I'm writing a piece about obesity in literature because I just published a novel about a super obese father, Big Ray [Bloomsbury, $23.00]. Of course, that novel is based on some personal experience. I grew up with an obese father and this was long before people were overweight like they are today. People weren't used to seeing people that big back then, so it was embarrassing to have a dad as big as mine was. The other kids made fun of him and they made fun of me because I was his son. I was flawed by my association to my father. Of course, my father didn't want to be obese; he was on different kinds of diets throughout my childhood, but he probably couldn't stop himself.
It turns out there aren't so many overweight characters in literature. At first, the only two overweight characters I could think of were Shakespeare's Falstaff (the funny and sometimes wise clown) and Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces (he's also smart, but a lazy slob as well). Wikipedia calls Ignatius J. Reilly "something of a modern Don Quixote," which reminded me of another overweight, comic character, Sancho Panza (uneducated and simple, but surprisingly wise nonetheless). And it turns out "panza" is Spanish for "belly" and almost all the images of Sancho Panza show him with a jokey, somewhat condescending pot-belly. That pot belly made me think of Santa Claus - maybe the most famous overweight character in literature and generally celebrated for this generous largeness. But have you ever considered Santa Claus's interior life? Me neither.
There's also the "stately, plump" Buck Mulligan, a cheerful, gluttonous minor character who opens Ulysses. And then there is Piggy from Lord of the Flies, an overweight and somewhat sickly boy who is made fun of by most of the other boys. Piggy is a kind of boy intellectual with glasses and these characteristics (smart, sickly, heavy) set him up to be bullied pretty relentlessly, which is mostly foreshadowing for him eventually getting murdered. The mean nickname Piggy reminded me of Judy Blume's Blubber, which I read in a young adult literature class in college. Blubber is the nickname given to an overweight girl named Linda after she gives a report on whales (seriously, somebody should have saved her from that). Like Piggy, Linda/Blubber is picked on by the other kids, though she is eventually saved from this when the bullying gets directed at another classmate (and in which she participates, relieved that she is no longer the object of ridicule). So that's pretty horrible all the way around, but I was pleased that Blubber made me think of the whale from Moby Dick and the blubber described in extreme detail in some of those pages. Still, as large as the whale is, it just appears in a few chapters of the enormous novel.
The other thing about Blubber, it reminded me that Linda/Blubber was the only overweight female character on my list so far. The only other one who came to mind after that was Bridget Jones (and only from the movie; I never read the book), but she isn't really overweight. It's just 10 pounds that seems to be the problem and that's not really what I'm talking about here. This is about characters who are actually overweight, not pretend overweight. I've never read She Comes Undone by Wally Lamb either, but I know it's about an obese woman named Dolores Price. The storyline follows what is now a common trajectory for a certain type of novel--a troubled obese woman loses weight, solves her problems, and gains self-esteem and self-confidence.
So here's the thing: With the exception of maybe Ignatius J. Reilly (and even he seems mostly like a caricature) or maybe Dolores Price or Sapphire's Precious, all of these overweight characters are flat characters (i.e., rather than round characters, to use E. M. Forster's categories). I know, it's pretty ironic. Generally, their weight becomes a defining characteristic that exhibits just a descriptor or two--comic, lazy, weak, evil, etc. Generally, there hasn't been a big range for overweight characters. They have often been a kind of cheap entertainment.
But maybe that is beginning to change. When I was growing up, people didn't talk about obesity the way we do now. It was a kind of taboo subject. But now that 34.4% of American adults are overweight and another 33.9% are obese (CDC, 2008). Obesity has become normalized in a way and it's beginning to be portrayed more fully in today's fiction. The title character of Big Ray weighs over 500 pounds and the narrator's feelings toward him (that is, my feelings toward my father) are complicated and complex, but this is only in part because of his obesity. The issues that led Big Ray to eat himself up over 500 pounds played out in other parts of his life, most notably for me in the way he treated his family, including me. He was the dominant personality in my childhood household and he expressed this emotionally and physically. I'm not suggesting obesity leads to violence and abuse, but in this particular instance, the troubles with food and the troubles with temper were inextricably linked. I don't have to forgive my obese father for the things he did, and I probably never will, but I can still appreciate the good that was in him. And in the character I based on him, I wanted to present the full range of his personality. Like all of us, no matter what size we are, he was human.
P.S. You may have noticed that I didn't say "fat" anywhere in this piece. Once, I called my father fat and I got into so much trouble for it. I do it in Big Ray, but I'm still afraid to do it here.