That failed at the first hurdle, simply because Shriver’s prose is always so darned good it lifts readers high enough off the earth to forget ourselves; but since finishing Big Brother, with its infamous much spoiler-alerted conclusion, it’s easy to see Shriver’s imagination was not heavily taxed in this novel.
It’s a simple set-up: Edison Appaloosa is a failed jazz pianist who comes to stay in Iowa with his successful younger sibling Pandora. She’s turned her back on a catering business but had plenty of luck with her own start-up.
Last time she saw her brother, Edison was every inch the suave New Yorker, and Pandora anticipates being in his slightly louche orbit again; but the monster who appears at the airport is a man she fails to recognise, literally and emotionally, because the inches have piled onto his waistline.
Huge and hyper-sensitive, Edison is hiding the truth beneath the body fat, and his bluster is a challenge to Pandora and her husband Fletcher, nattily portrayed as a calorie-counting fitness junkie. It doesn’t take long for ultimatums to be issued that drive the drama to unexpected places.
Applying some of the plainest fiction I’ve read in a very long time, in Big Brother, Shriver calls to mind her journalism as much as she does any of her novels, lending realism to what might have been a far more clichéd set of characters.
It comes as no surprise that her experience of a chronically overweight brother Greg ‘fed’ both the need to write Big Brother and ‘flesh it out’ with many believable threads that leave the reader in no doubt the author witnessed morbid obesity up close, and shared its impact.
We are ‘stuffed’ with food references, on our screens and in our language, and Shriver’s book serves as an investigation into the Western obsession with consumption. In that regard, this hopeful, insane, self-fulfilling learning curve could have served as a ripping work of non-fiction by simply holding up the mirror.
But even Shriver admits to facing the very paradox she confronts Pandora with – trapped between her loyalty to a brother who has dead-ended his life by becoming grossly overweight, and her comfortable circle of attainment, complete with husband and career.
“As it happened, my brother’s condition abruptly plummeted again, and he died two days later. I never had to face down whether I was kind enough, loving enough, self-sacrificing enough, to take my brother on, to take my brother in. I got out of it,” Shriver wrote in The Financial Times on the book’s release.
When Pandora’s husband demands she make a choice between his fit lifestyle or the fat sibling, she eschews her marriage and embarks on a year-long, weight-loss odyssey that is Shriver’s imagination given free reign and healthy abandon.
Knowing the factual roots of the story only makes Big Brother’s pathos more powerful, because ultimately what Shriver construes is a startling piece of fiction, as unsettling as Tim Winton’s The Riders and every bit as capable of blindsiding readers.
The greatest part of the telling, for me, was not the exploration of weight but the surveillance suggested by the doublespeak of the book’s title, because Pandora’s solution for Edison is as Orwellian as its possible to be.
Despite being powerfully written in observational first-person, it’s in the minutia between siblings and spouses, unbridgeable even between those who ought to be close, that Big Brother makes the strongest claim on the human heart. See if you can keep it down.
UNDER the general theme of ‘belonging’, the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival (BWF) set itself up with few boundaries, and writers have been rushing to traverse the intentionally unfenced territory across the city.
“We were inside the building. We belonged, inasmuch as new students belong in new classrooms when they change schools.”
As an independently published author, I was pleased to find the door open to my memoir, which has national significance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex (LGBTI) equality movement. It was written in Queensland about the battle to maintain my next-of-kin status after the death of my same-sex spouse in New South Wales in 2004.
But my indie book about stigma – Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love – has been regularly stigmatised across its first twelve months in print. Locked out of traditional publication and several literary events, awards and festivals, it nevertheless made it into BWF through the generosity of director and CEO Julie Beveridge.
On opening night, emboldened by a glass of quality wine and rallied by a brilliant welcome to country, my husband Richard and I managed to be the first to meet Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk as she left the stage.
The Premier was generous with her time, listening to my thoughts on independent publishing and allowing us to update her on the national marriage equality campaign. It was indeed a privilege to have her interest and spark a few new ideas about the future of publishing – and marriage – in Australia.
I am my book, it seems. Where it gets access, I follow.
Turning to crime
The next day, journalist and author Caroline Overington came to Wynnum Library in my part of the world – Brisbane’s Bayside – to talk about her latest psychological thriller The One Who Got Away.
Overington immediately engaged and challenged her audience, noting there were just a few men in a crowd of women. I laughed with the other guys. I reckon we knew we were not the typical Overington crowd. It’s her journalism I find plenty in common with, and what the heck, I was there to support the festival that supports me and comes to my doorstep. Who am I to be picky?
Caroline proved a very disarming presenter on the deadly issue of crime, explaining how coverage of two crucial Queensland legal cases – the trials of Gerard Baden-Clay and Brett Peter Cowan – led her deeper into fiction writing than she’d ventured before.
Her reason? As the author, she gets to ensure the perpetrator “really gets it”. We all laughed, but it was a knowing ripple, considering the way the legal system all too often works in real life.
I was the one who got away when I had to rush from Caroline’s session into the city to appear on a BWF panel discussion at the State Library of Queensland.
Crying into my book
The LGBTI-themed ‘The Right to Belong’ was something of an experiment, giving oxygen to themes Julie Beveridge told me BWF had often been asked about.
We each presented our titles, all non-fiction dealing mainly with the national struggle to maintain LGBTI identity in the face of legal and cultural oppression.
Faulkner and Hardy’s works document through images and words some critical LGBTI histories, particularly Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen years. They are groundbreaking in their scope.
I had not planned my appearance but had a short section of my book to read if the mood took me. Just before I began to speak, Heather read a letter from a friend who couldn’t be there.
That gentle and powerful message tipped me over the edge almost immediately, and I struggled to recover. My late partner’s death was 12 years ago, but the echoes of the struggle to honour our relationship without him still run very deep. The chances that our story would never reach anyone because of the crippling impact on me, the vessel of the story, were all too relevant in the light of the other authors’ work.
Wondering what on earth I had done by blubbering my way through an extract about the day I gave a live submission to the Human Rights Commission a decade ago, I thanked the audience for letting me come to share part of my story.
In it, she called-out Shriver (author of We Need to Talk About Kevin), describing the first 20 minutes of the speech as: “A monologue about the right to exploit the stories of ‘others’, simply because it is useful for one’s story.”
This has been an issue for many Australian writers – me included – for more than a decade.
“I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point,” Abdel-Magied wrote.
Cue my right to belong in this argument.
The event that saw three Queensland-based LGBTI authors discuss our work had not been the classic writer’s festival offering.
Authors and audience blended. LGBTI had come to see their own. They asked questions of us and we of them. There were no celebrities and plenty of spare seats.
We were inside the building. We belonged, inasmuch as new students belong in new classrooms when they change schools. It’s an incredible honour, yet there’s a sense that it’s very embryonic.
One of the questions from the floor urged we panelists into some much-needed future thinking: how does the LGBTI community open itself to the kind of mainstream attention that engages the publishing economy in the book and media trade to back us?
The answer relies on readers ‘walking out’ on the kind of media and publishing that marginalises LGBTI stories, and finding us regardless. It also relies on people finding their way to writer talks that might not interest them at first glance.
Within the same 24-hour period, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and I had done just that.
I am not my next book
Caroline Overington and I had the briefest of conversations about books for, by and about women, particularly in Australia.
“I don’t believe I will leave a mark in territory I do not already inhabit or have to fake.”
I was engaged because I am venturing into territory that Lionel Shriver tells me I have a right to enter, and Yasmin Abdel-Magied suggests I do not: creating a 19th century, Irish-born, female protagonist based on the life of a real woman in Colonial NSW whose unique achievements left almost no trace.
Shriver’s point – that fiction writers fake it anyway, so why should there be a limit? – is valid up to the line that Abdel-Magied drew in the sand so effectively in her response.
Access to publication for genuine voices must precede the “colonisation” of identity with inauthentic fictional voices, no matter how effective or sincere.
But I would add there has never been a better time for those voices to reach audiences through independent publication regardless of the notion of access. I’m living proof that if they’re loud and genuine enough, such voices are increasingly being heard.
I am writing a book that is not me.
As a gay, Anglo-Saxon, Australian man with a Maori great grandfather, I don’t believe I will leave a mark in territory I do not already inhabit or have to fake. Inequality is an overriding theme in my writing; it’s a roughly hewn stone with as many slices taken out of it as there are writers.
As someone who may be required to independently publish it, I am keen to write something popular. If that takes artful, empathetic imagination and skill, then so be it.