We all read books for various reasons (spare me your citations of “artists on art” or theoretical treatises of “writers on writing”; I’m going to be generic here): we read to escape, to learn to embrace a perspective other than our own, to be impressed by a writer’s style, to have our minds opened, or to read about the human experience in ways that we understand but cannot quite articulate or illustrate ourselves. From high school English classes and college literature surveys we’ve learned the terms we’re supposed to associate with literature and how we’re supposed to talk about it – protagonist, theme, motif, symbol, climax, identification.
That last one – identification – let’s talk about that. We often sympathize with the character most like ourselves (or the character who we’d like to be), and we can only hope that character is the good guy. When we find ourselves understanding the criminal (e.g. Lolita), we’re supposed to acknowledge that black-and-white worldviews give way to gray areas and that humans are complex.
When we come upon a book or a character that is intended to be representative of our experience, we feel the need to “test it,” to approach it with a critical mind and evaluate its portrayal of the character – and really, of ourselves. (For the record, I now understand that I can never successfully comment on the experiences of protagonists in Indian or South African fiction, as I’ve done in my theses; you will also never convince me that a man can write a successful coming-of-age story about a teenage girl.)
I read The Middlesteins as a test. I didn’t want to transport myself to another world I didn’t know, nor did I expect to learn something new. I wanted to read Jami Attenberg’s recent novel about a suburban Jewish family dealing with the obesity of its matriarch because I wanted to test its validity, to see if the depiction of this character’s relationships to her family and her weight matched mine. Attenberg never intended this character, Edie, to represent everyone who is overweight or obese or even weight-conscious; to do so would be to disastrously overgeneralize. But even the most basic characteristics – “overweight” and “woman” – invite me to compare my experience with the fiction. Would I be offended? Would I weep in commiseration? Would I identify with this character whose weight becomes the focal point of a family’s destruction?
The Middlesteins has received its fair share of praise. To be sure, several of the reviews I’ve read are – by design – pithy summaries or objective fiction criticism, and they tend to broadly categorize the novel as a family drama, a romance, the new American pastoral, or – as The New York Times so charmingly put it – “suicide by Big Mac.”
From Kirkus Reviews: “The deeply satisfying story of a Chicago family coming apart at the seams and weaving together at the same time…. A sharp-tongued, sweet-natured masterpiece of Jewish family life.”
From The New York Times new release page: “Edie may be pathetic, but in the eyes of Kenneth, a Chinese restaurant owner, she is “a lush, vibrant, large woman” who takes “fierce pleasure” in his food. Might love be on the menu?”
From TimeOut: New York: “Attenberg’s compact, emotionally-resonant novel universalizes the singular experience of a modern-day Jewish family.” The novel “hits impressive emotional notes similar to those struck by Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, but in a much shorter span.”
To reduce the novel to Edie’s weight or to read it as primarily a commentary on obesity does the novel a disservice, I admit. Edie isn’t the first character who is overweight or whose obesity creates problems in her social spheres. I make no claims to know all such literature. BUT. Edie’s weight is more central to the plot, to her character development (or lack thereof), and to the family dynamics at work in this novel. Maybe these reviewers didn’t have enough room to write about the details, or maybe they wanted to present a sweeping portrait of the book to broaden its appeal. Or maybe they don’t know how to talk about obesity, they don’t know how to comment on its pervasiveness, they don’t want to offend on such a touchy issue. Whether The Middlesteins succeeds or fails as a whole, though, Attenberg succeeds in her willingness to make the complexity of obesity (in the midst of the complexity of family relationships) a crucial component of her novel. She has proven herself willing to engage in this conversation, due in large part to her personal experience and reflections on weight struggles.
In “My History of Being Fat,” a piece written for The Hairpin on October 23 (two days before The Middlesteins release), Attenberg recalls a few hurtful memories – of being laughed at and dubbed “husky” in elementary school and “thunder thighs” in junior high – to detail a fat life, culminating in the year 2000 at 200 pounds. Her article treats these events coolly:
“I’m certain that all of this hurt my feelings. I am trying to remember what that pain felt like, but I have been in a perennial state of not letting it bother me for decades. Maybe I went home and cried. I wish I could remember. Let’s pretend I went home and cried. It’s probably true.”
Perhaps she responds with distance because she has since lost the weight. Retreating in the woods to write gave her the opportunity to control her eating, and her relationship to weight is now “fat adjacent”: “my history of being fat is my past, present, and future. In the back of my mind, there is always a possibility of return. Fat-adjacency.”
The hyphenated description is an interesting term, one that acknowledges the constant threat of crossing the threshold into being fat (and unhappy) again with the consumption of a pint of ice cream or a serving of pizza. But, as Laura Beck at Jezebel remarks, Attenberg is very clearly separating being fat from achieving happiness or self-fulfillment, and this is problematic:
“Although she issues the disclaimer of, “I realize this is not how it works for everyone, but this is how it worked for me,” it pains me that she correlates her thinner weight with her happiness…In every article like Attenberg’s that I’ve ever read, the one where the woman who triumphs over her hunger and emerges a svelte butterfly from her cocoon of lard, there are always tons of comments like, “Congratulations!” and, “You’re an inspiration!” I’m like, really? An inspiration? I think the fact that she writes and publishes novels is a fucking inspiration, but her weight? Nope.”
Attenberg clearly understands weight struggles, and her admission that she often craves an entire pizza – and sometimes gives in – is honest and refreshing. But her insistence on happiness and fatness as mutually exclusive qualities establishes a critical distance from the mindset of being fat – revealed by Attenberg’s adjacency to instead of immersion in this mindset, regardless of her current size – comes across in her treatment of Edie in The Middlesteins.
Since Edie is the woman with weight issues that cause and perpetuate the brokenness of the Middlestein clan, and since I approached this book wanting to read a complex character study of obesity in the American family drama context, I expected so much more out of Edie. That is, I wanted her to be insightful, troubled, complicated. Her character is all of these things, but her narration is not. Through her, Attenberg offers little – if any – commentary on what it’s like to be overweight, on Edie’s own thoughts about her family’s reactions to her size, on obesity in general from a subjective viewpoint. Instead, The Middlesteins presents Edie as a woman who chooses not to confront her obesity. The novel rarely allows her a voice at all.
Certainly, this is by design, as a means of creating a family drama and using obesity as a tool instead of the main focus (because, really, it’s about the characters themselves, using their reactions to Edie’s health issues and weight to build their personalities and determine their relationships). And true, we’re all bored by the whiny, I hate-myself-but-can’t-stop emotion of obese memoirs (I write as one of these…I know). And yes, this is one particular portrayal of a woman, and it’s not intended to be representative.
But Attenberg’s (and Edie’s) avoidance of the topic – of direct confrontation – seems like a cop-out. Why can’t Edie speak more? Why can’t she directly reference her weight or admit that it’s an issue? Not paying more heed reduces her size (ironically) to a plotting tool with which to orchestrate the family’s relationship, not a serious, complex issue to be dealt with by the character.
If Attenberg has intended to give us a sympathetic portrait of an obese woman, she doesn’t fail, but she commits some of the same missteps that the culture does in condemning a woman like Edie. Readers measure Edie’s progress (or downfall) by her weight in successive chapters; the chapter titles regard her as a mere number, highlighting Edie’s weight instead of her emotional nuances. Even in giving Edie a “redemptive” love story, Attenberg simplifies her. I cannot get on board with the Kenneth romance plot, not because I don’t think a woman of Edie’s size could be considered beautiful and worthy of love (although my own issues with my weight do make me lean in that direction) but because it seems too easy. It cheapens other people’s reactions to her weight (namely Richard), making it seem as though the relationship changed simply because Edie became fat and thus became ugly. And, come on, must Kenneth be a chef who loves to create food and therefore loves someone who will eat it? Sigh.
There are other problems I have with the novel on a literary level, including its superfluous references to So You Think You Can Dance and the jarring flashbacks and flashforwards (What’s the point of telling us the ending? It seems like cheating, to develop characters by showing the resolution instead of the intricacies of the process), but The Middlesteins is certainly not a bad novel and not without its share of successes, even within this specific focus on obesity.
It aptly chronicles “sneaky eating,” the incessant need to consume, the deliciousness and guilt associated with the clandestine compulsion. She uses Edie’s daughter-in-law Rochelle to voyeuristically chronicle the very real “solution” to public stigma of getting too much at fast food restaurants; Rochelle tails Edie as the obese woman drives to different burger joints, divvying up her eating at different drive-through windows. Attenberg shows the obsession with food from a different angle – notably, Rochelle’s and Edie’s daughter Robin’s – though from the position of restraint. By profiling Edie’s food addiction, Rochelle’s obsession with strict and healthy eating, and Robin’s need to exercise, Attenberg shows that they are all of a kind. Personally, I’ve known binging, severe restraint, and over-exercising, and they’re all pits of darkness on the weight- and image-conscious spectrum.
An excerpt from the chapter “Edie, 202 Pounds”
“Edie ate everything the men ate, more than the men ate. They smoked, she ate. They drank coffee, she drank Coca-Cola. At night she ate the leftovers. It didn’t matter, there was always new food coming through the door. She ate on behalf of Golda, recovering from cancer. She ate in tribute to Israel. She ate because she loved to eat. She knew she loved to eat, that her heart and soul felt full when she felt full, and also because she had heard one of her father’s older friends, Abraham, speaking about her to Naumann, blue-eyed, watery-skinned, a drinker, only a few years older than she was, a young man in her house to look at and talk to up close and personal if she chose, which she had not.
‘Big-boned, my ass. That girl just loves to eat,’ is what Abraham said.
So what? That’s what she had to say about that. Even if it had hurt a little bit to hear him say those words, it meant that they were still looking at her.”
Big Edie Herzen.
‘But there’s something about a big girl, it’s true. Even the really big ones,’ said Abraham.”
Of particular note is the adeptness with which Attenberg portrays the various reactions of family members and friends to Edie’s weight. I was particularly taken with the penultimate chapter, spoken in the plural first person by the collective “friends” who clearly aren’t, the people who care from a distance but maintain this distance in order to safely judge, to safely measure themselves against the failure of the Middlesteins – especially Edie and her weight gain – and never intervene.
“We could not bring ourselves to look at her seated next to us. We did not want to imagine that our spouses could ever turn out like Edie, who had stopped caring about herself, or Richard, who had stopped caring about Edie. The room was suddenly frigid with a sickening mixture of heartbreak and mortality.”
Collectively, they make Edie (their supposed friend), her obesity, and her marital troubles a symbol of their own good lives; they distance themselves enough to admit that “Edie was a tough woman to love, though she was worth loving,” but they ultimately objectify her as a creature for sympathy, but not much more.
And The Middlesteins is honest about the unthinkable (or what we, socially, don’t want to admit is entirely “thinkable”): a man could leave his wife because of her size. Because really, that’s what the mess of emotions and reactions regarding Edie’s size boil down to, when all is said and done.
The Middlesteins, despite my failure to identify with Edie, goes beyond the symbol of weight and deals with the complexity of what causes it and what perpetuates it. It acknowledges the seeds of obesity and food issues planted in childhood, and it attempts to uncover the psychological underpinnings of obesity’s effect on everybody who’s related – both their feelings toward fat itself and their feelings toward Edie being fat.
It fits into a larger movement that seems to be happening in our culture, towards making it acceptable – and still respectful – to talk about fat, the “culture of fat,” to deal with it in its complexity and to discuss it as more than just an epidemic. I still don’t identify with Edie, and I’m still upset that I don’t, that no voice that I’ve found in literature really does capture my experience. But my dissatisfaction, perhaps, is just as effective, for it proves that this issue is complex, that it can be a fascinating and moving psychological portrait in fiction, and that people like Attenberg are trying to address it.
- “Newly Released Books: ‘The Middlesteins,’ by Jami Attenberg, and more” in The New York Times by Susannah Meadows
- “Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg” in Time Out: New York by Scott Indrisek
- Kirkus Review of The Middlesteins
- “Jami Attenberg’s ‘The Middlesteins’ reviewed by Ron Charles” in The Washington Post (one of the better, more detailed reviews I’ve read)
- “Losing Weight Won’t Fill the Emptiness Inside. Only Cake Will Do That.” By Laura Beck on Jezebel.com
- “My History of Being Fat” By Jami Attenberg on The Hairpin