Tuesday , May 28 2024
Kit Reed's sardonic s-f satire on American diet culture. . .

Thinner Than Thou

As a science-fiction writer and feminist satirist, Kit Reed has long made fatness one of her regular themes. Back in the mid-seventies, she even edited a collection of poems and stories on the topic, while her s-f short story, “The Food Farm,” is a classically nasty take on both fat farms and youth culture. Thinner Than Thou (Tor) has got to be Reed’s most complete word on the subject, though: a dystopian novel set in a near future where pursuit of the perfect body has become the nation’s religion.
At the center of all this is the Reverend Earl Sharpnack, a charismatic huckster with his fingers fondling all aspects of body focused culture. In addition to running Sylphania, a weight loss spa where upper middle-class saps sign away their lives in the pursuit of thinness, he’s also behind the Dedicated Sisters (a religious order purportedly devoted to working with eating disordered youth), a chain of gyms called the Crossed Triceps and a group of fast food restaurants – plus more sordid quasi-underground businesses like the Jumbo Jigglers, a series of sex clubs featuring super-sized strippers. In the world of Reverend Earl, the heightened obsession with avoiding the Sin of Gluttony feeds (the verb is inevitable) a blend of religio-capitalism whose stated goal is helping each member achieve the state of Afterfat but is primarily designed to sustain mass self-loathing and fund the Reverend’s own dark fetishes.
Reed shows us this world through several characters who fall under the Reverend’s control: Annie Abercrombie, a teen-aged anorexic who is signed over to the Dedicated Sisters’s underground convent by her parents; Jeremy Devlin, a fat businessman who enlists for a stint at the Sylphania spa in Arizona, only to discover the place is more prison compound than weight loss camp; and Kelly, another captive of the Dedicated Sisters, who is so large that she’s able to fool her captors into thinking she can’t walk. Traveling across the country in search of Annie are her younger twin brother and sister, Annie’s ex-boyfriend plus their guilt-ridden mother Marg. They show us the world outside the hermetic camps, where mainstream religions have been driven underground and unregulated eating contests are held in restaurants for the edification of an audience of fascinated/horrified diners.
Reed is particularly deft at revealing the ambivalence most of us have toward our own bodies, and where Thinner Than Thou especially shines is in her characters’ inner monologues. In the writer’s view, our cultural obsession with thinness is symptomatic of a darker neurosis: fear of aging and dying (in this, Reed’s work is a spiritual kin to fx’s Nip/Tuck teleseries). “In the gospel according to the Reverend Earl,” one character reflects, “Americans deal with things they believe they can fix. Important things, like hair color and fitness and body weight and those nasty wrinkles under the chin and around the eyes.” Both of Reed’s middle-aged protagonists, Marg Abercrombie and camp inmate Jeremy, express this ambivalence in spades. Even when Jeremy recognizes that Sylphania is a scam, he can’t help feeling jealous when one of the other camp patrons becomes one of the favored few to actually lose weight. He romances a fellow campmate, the zaftig Zoe, indulging in forbidden late-night binges as an act of guilt-riddled rebellion.
Annie and Kelly represent another end of the continuum. Where the middle-aged Marg and Jeremy have initially brought into the Gospel According to Reverend Earl, the two young girls attempt to assert their freedom by diverging from the body ideal as far as possible. The catch, of course, lies in the fact that both girls, if they continue unchecked, will ultimately kill themselves. While we root for them both to escape the decidedly unfriendly clutches of the sanctimonious Sisters, we also recognize the self-destructive impulses within them. As a satirist, Reed refuses to indulge in easy dichotomies – which is apt when considering the barrage of mixed messages within dietland.
Much of the plot of Thinner Than Thou concerns itself with Annie and Kelly’s attempts to flee the Dedicated Sisters’ convent/compound – along with Marg and the Abercrombie siblings’ quest to find and rescue the imprisoned anorexic. Some of the plot mechanics designed to bring the full cast together are a bit rickety, but they also yield some marvelous moments. A scene where an army of disgruntled fat people marches on Sylphania, for instance, is wonderfully described (even as it conjures images from an old Judge Dredd comic), culminating in an angrily elegant declaration of the right to be fat. When the Reverend Earl turns out to be nursing a secret that runs counter to his public persona, it’s no surprise to the reader, but it’s consistent with Reed’s view of the way consumer culture sells fatness and thinness to the exact same clients.
Just this week on television, I couldn’t help noticing the new summer ad blitz for Taco Bell: a series of commercials featuring inexplicably thin couples happily shouting, “I’m full!” to their beaming friends and family. The Bell is attempting to fill the space that’s been left now that MacDonald’s has yielded to recent public pressure and ceased offering Full Meal Deals to the public, I realized. Consumer culture abhors a vacuum. And in the too-close-for-comfort world of Thinner Than Thou, you just know Earl Sharpnack would own controlling stock in both companies. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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