Having everything you want is a version of hell

Big Brother

Lionel Shriver is an American writer and lives in London. She won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005 for We Need to Talk about Kevin. Big Brother is her 12th novel.

Your novel is focused on relationships within a family: a mother who is not the biological mother, a husband jealous of the relationship between a brother and a sister…
Is the familial environment important?

I came across the proposition recently that “all novels are about family.” If you interpret “family” loosely enough, I think that’s true. All novels construct a family of characters with intense interrelationships, whether or not they are blood kin. But of course, the literal family has long been of particular fascination for fiction writers (and not only female writers, either).

Big Brother is concerned with the tension between the family we choose and the family we got stuck with. The narrator is torn between a loyalty to her older brother and loyalty to her husband (who hates her brother) and her adoptive children. Her husband is an only child, and suspicious of the sibling tie. He’s jealous of a connection that in some ways trumps the spousal one, because it goes farther back and entails the primitive commonality of DNA. There’s a subtle erotic thread in close sibling relationships that I tried to tease out, without going so far as to make the brother-sister relationship overtly incestuous. I think fiction readers are sick (whether they realize it or not) of the big secret in novelistic families turning out to be incest. Less literal sexual tensions are actually much more interesting.

Our need for acknowledgement is a source of dissatisfaction since so few of us can have their fifteen minutes of fame in the society of the spectacle.
Is dissatisfaction the key to understand your novel?

Ironically, satisfaction is not satisfying. That is, the state of being sated is enervating. Having everything you want is a version of hell. As my narrator observes, it’s not really that great “not to want anything.” Desire is energizing. Appetite provides direction and purpose. We’re all happier with the carrot dangling before our noses, eternally just out of reach. That carrot can be actual food (looking forward to a meal is often more enjoyable than eating it), or it can be metaphorical, like career success. Striving to be successful lights a fire under you. Simply being successful, you just sit there. Ain’t nothin’ to do.

This novel examines the strange disappointment of career success, but also the peculiar nature of this seemingly universal thirst to be famous. The narrator finds her own small celebrity unpleasant. Celebrity turns you into an object for other people, one that has little to do with you. And anonymity is a joy, a liberation. Walking down the street and being left in peace is one of the great pleasures of life.

What has been the feedback of american readers about obesity ?

Any number of readers have been grateful for a novel that takes on our obsession with weight and food on a deeper level than glossy-magazine slimming recipes. But I have heard from some heavy people who’ve been offended. Which has exasperated me, because this is a book that bends over backward to be sympathetic with the sufferings of the obese, and to despair about how much we over-interpret, over-signify being overweight. (You are obviously lazy, self-indulgent, and undisciplined, etc—you clearly suffer from a moral failing, a profound flaw in your very character.) However, the people who have been most outraged by this novel haven’t read it. Isn’t that typical.

There is no criticism against the food industry in your novel. The “diet gurus” are the real target. Why?

It’s up to nonfiction to target the food industry, and if this book went on diatribes against McDonalds and Frito Lay it would be tedious, and also simply repeat plenty of other tirades to be found in different sections of the bookstore. I am also disinclined to look to outside forces to explain why I eat a jelly donut. Nobody makes me eat the donut, even if Krispy Kreme is advertising on my TV 24/7. We all have the capacity to decline unhealthy, fattening food. If there is an “answer” to rising obesity rates, it’s going to be individuals resolving to eat better, and less. Big Food is not going to stop marketing crap. Look at what happened when they started reducing the fat in cookies, etc: they just replaced the fat with sugar. Great.

What makes you want to start a novel ?

I get an idea. It has to be an idea for a book that I myself would want to read.

What would “a doll” say about Lionel Shriver ?

This is my Lionel Doll script:
That’s appalling!
It’s outrageous.
Give me a break.
I mean, please.
You’re not going to believe this.
Talk about pathetic.
Really, that is sad.
It drives me insane!
Oh, for pity’s sake.
Fucking idiots.
It’s not that cold.
Oh, dear. These chillies are hotter than I thought.

Editorial reviews (8 reviews)


The funny, ultimately redemptive story of a little sister devoting a year of her life to saving her brother’s.

Even if obesity were not so prominently in the news, having been newly designated a disease by the American Medical Association, “Big Brother” would have the power to provoke.

Pandora's longing to help her brother, combined with her desire to revive her struggling marriage, will ring true for many readers, as will her struggle to confront the shame of her brother's condition and her own fixations with food and dieting.