By Richard Klein
(Pantheon Books; $24; 272 pages)
It's a pity that eating disorders have been pasted over with banal notions such as "body image" and "self-esteem," and unappetizing medical terms such as "morbidly obese," because obsession with food is by no means a dull subject. How much could be said that has nothing to do with olestra or the bad example set by supermodels about a person absorbed in strange, hostile negotiations with her own body! There is no end to the mental, or at least non-nutritive, uses to which food can be put; and no end to the rituals surrounding that perverse form of group auto-eroticism known as a meal.
Richard Klein's EAT FAT tries to reclaim one aspect of eating—getting fat and feeling bad about it--from the boring debates about health and fashion in which it's usually stuck. EAT FAT is a "postmodern diet book," as Klein puts it (employing a rather eccentric definition of postmodern, which seems roughly to amount to "counterintuitive"): an encomium to corpulence and an excoriation of all the industries that encourage you to be skinny. Klein's goal is to transform an uncontrolled and miserable hatred of fat (his and yours) into a flabophilic delight that, by robbing fat of its malevolent power, will lead to becoming thin. His idea is that you can dissipate an obsession by aestheticizing its object and embracing your urge to indulge in it.
Klein, a professor of French and literary critic of the deconstructive variety, has done this kind of thing before: A couple of years ago he wrote a book (his first, Cigarettes Are Sublime) in praise of smoking, in order to stop. It worked then, and so Klein—who, as we discover, is on the chubby side--is doing it again. But while the Klein who wrote Cigarettes had succeeded in mastering his obsession (by the time he'd finished the book he'd quit smoking), FAT Klein is still in the process of recovering from the throes of diet. Consequently, he has written an extremely strange book: In reading it, you are subjected to changes in personality as abrupt and jarring as nasty little electric shocks administered to the base of your spine.
You'll be floating contentedly along in Klein's pleasant, foamy prose—"the gorgeous display of her colossal adiposity, her thundering, moonfaced, creviced posterior, evokes a vastly delicious, (sub)lunar landscape in which an explorer could lose himself in pleasure forever. O blessed fat!"—when all of a sudden, Dzzzzz! "Science and authority come together to serve each other, to make money and murder fat." The writing gets bubbly for a bit—"the profusion of their décolleté, flesh billowing up and cascading down over and out of their dresses"—and then, Dzzzzz! "Evil doctors foist new drugs on desperate people. ... Thousands die of starvation, and the rest, sooner or later, get fat."
There are, you are forced to conclude, not one but two Richard Kleins lurking in this book. Richard Klein No. 1 is an urbane critic who delights in a clever, lyrical celebration of creamy fleshiness. His evil twin, Richard Klein No. 2, is hurt and angry at the system for making him feel bad about himself all his life and perpetuating evil, unattainable images of thinness to get him addicted to its demonic diet drugs and make him sick and miserable; plus it's not just him but men and especially women all over America who are falling victim to the greedy maw of the medical-industrial conspiracy.
Richard Klein No. 1 has written an elegant, seductive book that sets you to musing how nice it might be to put on 80 or 90 pounds to feel that sensual, private, fatty softness all over. Klein No. 1 can tell any number of amusing fat-related anecdotes. Did you know that Socrates used to dance every morning to keep his weight down? That the 19th-century French writer Théophile Gautier declared he could not, in his youth, "have accepted as a lyric poet anyone weighing more than 99 pounds"?
Best of all: fat Hamlet! Citing an essay by one Laura Keyes, Klein quotes lines from the play (e.g. Queen Gertrude, about her son: "He is fat and scant of breath.") that suggest that Hamlet's indecision may be due more to the lymphatic temperament of a pudgy little porker (Ham-let, get it?) than to heroic paralysis. The interpretation certainly makes the play funnier. Is not this line of Hamlet's, for example, lent a certain zing when read as a diet fantasy?: "Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt,/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!"
But Richard Klein No. 2 delivers snoozy tirades against the Beauty Myth, "designed to oppress and exploit us all ... invented, manufactured, sustained, and promoted by a vast industrial, ideological system, in order to obscure the reality of our bodies." (Why is it, one wonders, that the Beauty Myth is oppressive, while the Superbly Rendered Sonata Myth or the Brilliant But Also Commercially Successful Book Myth is not?) Klein No. 2 throws around the silly word "vast" in order to convey a sense of imminent diet apocalypse (as in, "vast unknown consequences," "administration of these drugs on a vast scale"). And he displays a certain naïveté about scientific standards—asking, for instance, about a diet drug: "What perfect assurance can the FDA give that the dex effect won't be the same on human brains? Why take chances on a massive scale with human neurons, until proof of dex's safety can be unambiguously established?" (How does Klein propose to establish a drug's safety with perfect assurance? Surely "safety" is the product of an ad hoc cost-benefit analysis, rather than some kind of empirical property that a drug does or doesn't have.) In short, Richard Klein No. 2 quenches our pleasure in Richard Klein No. 1 in much the same way that the health and beauty industries are supposedly determined to quench our pleasure in fat.
Klein, being a post-structuralist, is fascinated by the materiality of signs—that is, in this case, by the way words look and sound, as opposed to what they mean. This fascination crops up in the book in a number of ways, which will seem thought-provoking or irritating, depending on taste. The book is liberally seasoned with wordplay and typographical experiments (the words "eat fat" are always in capitals, with "FAT" printed directly under "EAT," so you can see how similar the two words are) and rhymes ("why this should be so at this moment in history is a mystery. A mystery of history."). The book's first sentence is: "SKIP THIS PREFACE!"
The most pervasive sign of Klein's brand of French post-structuralism, though, are his narrow ideas about pleasure and control. For Klein, control is always bad—whether it's the evil health-and-fashion industry dictating our ideas about beauty, or the beleaguered dieter struggling to curb his cravings in a spirit of misguided self-hatred. Klein has a horror of what he rather predictably perceives to be a New Puritan movement in America attempting to eliminate bad-for-you indulgences such as fat or cigarettes. Pleasure, for Klein, is the opposite of control: It's all about gratification and excess.
But there are two kinds of pleasure: the pleasure of doing, and the pleasure of not doing; the pleasure of indulging, and the pleasure of abstinence. Control can be fun. And it is a rather uninteresting, one-sided kind of hedonism that fails to take this into account. If only Klein weren't so categorically averse to American health culture, he might allow that a little self-imposed Puritanism now and then—a little punishing exercise here, a little culinary deprivation there—can be a sensual pleasure too, albeit of a different sort.
In Cigarettes, Klein's mascot was the Baudelairean dandy—that rare figure for whom the cultivation of personal elegance is more important than health (and who is, therefore, a model for the unrepentant smoker). So Klein, of all people, should appreciate the stricter kinds of pleasures. Because while the dandy stands for beauty and elegance, he also stands for the restraint and self-discipline required to appear refined at all times. As Baudelaire put it in his essay "The Painter of Modern Life": "All the complicated material conditions to which [dandies] submit, from an impeccable toilette at every hour ... to the most perilous feats of the sporting field, are no more than a system of gymnastics designed to ... discipline the soul. ... The strictest monastic rule ... [was] no more despotic."
You would think that cultivating a taste for such ascetic modes of enjoyment would be at least as effective a diet strategy as glorifying blubber, but Klein fails to entertain this possibility. Alas, all he writes about, all he thinks about, all he wants to do, is give in to fat.