Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins has been making a bit of a splash in the book business, not least because one of its main characters is morbidly obese. Though I suspect (perhaps with premature optimism) that the nationwide obesity panic is starting to plateau and pan out, the narratives and discourses of obesity panic are still firmly entrenched enough that it’s unusual, maybe even outré, to feature an obese woman as a fully-formed and even sympathetic character in a novel. Obese main characters are vanishingly rare; supporting characters are usually only made obese as lazy shorthand for a personality flaw or even to discourage sympathy. And that’s nothing compared to the way The Obese–those nameless, faceless monsters–are vilified in media reportage of cultural or medical studies.
So Attenberg’s depiction of Edie Middlestein’s obese body and the way she inhabits it is notable, worth attention and perhaps constructive critique. But for this post I want to bracket that topic because I was even more astonished by the way the novel depicts Edie’s eating.
Edie Middlestein loves to eat, and the chapters driven by her perspective caressingly describe what she loves about the food she eats. The cole slaw on her roast beef sandwich is creamy and tart. The smell of the air in McDonald’s is salty, meaty, and full of hope. (I craved McDonald’s French fries for weeks after finishing this novel.) There does not seem to be any narrative purpose behind these descriptions besides conveying sensory pleasure.
This is notable for a couple of reasons. For one: in all the books I read, many of which I read while looking specifically for food scenes, I can remember very few examples of novels that describe the pleasure of eating ordinary food. Food stands for so many other things in a novel–relationships, class status, and so forth–that many stories simply describe what was eaten and who ate it, as those details tell worlds on their own. Generally, detail about the aesthetic qualities of food is reserved for special food: banquets, carefully crafted meals, or masterpieces of cookery may be ornamented with details about how fine food melts in the mouth, causes the eyes to close and the breath to catch, etc. Sometimes descriptions of exquisite, careful preparation of food, such as the extraordinary meals made by Escoffier in White Truffles in Winter and Binh in The Book of Salt, take the place of description of the food’s own exquisiteness or deliciousness. But Edie eats ordinary food, usually junk food. The prose of these scenes is at its strongest when it makes a persuasive case for the sensual pull of these plain foods (as opposed to the few scenes where this pull is described figuratively, as when Edie imagines chips and dip as a couple of old friends).
The other reason that these vignettes of deeply pleasurable eating are extraordinary is that our narratives about the way fat people eat usually doesn’t allow for the thought and the sensual imagination that goes into Edie’s food choices. Poorly written stories about the obesity crisis tend to use attention-grabbing but dehumanizing language: eating is described as gobbling or stuffing or swallowing, as though a mindless activity or a kind of bestial feeding beneath human dignity. Likewise the language used to describe the way people eat high-sugar or high-fat foods. I’ve described elsewhere why I think it’s problematic to describe junk food as unilaterally addictive and excessive, when people choose such foods for a variety of reasons. (It should be more obvious why it’s problematic to describe the eating habits of obese people as de facto disgusting, but Melissa McEwan of Shakesville spells it out for you.)
Edie Middlestein, wealthy and highly educated, eats high-fat foods because they are freaking delicious. They may offer the pleasure of escapism–that’s certainly one of the themes explored through several of the novel’s characters–but she thinks about them, desires them, and experiences them in a mindful and highly aesthetic way. Occasionally, she takes on the character of the much-condemned food vaccuum, consuming quickly and in great quantity, but the novel suggests that this behavior is of a piece with her personality: Edie is an efficient eater, the way she is efficient and busy at her legal practice and volunteer activities, the way a longtime smoker might suck down a quick cigarette with practiced inhalations to maximize enjoyment in minimal time limits. Other characters are slightly nauseated by her eating (with the notable exception of her chef boyfriend, who is thrilled by it), but the juxtaposition of narratives allow some room to suspect that the characters’ nausea speaks more about their own food relationships than Edie’s–a possibility that is underscored when the grief-stricken family members begin comfort-eating at and after her funeral, a far more absent and mindless eating than Edie’s.
This is a novel that I will want to stew on. My experience reading it was mostly enjoyable but occasionally pained, and I would want to sort through my reactions before issuing any kind of blanket statement about the novel’s success with a difficult (and, culturally, sore) subject. But Attenberg has obviously been thinking seriously about how to complicate the ways we think about eating and obesity, and I appreciate the evidence of these efforts.