Thursday, May 8, 2008

Book Review: "Thinner Than Thou"

Book Review: Thinner Than Thou, by Kit Reed

A novel about a dystopic semi-future where youth and thinness has displaced religion as the moral guide in the U.S. The primary "church of thin" is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate of products and clinics claiming to cure both fat and age. It has all the trappings of the modern church including a charismatic prophet of thin who preaches via infomercial and recruit converts willing to give up most of their worldly assets in the pursuit of the new norm of physical perfection. A cadre of mysterious nun-like "sisters" carry out secret operations to save those who refuse to conform, and chains of "scarf and barf" eateries offer a distinctly Roman outlet for suppressed urges. Of course any rigid society creates a fringe, and in this world there are two. The first is the complete fetishization of food and fat. There's the furious and serious national sport of eating competitions, and the pornographic "Jumbo Jigglers" clubs, where clients pay to watch fat people consume huge amounts of food. The second is the secret society of former religious leaders who have banded together, Catholic, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist, to create underground railroads and cadres of believers.

The plot centers around an anorexic teenage girl who is put in the hands of the mysterious "Sisters" for rehabilitation. Her outraged brother and sister (twins) and boyfriend set out on a cross-country search to find her and rescue her from their hands. A secondary plot centers around a writer who commits himself to a weight-loss internment camp run by the prophet of the new church.

Let me start out with the caveat that I read a lot of classical literature. That tends to make me interpret modern novels harshly when it comes to voice and characters. That said, I was irritated at the campy-teen dialogue in the book, along the lines of "Like, totally! Way! No way! Dude! Awesome!" Then again, I don't know many teenagers, so they may actually only talk that way. It was just jarring. The dialogue, with the exception of a few speeches, was stilted and often awkward.

The setting is the real strength of the book. The author describes a world where religion is sacrificed to youth and beauty, because the worship of youth and the contemplation of death are seen as mutually exclusive. The elderly are a problem not in terms of support, but in terms of concealment so as to not remind the world of time's inevitable result. Details like these are brilliant.

My biggest struggle with the book is deciding whether it really glorifies eating disorders. The main character is anorexic, and while those with anorexia may be able to relate to the character's motives and history, the book sets her up as a heroine for maintaining her disorder against the efforts of her rehabilitators. Granted the rehabilitators' methods are medieval, but nothing in the novel really dispels the impression that the girl is anything but daring and independent for challenging the status quo and overcoming every power of the institution by refusing to eat. Any question of her recovery is forgotten amongst the rest of the (otherwise Spielberg-like) ending. Yes, it's a dystopic fantasy and there is an argument for realism, but I wouldn't want my (completely theoretical) teenage daughter to read the detailed instructions for hiding anorexic symptoms from friends and family.

On the other end of the ED spectrum in this book lies the strongest objection I have against the book; Every single fat person in the book is portrayed as a compulsive eater. There are detailed scenes of one-dimensional immobile straw fatties who weep at their inability to stop as they eat an entire roast pig and several entire cakes provided by fetishists. More detail is devoted to the description of pork fat dripping down a fat person's chin or the fat folds of a pink organza-wrapped immobile dehumanized fat person than is given to the development or description of any of the main characters. Fat characters in the novel frequently have to buy love, friendship and/or physical affection with food. The fantasy around the fetishization of fat and food is explained as the desire to let one's self "go" in an overcontrolled society, rather than a natural feature one can't really permanently change. They are also, to highlight one of my own pet peeves, described at least twice as having "such a pretty face."

Now that could be tongue-in-cheek, but the problem with tongue-in-cheek is that only those in on the joke will recognize it as such. The average person reading the book may gain some sympathy, but I doubt they will walk away with any fewer fat stereotypes. While the book does drive home awareness of the current unhealthy obsession with thin and possibly promote some awareness of eating disorders, I don't think it really does much to advance FA.


Juliet said...

What an odd book! Though I have to say, as the (much) older sister of a sixteen year-old girl, I am thinking the dialogue is sadly not all that off base. She speaks somewhat better than what you described, but the text/IM culture teens are caught up in doesn't lend itself to full sentences, proper grammar, or anything remotely resembling correct spelling. It makes me crazy.

Aurora96 said...

*spoiler alert - if you plan to read this book, skip this comment*

I read this book and the first thing I thought was, "I could do so much better." It's not a difficult read but parts of it made me really uncomfortable. The motivations and secret life of the food religion leader didn't really surprise me - kind of saw it coming. And the big secret that the same people own both the places to help you lose weight and the places that cause you to put it on - well, hell, Nestle owns both the Lean Cuisine line AND all of the Nestle candies, varied ice cream lines... so, not so far from what we have now.

TanteTerri said...

Okay. I loved the book - on first reading. Now I'll have to go back and reassess.

What appealed to me most was the idea that it shows the direction the "War on Obesity" is taking this country.

Usually I am more attuned to dialog, but I must admit I don't remember much on this book, and I think I was more interested in the plot of this book rather than the dialog - which is unusual for me.

I do remember not liking the portrayal of fatties as over-eaters. I don't recall if all were portrayed that way (another reason for a closer re-read). But I suspect you are correct (as you usually are sure of your facts). But I'll have to look as see, if the book portrays them as over-eaters because they are fat, or because that is the result of a nation obsessed with food and the restriction of it.

JoGeek said...

Tante: I could tell the author was trying for the latter (results of a nation obsessed with food because of it's restriction) but the implication is that people are simply fat through overeating. The general setting is great and it is powerful as a possible result of current thin-obession trends, but while the sociology is sound, the biology of fat is not so much :-) I'll have to re-read it to now that I'm done reading Dumas. I do notice that I judge modern fiction a lot more harshly when I'm reading classic lit at the same time (with the exception of Gaiman, Bradbury and Sturgeon, they're always good) :-)

Fat Bastard said...

There is a very good article on my blog that shows fat people are mentally healthier than the general population. We have very high self esteem.

We are fat. We are mean. We won't eat no Lean Cuisine!

SkyBlue said...

I read this book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The dialogue seemed fine to me, seeing as how I am a teenager myself and we do talk that way sometimes. On the topic of all of the fat people being depicted as always hungry, it was explained by the character Betty. She said that they were drugging the food and giving them Special Formula that was also being sold to the public, causing people to be constantly hungry, and for some people constantly eating.

That was the only thing saw that I really wanted to respond to but this book is very good and I would suggest to anyone who likes reading dystopian books.

Anonymous said...

I just recently finished reading it, and I loved it. I found it to be compellingly parallel to what it's like at this point of time, in OUR time.

You have to take into consideration that these teenagers are youthful, spoiled, coddled children, the uppies, the preps, and overly idealistic in their view of how things are.

As for Annie, she wasn't really glorifying it the way you seemed to interpret it. If you remember, towards the end Annie's mother and Annie herself realize how much STRONGER she was become, how much her OWN PERSON she has become. Perhaps she's realized she doesn't need to starve herself, that it is her body, yes, and she should learn to embrace it with all its faults.

Kelly? She herself said that she dieted and dieted, ate very lightly, and that many other overweight people do as well, but that it's a metabolic condition and no matter what she did she NEVER lost the weight. I myself am the same way, so I related to her very well on that part. Later on she mentions how the sisters accepted that she never lost any weight and instead turned to fattening her up for Earl.

As for the ending, what did everyone seem to expect? That it would all be perfectly wonderful, the conglomerate's monopoly and reign of twisted motives would finally be over and the world would begin again from scratch? The fact that Nigel came in and took over is terrible, yes, but it would have happened eventually, and there would have been no stopping it.

This book is open for interpretation, yes, but it DOES have it's messages. It's a great read if you're not looking for the meanings and messages to be HANDED to you directly; as was mentioned, you have to find your OWN meanings and messages.