, sustainable dietary composition, and cultivated good habit patterns, including moderate ongoing exercise habits.
Obese people are frequently judged to have moral failings, or defects of character, as alcoholics used to be judged. In the case of alcoholics, these judgments still occur by people unaware of the recovery movement and 12-step programs, but the conventional wisdom and prescribed treatment with regard to alcoholics and chemical dependents has adopted the “disease model” of addiction. The “cure” of total abstinence, successful in the treatment of alcoholism and drug dependency with millions of suffers restored to productive life, is tricky to apply to obesity and food issues because people have to eat. Overeating recovery, although more complex than simple abstinence, is simpler than many think. Reductively put, eating recovery boils down to “how” and “why.” How are you supposed to eat to succeed? When? What?…but perhaps most importantly, why?
Lionel Shriver gets to the crux of one of these questions but fails to answer it. Instead, appearing to conclude there is no answer, she kills off her protagonist in a hail of pessimism polluted by her own guilt. In her interview with Lopate, it was revealed that the events in the book are drawn partially from her own experience taking in her own obese jazz pianist brother, who died young from obesity in real life. The book appears to be an attempt to rationalize her own crippling guilt over her failure to save him. Why even bother trying to save someone, as depicted for most of the book until her “it was all a dream! Not really!” fake-out fuck-you-the-reader ending. (In the book she does a year of food rehab with the brother, who succeeds in meeting his weight-loss target and undergoes a remarkable character transformation, jettisoned in entirety in one paragraph, relapsing spectacularly at the end.) The book seems to be a way for her to rationalize having done nothing for her real-life brother… why bother? He would have failed anyway.
This, to me, is offensive, and an insult to recovering people everywhere. “You too are going to fail!” is the implied message. Recovery and redemption, and philosophical revolution, are everyday occurrences in the real world, although apparently beyond the reach of the guilt-ridden Shriver.
The philosophical basis for weight loss has been framed with the popular chicken-egg aphorism: Live to eat? Or eat to live?
In the case of a depressed person who seems bent on killing himself with overeating, the question extends to “why live?” This is Shriver’s unanswered question. Twelve-step recovery suggests that putting oneself at the service of others, living for one’s fellow man instead of solely for oneself is a good place to start. Although during the course of his recovery in the book the protagonist seems to begin to develop characteristics typical of this mindset, the deeper decision – “I’m living for others rather than myself” – never rises to the surface in Shrivers book, and herein is the failure. There are many possible reasons to live, but the top of the list tends to be “for others.” Before you kill yourself, think of who it might hurt. Is your temporary, curable pain more important than the effect you’ll have on others as a suicide? The book is in desperate need of an “It’s A Wonderful Life” moment, when Jimmy Stewart is talked out of doing himself in. No matter what discipline or reason a person finds, the bottom line is – there is a reason to live. Find it, so you have a reason to begin making better choices.
Meanwhile, in her litany of putative “online research” mentioned in the book, there is not a word about fantastic resources such as Dr David Katz , Dr Mark Hyman , Dr Joseph Mercola , The Improvising Chef or many others who have laid out sustainable, lifestyle-based approaches to habit changes that bring about the restoration of health. When it comes to food recovery, people need to learn about the function of food, how to compose a healthy alimentary stream, how to maximize micronutrient intake while minimizing caloric density. These are real-life, though not widely known techniques that lead to recovery and success, and have the potential to cure our diabesity epidemic and restore our nation to productive good health. Let the real education begin. Huckstering and profiteering have led us to this precipice. Shriver’s book is just more of the same; part of the problem, not part of the solution.