Several stories run wild in Sarai Walker’s madcap Dietland, each one threatening to blow up her entire narrative. My favorite makes me confess that I have little hope for America’s judicial system. This is certainly true in regards to the illusive feminist character, called Jennifer, who takes things into her own hands after she sees the way the courts treat rapists, i.e., doing nothing. This is what happens to twelve rapists of women who evaded any punishment, after they are mysteriously kidnapped:
“A week later a skydiving plane went missing from an airfield in Nevada. The twelve men were dropped from the plane into the desert. The coroner estimated that the men, alive and without parachutes, fell from an altitude of at least 10,000 feet. By the time anyone noticed the plane had been stolen, it had crashed into the Sierra Nevada and animals were feasting on the men’s remains. There were no bodies in the plane. Investigators surmised that the killers had parachuted out of it before the crash.” Officials are furious at the blatant example of revenge but, still, care little about the reason the men were kidnapped.
The “Jennifer” plot becomes an on-going concern of the media as every attempt is made to figure out who this woman or women are. A “lady terrorist group”? Ah, c’mon, women love being abused by men—they just don’t want to admit it. Thus, a secondary focus of Dietland is a hardline feminist approach to the treatment of women—in all contexts—by men, or, as you might say, by men behaving badly. The details of the response are called “The Jennifer Effect.” Issues are exasperated when “the editors at The Lost Angeles Times received something new: a letter containing a ‘Penis Blacklist,’ signed by Jennifer.” “The Penis Blacklist comprised the name of one hundred men, whose penises, the letter said, ‘must not be given shelter inside any woman.’ The editors didn’t know if it was legitimate or a hoax, but they published the list of names anyway. Anything Jennifer related was big news.”
What fun. You will be laughing out loud when you read this novel, or perhaps holding your groin.
So we’ve got a “Dirty Dozen” story unfolding—especially its ramifications on women, as it morphs into a feminist manifesto masked as a novel. Combined, it’s a bit of a jumble of rhetoric from earlier feminists in the 1970s and 80s, plus the more current response by women who have given up on any change unless they do something radical. And then we’ve got the central story of Dietland, an account of a heavily overweight young woman known as Plum or Alicia Kettle and her attempts to come to terms with her body. This is actually the core of the story and often a totally sympathetic narrative not so much of how overweight people live in our society but the painful way they are often treaded. (To borrow a line from another novel, “You’re too fat to fuck.”)
Plum, who is still young (in her early twenties), works for a huge media corporation, referred to as the Austen Corporation, but it’s obviously Condé Nast. One of its publications is a teenage magazine, called Daisy Chain, and Plum works remotely, away from the company’s headquarters in mid-Manhattan, responding to the questions that young women send to Kitty Montgomery, the editor of the magazine. So it’s a Miss Lonelyhearts kind of position that Plum has, responding to the emails of troubled young girls. (The emails are often included in the text and they are quite funny but also sad.)
Plum has been saving her money for a stomach by-pass operation that will drastically reduce her weight. We learn that earlier in her life, like many others, she tried numerous diets but none were particularly effective. The one that she tried for the longest was “Waist Watchers,” which she followed for years, eating their prepared meals. The up-coming operation is supposed to make her stomach “the size of a walnut,” help her lose ten to twenty pounds a month, and in time lose two hundred pounds. Plum has already begun shopping for clothing to wear after she has slimmed down. Her self-deprecating remarks are frightful, such as “I’m every American woman’s worst nightmare.” Or, “I can’t imagine anyone loving me while I look like this.”
Then her plans bust up. She meets Verena Baptist, the daughter of the man who started the Baptist Weight Loss Foundation, who has vilified her father’s business, but, also, inherited his vast wealth. Verena has dedicated her life to helping young women who are overweight and/or those with other image problems (largely created by men) to learn to accept their situations and become comfortable with their bodies. She’s opened a commune for women in a building she owns, and that institution—if you want to call it that—supports the work of other feminists, one who has published a scholarly book called Fuckability Theory, another disparaging example of the contortions that women need to undergo in order to make themselves attractive to men.
Yes, the entire book is a bit of a mish-mash, with several other threads running through it besides the ones I have mentioned. But Dietland is also a scathing commentary on the superficiality of American culture. It’s not as simple as “fat is beautiful” the way “black is beautiful” emerged a number of decades ago, but it’s close to it. And Plum/Alicia is a memorable character, slowly learning how to live with herself.
Sarai Walker: Dietland
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 310 pp., $26
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @LarsonChuck.