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Food & Fat as Metaphor in ‘The Middlesteins’

When NPR included Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins as a foodie summer read, I had forgotten that it was on my request list at the library. When it came available with its fast food inspired red and yellow cover, I excitedly carried it home, ready to dig in.

Late last year, Hannah Rosefield wrote an incredibly insightful piece on the use of obesity as metaphor in not only The Middlesteins, but also in Michael Kimball’s Big Ray, Heft by Liz Moore, and Erin Lange’s young adult novel Butter. She argues:

An obese body is never, any longer, just an obese body, in life or in fiction, but an embodiment of an epidemic, an image of our society…It is true that although 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, a relatively small number is super obese. But these novels show Ray, Arthur, Butter, and Edie not at one end of a continuum, but as existing in a separate category, divided from their “normal” friends and family. We see the various societal factors that contribute to obesity, but by representing obesity as anomaly, Big Ray, Heft, Butter, and The Middlesteins shift the focus from society to the individual. Rather than ask how contemporary society enables obesity, these novels ask what is wrong with these particular individuals, why they and not others are victims of an obesity-enabling society. If the personal is political in these books, it is so only fleetingly.

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

I echo Rosefield’s sentiment that the treatment of the obese form in The Middlesteins reflects American culture, which champions the doctrine of personal responsibility, particularly for the way we eat and the weight we carry. Because of this, Edie (the novel’s obese protagonist) is blamed, ridiculed, and held in moral contempt for her fatness.

In a novel bursting with fat shaming, Attenberg mirrors society’s view of fatness, as Edie’s fat body is repeatedly vilified as a personal choice. In her summary of The Middlesteins, Jessica Soffer frames Edie’s eating as the central thread of the novel: “She eats and eats and eats, and we learn the ways in which her eating has damaged her daughter, her husband, and even her relationship with her grandchildren.” Edie’s eating, however, is not a simple, linear journey to self-destruction or an attempt to kill herself, as her family believes. Edie’s eating is a never-ending quest for comfort, love, and understanding—the things we all search for in this life.

Image that accompanied the New York Times review of 'The Middlesteins'

Image that accompanied the New York Times review of ‘The Middlesteins’

Soffer continues, “Food runs and ruins the lives of everyone in this book.” And yet, Edie’s daughter’s vegetarianism and daughter-in-law’s obsessive calorie restriction are not painted in the same negative light as Edie’s overeating. Neither are her daughter’s excessive drinking nor her father’s smoking and death from lung cancer held up as potent symbols of dysfunction and destruction. Furthermore, Edie’s father also eats incessantly, trying to fill the void caused by going hungry on his journey to America:

At meals, he ate and ate; he was carnal, primal, about food. He staked out territory, leaning forward on the table, one arm resting around his plate, the other dishing the food into his mouth, not stopping to chew or breathe. But he never gained a pound. He had starved on his long journey from Ukraine to Chicago eight years before, and had never been able to fill himself up since” (p. 2).

Edie’s father remains thin and thus beyond reproach for his consumption. The painful and glaring spotlight placed on Edie’s eating is because of her resultant fat body, reflecting society’s conflicted ambivalence about eating and bodies, which takes the form of fat shaming, discrimination, and abhorrence.

All you can eat buffetThis vehement reaction to Edie’s fatness, experienced by her family and readers alike, is rooted in our recognition of how universal Edie’s eating is and how closely related her body is to our own. While most of us do not eat to the extent Edie does or so often (in one scene, Edie orders and eats meals at McDonalds, Burger King, and a Chinese restaurant in rapid succession) most of us do over-indulge periodically. Such eating frenzies are engrained in American culture—from Thanksgiving Dinner to Super Bowl Sunday to All-You-Can Eat buffets—and are eating rituals that Americans experience and enjoy.

Edie is thus a symbol of the excess that lies in us all and that is so central to American mythology, rooted in the lore of abundance and plenty. This is articulated so well by guests at Edie’s grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah, who eat and drink to excess at the party and admit: “There was nothing we could do for Edie that we did not already need to do for ourselves” (p. 238). Furthermore, at the end of the novel in a state of conflicted grief, Edie’s husband realizes: “It was then he thought he understood Edie, and why she ate like she had; constantly, ceaselessly, with no regard for taste or content…because food was a wonderful place to hide” (p. 263). We are all capable of recognizing what fuels Edie’s consumption and eating in a similar way.

In addition, Edie’s eating and fat body serve as metaphors for the dysfunction of her family and society more broadly in a material age. Within this text, food and eating are salient symbols, revealing the inner workings of each character—their hopes, their desires, their relationships to one another and the world around them. For example, Edie’s children are young (Robin in a high chair) when the Middlesteins first stop eating together as a family. The dissolution of commensality is a sign, symptomatic of the family’s growing estrangement and isolation, a process not rooted in but symbolized by Edie’s own eating.

Furthermore, Edie’s daughter-in-law’s disdainful concern for Edie’s weight, as well as her own restrictive eating habits and those she attempts to inflict upon her family, only embody her larger desire to exert control. Falling pregnant while in college, she views her children, her marriage, and the trajectory and contents of her entire adult life as a mistake, an uncontrolled course. Unable to redress her past, she attempts to firmly shape her future with an iron fist and raw vegetables: “Violent in her articulation” (p. 149), she “cut[s] her food into the tiniest of squares, which she would then chew thoughtfully and slowly, as if she were savoring every vitamin, as if she could feel each bite extending her life span” (p. 159).

Illustration of a classic comfort food, chicken noodle soup, by Holly Wales, which accompanied Attenberg's NYT article, "The Unlikely Chef"

Illustration of a classic comfort food, chicken noodle soup, by Holly Wales, which accompanied Attenberg’s NYT article, “The Unlikely Chef”

Edie’s overeating, her family’s isolated dining, and her daughter-in-law’s obsessive restriction are examples of problems that play out metaphorically through food. And this novel provides readers with a veritable feast of problems, including loveless marriages, the grief of losing one’s parents, a dissatisfying career, and a failing business to name but a few. It can be argued however that at the core of every problem, and at the root of every action in fiction or in life, lies the desire to love and be loved in return. When that love seems like it cannot be found in those around us, we seek it in other places. For some this can lead down a path of addiction, finding solace in drugs, alcohol, sex, theft, or food. Such instances warrant compassion and understanding, not disdain. While indicted for tearing her family apart by her eating, Edie does find love in the end, though time runs out all too quickly.

Because food plays myriad roles in our lives, it serves as a powerful symbol in literature, one to which we can relate effortlessly. From the opening pages, Attenberg writes, “Food was made of love, and love was made of food” (p. 6). Rooted in this sentiment, Attenberg’s opening line stands tall and meaningful among other literary beginnings: “How could she not feed her daughter?” (p. 1). In The Middlesteins, each character feeds his or her own problems, providing readers a painful but astute view into society’s ills and our collective potential for redemption, crafted through scenes of food, eating, and fat and thin bodies.

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