When 'We Need To Talk About Kevin' author Lionel Shriver's brother died of complications relating to obesity, it sparked an idea for a book about our fear of the 'f' word. In this week's issue of Grazia (out today) Elizabeth Day speaks to Lionel about her guilt over her brother's death - and her own relationship with food. To go alongside the interview in the issue, here at Grazia Daily we have an exclusive extract from her new book 'Big Brother'.
For that evening we’d planned “The Last Supper,” and—indulging the very kind of thinking we’d soon have to jettison— we spent hours debating restaurants. Finally, after I’d wiped down counters that were already clean, it was dark enough to go out. We set off in a funereal spirit for one more meal that on the far end of this project Edison would have to “uneat.” I say Edison, since we’d neglected to address one uncomfortable issue: long before I, too, lost 223 pounds, the Incredible Shrinking Sister would be fencing spiders with a straight pin. But we’d have all too much time to resolve this disparity in the months to come, and for now I wanted to set off on this venture as a team.
Once we’d settled on a little bistro that at least wasn’t a chain, I’d called ahead to warn that my companion would be a “large man,” so could they please arrange for a widely proportioned chair. To ensure a decent table, I’d made the reservation in my company’s name. Tanner was right. Having submitted to all those humiliating photo shoots should be good for something. When we arrived the staff was duly gracious, and Edison’s plush wide-bodied armchair had probably been dragged from the manager’s office.
I told my brother he could order whatever he wanted. The only rule for the evening was that our consumption be slow and reflective—conscious. “You bolt your food as if you’re afraid someone is about to take it away,” I explained. “Someone like yourself, actually. It’s as if you’re eating behind your own back. But tonight you have permission. Personally, I think you eat so much because you don’t enjoy your food, not because it’s so satisfying you can’t stop. Since you’re obviously turning to food to provide something it can’t, the amount you eat is potentially infinite. It’s like you’re twisting the tap of the sink to fill the bathtub. So you can keep turning the sink taps on fuller and fuller, but you’re never going to fill the tub.”
“After the other day with that freaking toilet, you can keep your bathroom metaphors to yourself, babe,” he said distractedly, studying the menu with the intensity that yeshiva students devote to the Talmud. “What do you think, the wild mushroom and goat cheese tart or the deep-fried ‘onion flower’?”
Those batter-dredged whole-onion things ran to a thousand calories apiece. “I think you should order the cold turkey.”
“Where’s that . . . ?” He finally looked up. “Oh.”
Through the first course and breadbasket I tried to teach him what I’d learned with my salmon fillet a few days earlier. I held up a tiny piece of walnut bread and then fletcherized it.
“Really think about it,” I commended. “About what it is. About what it isn’t. About what you get out of it. And try to store up the memory for later. So you can reference the flavor. So much of eating is anticipation. Rehearsal and then memory. Theoretically you should be able to eat almost entirely in your head.”
“Too deep for me, little sister.” All the same, he did as I asked. Though he’d ordered a second appetizer, by the time he was through with that tart, flake by contemplated flake, he cancelled the whole fried onion.
“Yo,” he said as we waited for our main course—I’d asked the kitchen to drag this meal out for as long as possible. “You still ain’t told me how we’re gonna do this.”
I drummed my fingers. “Would you agree that you have a tendency to be extreme?”
“Well, look at you, Edison. If you’re going to overeat, you don’t just get a little potbelly; you turn into a human rotunda. I thought we could use that tendency to our advantage. If you have an ‘on’ switch, then you also have an ‘off.’ ”
“I don’t know why, kid, but you’re making me nervous.”
“All these menu plans on the Web, with their exacting rules and portions. They’re a torture. I think it’s easier, rather than making dozens of tiny, self-depriving decisions a day, to make one big decision. After which there’s nothing to decide.” I laid out the parameters. Surmounting a dumb shock, Edison promised to trust me.
The Last Supper lasted nearly four hours, and we extracted every available drop of savor from that meal like wringing a dishrag dry. I shared one of my peri-peri tiger prawns, and together we dissected the crustaceans, working our knives into the little triangles of shell at the tails to prize out the last orts of shrimp inside. We exchanged portions of our entrées, slicing Edison’s black-and- blue filet mignon so thin that the beef was translucent, slicking each piece with a glaze of béarnaise sauce accented with a single pink peppercorn. We cut each of my sea scallops into six wedges like tiny pies, constructing bites with a strip of chorizo, a leaf of arugula, and a languid shred of celeriac like edible haiku. During dessert, I crushed individual seeds of the raspberry clafoutis between my front teeth; the chocolate in Edison’s fudge cake seemed dark in every sense—plummeting, infinite, and wicked, though we took so long tining single black crumbs that the ice cream melted. By the end, we had polished off the bread sticks, the caponata dip, the butter packets, and the mints, and while I let Edison have most of the bottle because I didn’t want to get dozy on this of all evenings, we drained the inky, subtly granular Mourvèdre-Cabernet to the last drip. Eating might not have been all it was cracked up to be but it wasn’t negligible either, and I kicked myself for having blindly, blithely shoveled from my plate for most of my life as if stoking a coalfurnace. I would be sucking on this memory candy for months, rolling it around in the back of my mind until it was eroded to a shard.
Extracted from Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, published 9th May, £16.99 (hardback; HarperFiction)