Big Brother by Lionel Shriver is a deeply weird book. Except for the main character’s emotional austerity and some explicit parallels detailing how sister/brother relationships can be very much like mother/son relationships, there is little here that resembles Shriver’s most well-known book, We Need to Talk About Kevin. An incredible and disturbing book about a mother questioning the impact of nature versus nurture in regards to her sociopathic son, Kevin is now ten years old, but it left such a stain on the “books I’ve read” part of my brain that I couldn’t help but to read Big Brother in its shadow. Not a fair fight, really.
Big Brother is intentionally broken into three parts by the author. She does this for the purpose of storytelling, but thematically it fits into how I saw the book: part one is where the author feeds into the absolute worst stereotypes about obese people and makes it clear exactly how disgusting she thinks they are; part two is where things become too bizarrely fantastical to be true; part three is where you learn things seemed untrue because they were. The ending is a trick, but one that doesn’t quite work because what came before wasn’t believable enough in the first place.
The three main characters — Pandora, her brother Edison, and her husband Fletcher — bounce between being merely obnoxious to maliciously cruel. And yet, no one in the book seems to really care what insults and emotional abuse is casually thrown around. In particular, Fletcher, who calls Edison a “fat fuck” several times throughout the novel and moves on to a worse invective-filled rage from there, is still treated as someone who is basically decent. It is mind-boggling that Pandora wants to stay in a relationship with a man with seemingly no redeeming qualities. Not that Pandora is a prize herself. Her company creates and manufactures dolls that spit out phrases chosen by the buyer and made to resemble someone the buyer knows. Buying the doll is a passive-aggressive measure, meant to embarrass and chasten the person to whom the doll is given by pointing out that the person tends to repeat annoying, dumb phrases, over and over. Just what everyone wants: a gift that tells them how annoyed their loved ones are with them. Somehow, the reader is to believe that these dolls are both in high demand and incredibly expensive, and in this way, Pandora has become very wealthy. Edison is generally just very obnoxious, speaking in this ludicrous “jazz” shorthand — “I play with some heavy cats,” “you dig?,” “jive,” and so on. He is a pathetic figure, but at least he isn’t outright cruel, and if he weren’t so irritating he would be a sympathetic character.
The “surprise” ending is a strange decision, and I wonder if it was the intended ending all along. Whatever minute movements the characters could have been interpreted as making towards learning anything or becoming better people are wiped away. The reader is left with no character development and very little plot development. No one learns anything, people stay cruel, no one changes, and all we are left with are Pandora’s vague doubts about her inaction. However, Shriver indicates that even if Pandora had taken the action of constant, insistent surveillance over her brother (like Big Brother, get it?), the outcome would’ve been the same regardless. The moral is that some people are beyond help, so don’t worry yourself with trying.