Stories spring from many places. Lionel Shriver found one in a fleeting moment on the phone.
The author was talking to a doctor about her obese and ailing brother Greg; she had asked if her brother, 5 foot 7 and nearly 400 pounds, was a candidate for bariatric surgery. He was, the doctor said, but he would need a nearby place to stay and someone to care for him.
Shriver knew she could fulfill both of those conditions. But would she? Should she?
That thorny terrain of familial obligation is one of the themes pondered in the Gastonia native’s latest work “Big Brother” (HarperCollins), which she’ll read from Wednesday at Quail Ridge Books & Music and Thursday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. Compassionate, funny and emotionally astute, the novel also explores fame and celebrity.
But it is the cultural obsession with weight and body image that drives the book and riles its author.
“(Weight) has become how we rate ourselves and each other,” Shriver says on the phone from her Brooklyn home. “It’s the very definition of high achievement and it’s pathetic. It’s become what it means to succeed, to be a valuable person, and it upsets me.”
“Big Brother” tells the story of Pandora, an Iowa wife and stepmother who picks up her visiting jazz musician brother Edison at the airport and finds him nearly unrecognizable because of his astounding weight gain. Edison has come to spend some time with his sister and her family while he’s between tours, but his visit becomes extended, causing tension between Pandora and her fit and disciplined husband. Things become even more complicated after Pandora decides to leave her home and family to move into an apartment with Edison to help him lose weight.
The title speaks not just to size but birth order. Pandora has always admired and looked up to her older brother, but that dynamic is tested by her unexpected business success just as his career is faltering. And then there’s their father, a former sitcom star.
“It’s always that your upbringing forms the bedrock of your relationships,” Shriver says. “I really wanted to write about a character like Pandora, who is commitedly modest and accidentally famous, and her brother, who was once renowned and is now frustrated. And their father is a decided has-been. I wanted to explore how pathetic it is once it’s over.”
Shriver doesn’t shy away from tough stuff. Her 2010 book, “So Much For That,” chomped at America’s health care system. “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” published in 2003, explored a school massacre and maternal indifference. Her timing for “Big Brother’s” publication seems right. Fat shaming seems like sport, from tabloid ridicule of pregnant celebrities who gain weight, to the expectation that they transform back to their svelte selves immediately after giving birth. And consider a recent tweet from a professor suggesting that fat Ph.D. candidates aren’t acceptable.
Since the book’s publication, Shriver has experienced the weight mania first-hand. She lives primarily in London (a former Raleigh resident, she now has British citzenship), and the English, she says, are as neurotic about weight as Americans. “There’s been a lot of publicity and an excessive amount of attention of my own diet and exercise habits,” she says, in a tone part exasperated, part annoyed. “It gets very personal very fast.”
The media response, reflecting the twists and turns of our tortured relationship with food and body image, she says, lands her in a weird place. “It puts me at strangely opposite sides at once. I’m concerned about obesity, the damage to health, how it’s making people unhappy and how it cost lots of money. But I’m increasingly upset over the significance of weight. People are concerned about five or 10 pounds.”
As concerning for Shriver was the view of her brother Greg. “Big Brother” was inspired (emphasize: inspired) by his situation, but it’s not his story. Shriver didn’t want prying media to exploit Greg’s story or define his life by his weight, so she had to decide whether to publicly discuss him. That forced her to figure out ways of addressing his story in ways that might be helpful to others. In the end, she wrote an essay in the London-based newspaper The Financial Times: “Wilful, brilliant, and entirely self-made, Greg Shriver was larger-than-life in a grander sense than girth. A proper ‘maverick’ long before Sarah Palin co-opted the term, he was a bizarre hybrid of Southern good-old-boy and over-aged hippie, into his 40s sporting rimless, yellow-tinted glasses, three waist-long dark pigtails, and a hard hat. I’ve met countless of his friends over the years who’ve said Greg was ‘the smartest guy they’d ever met.’ ”
“Big Brother” has an ending that can be described as risky, yet one Shriver believes lands on a note of remorse, “the things we wish we had said or wish we hadn’t said. Not many relationships end in a state of perfect grace.”
Indeed, just two days after that phone call, Greg died, leaving that question of familial debt unanswered.
“There was a little trickle of relief,” she says. “Has it tortured me endlessly? No. I’m not convinced my brother would have undergone the procedure. (Bariatric surgery) is viewed as a cheat, but it’s not. It’s a big commitment. It’s hard.
“It was a hypothetical and it was interesting, but it remained that.”
Johnson: 829-4751; Twitter: @amajomartin