It's unclear precisely when it became illegal to be fat.
Of course, technically it's not, even in this day and age. Even with the blatant persecution of all tubbies, there's no official legislation on any statue book that comes right out and says fatness is against the law.
But it is. (p.5)
That's the provocative opening of Fat, Rob Grant's satire on the current international obsession with obesity. The first few pages of the novel describe a world in which the British health service has decided to deny service to overweight citizens, but the vaguely science-fictional premise doesn't last. Instead, the book steers quickly into straightforward contemporary comedy, following the adventures of three characters whose radically different BMIs influence the course of their lives.
Of the three focal characters, Grenville Roberts emerges as the most dominant. A talented chef with an explosive temper and a weight problem, Grenville finds himself in hot water after a temper tantrum at a local fitness center loses him his job. Eager to regain his reputation, Grenville signs up as one of the celebrity participants in a new government fitness initiative.
What Grenville doesn't know is that the new fitness initiative consists of putting overweight people into camps where they will be forced to lose weight. Jeremy Slank, a PR man hired to spin the government's plan, is slowly becoming aware that the government's new centers seem more like concentration camps than wellness camps. But Jeremy is also shallow, self-absorbed, and more interested in sleeping with his co-workers than thinking over the ethics of the government's plans.
An unrelated narrative follows Hayleigh, a young teenager determined to hide her anorexia from her parents. Depressed and filled with self-loathing, Hayleigh obsesses over teen idols and tries to find ways to escape her humdrum environment. If anorexia doesn't do the trick, maybe suicide will.
In the book's publicity material, Rob Grant claims that Fat had its origin at a lunch meeting. When he was asked the title of his next book, Grant told his agent that it was going to be called Fat, but failed to mention that he had not yet come up with a plot. The next day he apparently saw his-yet-unplanned novel being advertised on Amazon. Apparently it was 288 pages long.
This anecdote may go some way towards explaining why the finished novel fails so badly at delivering on its satiric premise. Structurally, the book is a mess of good, bad, and mediocre ideas hastily tossed together in something that vaguely resembles a postmodern salad. Menus, quotes, recipes, and fake blog excerpts are interspliced with the text, but fail to deliver a coherent message. The various plotlines of the novel only end up tying together in the most tangential of ways (Hayleigh is left to waste away in a plotline that has almost no connection to the book's central story) and meander towards a trite, rushed conclusion. The implementation of the "fitness camps" is reversed when the government finds out that—guess what?—overweight people don't like being treated badly. Whoops. After a great deal of narrative suspense, Grenville and other members of the "persecuted" minority simply refuse to participate in the program and walk away from the facilities, trivializing the book's historical references. If only the Holocaust had been resolved so easily!
And therein lies the heart of the problem with Fat: the novel doesn't know quite what it wants to be. Is it a dark, biting satire of Swiftian proportions? A social comedy? A didactic work that challenges many of our unexamined beliefs regarding the relationship between health and weight?
As a satire Fat lacks teeth and as a didactic novel it lacks credibility. As a social comedy, however, it has some promise. Grant—one half of the writing team for the TV show Red Dwarf—knows how to create an entertaining story that uses character eccentricities, slapstick, and pointed exaggeration for laughs. But Red Dwarf's mix of witty dialogue and gross-out slapstick has always proved hard to translate to the page. Here, Grant is also struggling against his subject matter—anorexic teenagers are not exactly natural laugh riots—and Grant's physical humor meshes oddly with his novel's theme. Take, for example, Grant's description of Grenville's search for a "pair of trousers that didn't force his testicles to grind together like Tibetan worry balls with every step" (p. 15). It's a classic Grant line—memorable imagery paired with grotesque self-deprecation—but it could be read as yet another fat joke in a book which is arguing for people to be less weight-conscious.
There are some plusses: Grant is deft at capturing his characters' various points of view, and anorexic teenager Hayleigh's section manages to be not only well-written but affecting. Grant's determination to make things resolve happily for the characters is also a welcome change from other recent didactic novels like Michael Crichton's State of Fear, which cared far more about armchair science rants than about plot or character. But at the end of the day, Fat reads more like a rough first draft than a finished novel. Sadly, SF readers—even devoted Rob Grant fans—would be better off giving this one a miss.