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When did food become so intricately tied to surveillance? The title of Lionel Shriver's new novel, Big Brother, is more than a pun; it gestures at this link. Standpoint readers will be well acquainted with Shriver, whose cheekily contrarian column for this magazine has touched on both of these issues, surveillance and bodily surfeit. In May 2011, she pointed out the core hypocrisy in the "sin" tax: "on the one hand it's meant to reduce or eliminate detrimental behaviour; on the other, it's touted as a windfall." Big Brother wants to punish you for eating poorly, with every expectation that you will continue to do so.

Taking up the doctrine of non-judgmentalism in regard to sex, creed, and colour, we have become, in Shriver's phrase, ever more vigilant "food fascists". When the protagonist of Big Brother walks in on her titular obese sibling mid-binge, spooning confectioner's sugar straight from the box, she muses: "It would have been less upsetting to have interrupted you snorting cocaine." Junk food has made junkies of us.

Still, calorie counting and carb cutting may not seem like the stuff of great drama, particularly for a novelist whose reputation was jolted into high gear by the Orange Prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin, written from the perspective of the mother of a school shooter. But Big Brother is gripping indeed: fully realised, psychologically acute, and bracingly unsentimental towards its characters. In this lack of sentimentality, Shriver is an heir to Kipling (her debut novel was titled The Female of the Species). Her flawed and failing humans are created in the image of Kipling's "God of Things As They Are".

Things As They Are, when it comes to bodies, pool at two extremities. Pandora, Big Brother's protagonist, is caught between her morbidly (telling adverb) obese brother and her punitive, fitness-freak husband. Both are involved in artistic pursuits illustrative of their personalities: Edison the brother is a jazz pianist, all anarchic ease, excess, and self-expression, while Fletcher the husband is a furniture designer, all sleek, pinched craft with very little thought given to comfort ("My husband's confabulations of oak, cedar, and ash were more sensuous for the eye than the ass"). When Edison, down on his luck, leaves New York for a two-month stay at his sister's house on Solomon Drive, Pandora becomes the fabled solomonic baby torn in two.

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