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We are advised not to judge a book by its cover. You can't know the value of what's on the inside simply by outward appearance. Yet with Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, the title, if not the cover, says plenty.
It expresses excess and insecurity. Thirteen is a bakers' dozen, one more than the standard 12, added to insure against items not being of statutory weight. The verb "look" is padded, awkward, not at ease in its own flesh. It's not "to look at," a slimmer and more elegant way of phrasing it, but "of looking at." Lastly, it refers to a girl, not a young woman, which the website Everyday Feminism assures us is sexist as hell.
And so we have a book foretold by its cover: its contents are playful, structurally and rhetorically clever, substantial, and slyly feminist. As Toril Moi writes in Sexual Textual Politics, "anger is not the only revolutionary attitude available to us. The power of laughter can be just as subversive." And 13 Ways has humour -- and irony -- in abundance.
Simply put, 13 Ways is 13 interconnected vignettes about Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth/Liz, aging progressively from about 14 to 30-something years, a woman who struggles with her weight and her own, and others', perception of it. It's full of the playfulness foreshadowed by the title and by the games Lizzie and her best friend Mel play in the first chapter, "When We Went Against the Universe."
The young Lizzie becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: "Later on I'm going to be really fucking beautiful. I'm going to grow into that nose and develop an eating disorder. I'll be hungry and angry all my life but I'll also have a hell of a time." What Lizzie tells herself, other than being hilarious and ironic, is something many, if not all, women can relate to: the desire to conform to beauty norms even to the detriment of our health.
Some of the many references to pop culture are variations on the name Elizabeth or the word "fat." Her mother has Liz Taylor hair. Beth tortures her dieting self by looking at images of Bettie Page, the Queen of Pinups. One character thinks Lizzie has Betty Boop eyes. Missing the shy Beth clad in dark black clothes that he fell in love with but has been replaced by a pared down Elizabeth in tight-fitting dresses "too hungry or angry or distracted for sex," Tom drinks Fat Tire beer.
The writing is conversational in tone and Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth/Liz's inner dialogue and friendships with women -- the love, loathing, need and contradictory emotions expressed -- are flawless. This is good, meaty writing.
But the bones are good too, for not only is there an actual "fat girl" in the book, one whose body shrinks the more she becomes subordinated within patriarchal power relations, but there is a structural fat lady as well.
There's a point to make before we continue. The first is that while women may internalize the standards of patriarchal society, these power relations are not straightforward. There's more about the desire for self-control and the pressures women place on themselves to lose weight than there is about pressure from male characters.
In fact, Elizabeth's spouse doesn't want her to change. That Elizabeth's father feels that her being fat is a choice to be rebellious is an indication of patriarchal pressure at work. Fat, if the body as an inscriptive surface,1 is libidinous and uncontrollable. Thin is decorous. Complicating matters further is that it's ultimately her mother who, in her pride at Elizabeth's new slim body, objectifies her most by dressing her up and showing her off.
Many feminist literary theorists (here I'm thinking specifically of Elizabeth Grosz and Judith Butler2) write persuasively of an implicit, classical association of materiality with femininity, maternity and the corporeal, an association that can be traced back etymologically to link matter with mater and matrix.
In Literary Fat Ladies and the Generation of the Text, Patricia Parker shows how fat women are used to make a text more copious, to dilate it, and to defer its end. While Parker writes specifically of Renaissance texts, this is a game you can play at home while watching movies or listening to music. Rhetorical fat ladies appear surprisingly often in film and song.
I find myself playing it with 13 Ways: which one of these vignettes is the extra one, the thirteenth in the bakers' dozen, the rhetorical fat lady?
At first I chose "Your Biggest Fan" as the story whose function is to extend the text. It's written in the second person ("you"), a notoriously difficult and unusual voice to write in. In it, Lizzie is explicitly called "the fat girl." Or is it "She'll Do Anything," the only other story in the book that isn't written in first person and which contains a lusty "fat chick." Maybe it's "If That's All There Is" where "two fat girls in stretch pants are screaming and strangling each other" on a silent TV in a hospital waiting room.
I change my mind several times before I settle on the one in the very middle: "My Mother's Idea of Sexy." Her mother is described as being fat to the point of ill health. Though it's something they don't talk about, she has difficulty breathing and can't feel her feet. The chapter is full of images of water, the most archetypally feminine of the elements, and in it Beth is planning to move away to the "vast red desert" of the Southwest (away from the sea). It's the chapter that focuses on the mother/daughter relationship.
After this chapter, Elizabeth's thinness becomes downright detrimental. Another feminist literary theorist, Julia Kristeva, would say that this process of separation, away from the mother, leads to abjection, although Kristeva speaks of it in psycholinguistic terms rather than literary ones.
The final words of the book are telling: "I feel dangerously close to a knowledge that is probably already ours for the taking, a knowledge that I know could change everything." That knowledge, these stories imply, is that all of the dieting and exercise will not make us happy.
There needs to be some acceptance of fat and, ultimately, of womanhood. Change needs to begin in our mother/daughter relationships and in individual relationships between women.
After all, they "Went Against the Universe" as teenagers. Maybe she and her friends can do so again.
Mona Awad won Amazon.ca's First Novel Award in May 2016, a prize well-deserved in this reviewer's opinion.
Sarah Hipworth is co-editor of Let Them Stay: U.S. War Resisters in Canada, 2004-2016, released by Iguana Books in May 2016.
1 Elizabeth Grosz, "The Body as Inscriptive Surface," Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994)
2 Judith Butler, "Bodies that Matter," Bodies that Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993)
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