Mona Awads absorbing novel 13 Styles of Appearing at a Fat Girl goes where few novelists still dare into the mind of a heavyweight woman
At first, I was taken aback by the lack of incident in Mona Awads otherwise assimilating new fiction, 13 Ways of Appearing At a Fat Girl. The protagonist, a woman named Elizabeth living in southern Ontario, simply grows up, gains weight, loses it, gets married, get divorced. Thats it.
Few novelists are comfortable with this quiet of a plot. In order to sustain it you either have to have to construct a narrator of unusual reflective capabilities, or one with an undeniably interesting characteristic, something any reader wants to know more about. And Awad opts for the latter. It seems blunt Elizabeth is mostly interesting because she is as the title tells fat.
In this novel, to be clear, fat is a state of mind. Elizabeth herself discontinues to be physically overweight at some phase, but remains preoccupied by the condition throughout. The preoccupation is conveyed subtly Elizabeth doesnt ruminate about her weight much, but shes unable to get through a page without a catalogue of food or a comment on the fit of her apparel. Awads prose style is spare, which keeps the novel from descending into voyeurism, though it also means that Elizabeth spends much of the book hiding from the reader. Shes not comfy enough to linger for more than a paragraph or two of interiority.
Flashes of personality do come. When Elizabeth actually get her back up about her situation in life, she can be scathing, funny, cruel. A co-worker insists, constantly, on ordering a rich lunch and aloud celebrating while Elizabeth sips black tea and contemplates the co-workers faults 😛 TAGEND
Theres her groaning and theres her stick legs and theres her aggressively jutting clavicles. Theres the Cookie Monster impression she does after she describes food she loves( Om-Nom-Nom !). Theres how the largeness of the scone seems only to underline her impossible smallness. Principally, theres the fact that she exists at all.
This sort of intrafeminine aggression will be familiar to most women, whatever side of the body war theyve been on. But it is is a side of experience that hasnt been much investigated by literary novelists. It feels difficult to fictionalise, and poeticise, apparently, in ways that dont simply descend into clich. People can merrily write literary novels inspired by Justin Bieber, by tabloid crime victims, by half-baked ideas about WikiLeaks. But to address fat, with few exceptions, seems to tread too close to the vulgar. There is something uncomfortably literal about it.
There are, of course, fat characters in volumes out there, some of them quite enduring and famous. But they tend to be beings of young adult, or commercial fiction. The first fat daughter I recollect coming across was Linda Fischer, who was the Blubber in a Judy Blumes book of the same name. But the reader was not really let, in that volume, to know Linda. Blume does not tell the story from her perspective. In an entirely admirable effort to discourage bully, Blume stayed in the head of one of Lindas tormentors. But this compounded, for me and Im sure for the books legions of readers, the idea that to be fat is to be fundamentally alone and somehow unknowable.
Then, in my adolescence, encouraged by Oprah, a new archetypal fat girl arrived on the scene: Dolores Price in Wally Lambs Shes Come Undone, a popular Oprah Book Club pick that I guess just about everyone read or heard about in 1996. There was something wholly too literal about Dolores her lifes route was already there in the name. “Shes been” sexually abused; the fiction presented her enormous girth as a direct consequence of her agony. There was little experience of her fat to account for other than disliking it.
It is no secret, of course, that people have strong feelings about fat feelings that seem merely to have been inflamed by the sense, in western countries, that there is an obesity crisis afoot. Fears about health have mutated into a kind of panic attending any mention of fat people at all. To touch the subject is to break a very thin seal of civility. Recently, Sarai Walker, the author of another book about a fat girl called Dietland, wrote in the New York Times that shed been surprised by the strong reactions people had to her volume. I felt like a witch surrounded by torch-wielding villagers, she wrote of one of her promotional appearances.
The judgment does not simply come from outside, either. Fat is not immoral, Hilary Mantel wrote in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. There is no link between your waistline and your ethics. But though you insist on this, in your own intellect, everything tells you youre incorrect; or, lets say, youre going in for the form of intellectual discrimination that cuts against the perception of most of the population, who know that overweight people are lazy, undisciplined slobs. She goes on to point out that the perception is not true, of course, but even for a person of her intelligence, sometimes impossible to ignore. Mantels Beyond Black, my favourite of her fictions, dedicates us a fictional version of this argument in Alison, a clairvoyant whose weight is an ever-present thing without overwhelming the plot.
Awads Elizabeth is a being closer to Mantels Alison than to Blubber, or Dolores Price. In the early chapters of the novel, she is neither wholly ashamed nor wholly espousing of herself. Put into a revealing outfit by her mother, mid-weight-loss, she is not quite upset. Tonight, shes trussed me up in a one-strap midriff-baring bit of turquoise gauze she bought me this afternoon at the rack, she reports. Afterward, she adds: My broad slash of bare stomach feels like situations of emergency no one is attending to, my feet like theyre doing bad porn under the table. Another sort of novelist would make this kind of thing into an opu of disgrace, recounting the zippers that wont close, the cheap nylon mortification of it all. Instead, Elizabeth is amused.
But this folding of fat into experience eventually hollows Elizabeth out. A tragedy reaches and that bemused Elizabeth simply fades away. It will not spoil your experience of the book to say the fiction objective , not totally satisfying, in view of a fitness centre. In the last few lines both Awad and Elizabeth seem to be trying to persuade her, over all the cliches that attach to pedalling nowhere, that her obsession with weight has not doomed her to any particular fate. The consequence is subtle, but poignant , not least because youre not quite sure where the author lands on the subject.
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