Big Ray – Michael Kimball

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We are constantly told in Western countries that our populations are expanding, at the waist, that is. Its getting to the point in countries like Australia that there’s more people overweight than not. Most of the focus is on the never ending search for a way to lose weight, but we don’t hear as much about the causes of excessive obesity or what it is like to live with it. This book asks questions about the former and describes in detail the latter.

It is the story of Big Ray and its about what happens when a man’s weight becomes such a problem it eventually kills him.

Big Ray shows that there’s a huge array of forms that fiction can take, other than the traditional plot-driven narrative. It is written as a series of vignettes narrated by Daniel Carrier, the son of Big Ray, who is trying to come to terms with his father’s death. Some of these are only two sentences long, others up to a page. Its a quick read as a result of this structure and an interesting way to present a story, in small non-linear chunks.

Over the course of the story, we hear from the narrator about his father’s life and his early childhood in a poor deprived farming community in the Midwest. The narrator tries to piece together a picture of his father’s early life, from school to army, meeting his mother and settling down to have a family, all in the unspoken drive to understand the unknowable. Interspersed with this history is his own life living with a violent, unhappy father, and the descriptions of what daily existence is like for the morbidly obese.

The writing is spare and powerful and articulates complicated themes in a really simple way, such as this – ‘I don’t understand my complicated feelings about my father. I hated him but I wanted him to like me. I was ashamed of him but I wanted him to be proud of me,’

Sometimes its childlike, such as when he tells a story about his father sitting down at a laden picnic table at which his mother and sister are already seated. His father is so big that the picnic table tilts towards him when he sits down and all the food slides to the ground. ‘What I’m trying to say is this: All three of us together wasn’t enough against my father.’

Its this simplicity, and even telling rather than showing, that is really powerful because he writes with so few words.

The descriptions of morbid obesity are really powerful when told through the eyes of a son – when his parents go on a trip, his father buys two seats for himself, and one for his mother. The son says his father never said so, but Daniel thinks he was embarrassed and he never flew again. Its this slow withdrawal from everyday life that is caused by the sheer physical barriers thrown up by being over 500 pounds and imprisoned in your own home that is really wrenching to read.

Near the end of the story the narrator talks about how he talked to his father more the year he retired, and sometimes his father would relate stories about his life and childhood. But ultimately though, the book throws up lots of questions without answers. ‘It made me think I might find out something important about my father, something that might be a key to explaining why he was the way he was. I thought he might tell me something that might let me forgive him.’

I aim to learn something about writing from every book I read and what this has taught me is about economy of words and emotional control. Few words are needed to convey a message if you work hard at it. Also, long flowery paragraphs of description aren’t actually needed. This book has none of these, and yet is immensely powerful and affecting.

With thanks to Angela Meyer for alerting me to this one and sending me a copy.

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