AT OVER 500 POUNDS, the title character of Michael Kimball’s Big Ray is too big to fit in most chairs so he usually sits on the floor. After he dies, his son remembers that the only way Big Ray could stand up was “in stages”:
He needed to hold on to something he could push or pull — a door, a chair, or another piece of furniture. Then he would roll over onto his side and up onto his knees while pushing or pulling his upper body up. From his knees, he would get one foot flat on the ground and then the other foot. [...] Once his legs were under him, he could raise his upper body until he was standing upright.
There aren’t many characters as big as Big Ray in modern fiction, and there aren’t nearly as many fat characters in modern fiction as you’d expect, considering how many fat people there are in the world today. In 1995, there were 200 million obese adults worldwide. By 2008, the figure had increased to 500 million, a rise dramatic enough for the World Health Organisation to announce a global obesity epidemic. In 2010, 33.3 percent of American adults were overweight, and another 35.9 percent obese. Yet fiction has largely ignored this worldwide expansion of waistlines. The average character in today’s novel is no fatter than the average character in a novel published 10, 50, or 200 years ago.
In “On Being Ill” (1926), Virginia Woolf notes how strange it is that illness should feature so little in fiction. Her explanation for why this might be applies equally to fatness — not because fat is or is not an illness, but because both are species of physical experience, and literature, for the most part,
does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind, that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible, and nonexistent.
Woolf knows, as every one of us does, that this is nonsense, that “all day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours.” But it is hard, almost impossibly hard, she suggests, to convey physical experience in words. To record in language “the daily drama of the body” — healthy or sick, fat or thin — would need “the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason footed in the bowels of the earth.” It would need “not only a new language,” she writes, “but a new hierarchy of the passions.”
Four novels published this year rise to Woolf’s challenge, taking the day-to-day experience of the obese body as their subject. Kimball’s Big Ray, Heft by Liz Moore, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, and Erin Lange’s young adult novel Butter all have protagonists who are double or even triple their “healthy” weight. They are super obese, or very nearly so. Super obese is one step beyond morbidly obese; it is the technical term for someone with a body mass index above 50.
Arthur Opp, one of the narrators of Heft, is even bigger than Big Ray: six foot three and somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds. A retired literature professor, Arthur hasn’t left his Brooklyn home in a decade. Edie Middlestein, the Midwestern Jewish matriarch in Attenberg’s multigenerational family saga, we...read more