Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Fat by Rob Grant

Rob Grant's fourth solo novel postulates a world in which the chronically overweight are persecuted and patronised, forced by guilt and shame to try scientifically dubious methods of weight-loss and dangerous dieting techniques. It is, pretty much, the world we live in already.

Fat has been marketed to the SF crowd, despite its SF credentials being more or less non-existent. Rob Grant is, of course, best known as an SF writer. He co-created the SF sitcom Red Dwarf (the only decent live-action SF sitcom ever made) twenty years ago and co-wrote the first thirty-six episodes and two novels (Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life, both excellent) before splitting with writing partner Doug Naylor. His first (and only) solo Red Dwarf novel, Backwards, was a major success, as were his subsequent two original novels, Colony and Incompetence. Now he's back with a timely look at the modern obsession with weight. It isn't really SF: if it is, it's set the day after tomorrow, when concerns over weight are slightly more extreme than they are now.

The novel follows three characters in turn. Grenville Roberts is a man genetically predisposed to be fat. No matter how much he diets, no matter how much he exercises, he still takes ten minutes to get out of bed every morning, which tires him out for the rest of the day. Clearly something needs to be done, but his latest exercise regime is cruelly interrupted when, in a fit of rage at the persecution of fat people by the thin, he goes on the rampage and destroys a car park.

Jeremy Slank is a PR man working for a City firm, called in to help publicise the government's new Well Farm, a firm-but-fair institution designed to help people lose weight. After all, people are getting fat and dying chronically early from heart disease due to laziness and greed, costing the health service millions. Or is that the simplistic view, and the health farms are a government's sound-bite answer to a complex problem?

Hayleigh can't stand to look at her own reflection in the mirror and feels she is too fat to carry on living. All she can see is her own horrible obesity. But what Hayleigh sees is not the truth...

Fat is a novel of conflicting viewpoints. Simultaneously, it is a very funny, satirical comedy; it is a heartbreaking, powerful depiction of chronic anorexia; and it is a revisionist sideswipe at the accepted view of the science of dieting. Oddly, it manages to handle these competing aspects pretty well. There is a strong educational streak in the book. I didn't know, for example, that a large number of people start dieting by immediately drastically cutting their salt intake, which is quite dangerous, or that cholesterol's link to heart disease is actually not entirely accepted by the medical community (although a quick trawl of scientific websites reveals this is on the same level as those who reject global warming: a small but vocal minority). Grant's rejection of the accepted science in some cases is a bit baffling (being controversial for the sake of it) and leaves the reader wondering what point he is trying to make. It's okay to go out of your way to eat unhealthily because there is a 90% chance you'll put any weight you lose back on again in less than twelve months? A mixed message if I ever heard one.

Whilst Grant's science is somewhat shaky in places, his grasp of character is as assured as ever. He has a deft hand in painting characters well and depicting strong emotions. Grenville's rage at the unfairness of life is quite amusing and well-handled, whilst Hayleigh's quieter despair at her situation verges on the heart-breaking. It is with this latter storyline that Grant finally comes of age as a novelist, portraying this teenage girl's despair with a surprisingly deft hand. And it is to his credit that the word 'anorexia' never appears in the book at all. The resolution to this storyline is perhaps a tad simplistic, but psychologically it works well.

Fat is a well-written and, in places, extremely funny look at the phenomenon on dieting, whilst elsewhere it is a well-realised look at depression. At barely 300 pages, the book doesn't outstay its welcome either. It isn't really SF, no matter its writer's history, but no matter. It is an interesting, amusing and well-written look at a controversial slice of modern life, let down only by a non-partisan approach to the science.

Fat (***) is published by Gollancz in the United Kingdom. It has no US publisher, although some copies are available via Amazon.

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