Look, everyone! Rob Grant’s Fat! Alright, that’s the last time we’ll use that joke, we promise. But you have to admit, he’s almost complicit in it with a title like that. Anyway, after a lengthy wait (although, to be honest, not as lengthy as some have made out – we’re not exactly talking Duke Nukem Forever or Chinese Democracy, here), Rob’s latest novel, Fat, is finally in shops. And after an almost as lengthy wait (fortuitous circumstances meant we were in a position to get a review of this book out for its release date; dire technical circumstances meant we failed to do so), the G&T verdict is here as well. So, what do we reckon?
Well, first of all, we owe Rob something of an apology. You see, if you do a Google search for “rob grant” fat, one of the top results is an article from this very site (albeit one from a former incarnation that hasn’t been imported over to this one), with the emblazoned headline ROB GRANT IS A LAZY FUCKING CUNT. The reason for this story was that a release date for the book of May 1st 2005 had originally appeared on Amazon a long time ago, but had continually slipped back ever since then, and so we were all getting annoyed at how it seemed to be getting delayed so badly.
Only, none of that was really Rob’s fault. In recent interviews, he’s said that as soon as he mentioned to his publisher the idea of a book about food/weight politics, they slapped it straight up on Amazon, with a release date to boot. Ever since then, he’s been working hard to meet unrealistic expectations of when the book would arrive – not helped in the slightest by cunts like us calling him a fat lazy bastard every time the release date “slipped”. In fact, when you consider the timeframe of his first starting work on the book, then perhaps the late December release date is a slight slip, but we could certainly have never realistically expected it before this Autumn. G&T would therefore like to take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly to Rob (not that he’s likely to ever read this – but hey, his lawyers might) and state categorically, once and for all, that Rob Grant is not a lazy fucking cunt.
I mean, he’s a bit tubby, but that’s sort of the point of the book, isn’t it?
Or, perhaps I should say, the point of the three books. Because, well… that’s what it feels like. Not in terms of length – quite the contrary, in fact, as it’s a disappointingly slender tome – but with regards to the way in which Rob has crafted three very different stories from the perspectives of three very different characters, and told them in three very different (or, at least, two quite similar and one very different) narrative styles.
Grenville Roberts is a corpulent television chef battling against an anger management problem and a world designed by and for men half his size; Hayleigh Griffin is a teenager of unspecified age who avoids mirrors and food in an attempt to stave off the hideous fatso she believes herself to be; and bridging the two extremes, Jeremy Slank is a PR “conceptuologist” managing a new government initiative for the overweight. Rather than weaving in and out of each other, however, the three stories only ever really mingle in a narrative sense, as alternating chapters pick up the threads of each. Certainly, there seems to be little that links the three characters and their worlds save for the obvious thematic connections, and this actually creates something of a disjointed, disorientating effect on the reader during the first half of the book – at times it really does feel like holding three separate books in front of you and switching between them (much in the manner of having a book each on your bedside table, in the toilet and in your bag to read on the train), particularly when it’s difficult to see how the three stories might in any way actually tie together.
That’s not to say they aren’t compelling in their own right – albeit to varying degrees – but it does mean that when the characters do find themselves connecting in the book’s closing act, it feels like it’s in somewhat arbitrary and rushed fashion. And, indeed, “rushed” is a word that could be used to describe how a lot of the book feels, particularly later on (irony, I know, for those of us who originally thought he was taking his sweet time over the damned thing). One would hope this isn’t a result of Rob being pushed to finish the book too quickly, since the overall effect is one of a novel that should be allowed to breathe, but never really gets the chance to. The first two thirds of the book feel like an opening act, meaning that the final third is left to squash in the meat of the story; for example, both Grenville and Jeremy’s stories build towards the grand opening of the Well Farms project, and one would fully expect a significant chunk of the book’s length to be given over to events once this happened. However, we’re that close to the book’s end by the time it does so that the comic potential of the idea – of which there appears to be plenty – is barely explored.
In fact, readers looking for out and out comedy in the manner of Incompetence (and, of course, Red Dwarf) may find themselves disappointed by the amount of it on offer here. That’s not to say it’s not ever funny – as a matter of fact, when it is funny, it’s very funny. But the humour is by no means the driving thrust of the book. It’s largely concentrated in Grenville’s chapters (you may already have read it in the preview chapter, but it’s hard not to laugh out loud at lines like “Fuck Me If That’s Not Butter”), which are also perhaps closest in feel to anything Rob’s written before. His established trope of the comedy of escalation comes into full force, with a succession of scenes in which a combination of Grenville’s bulk and anger lead to more and more ludicrously unfortunate scenarios. Interestingly, though, despite the fact that Grenville is possibly the character that shares the most in common with Rob, he never lets him have the reader’s full sympathy – his own failure to control his anger is as much the cause of his unravelling as the attitudes of those around him towards his weight.
It’s Jeremy’s sections, meanwhile, that could be said to be the least successful. In the early stages of the story, he simply doesn’t come across as a particularly likeable character. His story doesn’t have the resonance or the pathos (or indeed the humour) that Grenville and Hayleigh’s do, and following the introduction of scientist Jemma, further problems arise. Each appearance of the latter character seems to serve little purpose other than a mouthpiece for various facts and challenges to established assumption that Grant has discovered in researching the book. Indeed, I’m not sure if she utters a single meaningful line of dialogue that isn’t a simple infodump of some kind – to the extent, in fact, that a blog post of hers is almost gratuitously inserted into the text in order to provide us with a rant about cholesterol. Furthermore, the character is so unattainably (and unrealistically) perfect in the way she’s presented – she’s another archetypal “perfect Rob Grant female” – that the reader feels they’re being nudged towards agreeing with her, rather than being allowed to draw their own conclusions. And this despite the fact that, in some cases, there’s some highly contentious ground being covered (I have no problem with Grant setting out to challenge many of our preconceptions about food and weight – but when he starts questioning the link between smoking and lung cancer, it feels slightly less than comfortable). In addition, the half-hearted romantic subplot that immediately arises upon Jeremy and Jemma’s first meeting is deeply unsatisfying – you never feel that Jeremy ever deserves to get anywhere with her, nor do you ever get a sense of their relationship developing. And the less said about the fumbled comedy sex-slash-scientific-exposition scene the better, frankly. Yet strangely, it is Jeremy’s story that feels the most like a full novel waiting to be fleshed out (albeit a novel that reads, curiously, like a Ben Elton book more than anything else), but it’s also the story that’s most in dire need of it.
Thankfully, all this is made up for somewhat by the chapters focusing on Hayleigh. Chronicling the paranoid girl’s attempts to avoid meals, mirrors and parental suspicion, they’re in turns hilarious and moving, building towards a potentially tragic conclusion. They’re written in an intriguing style, taking a third person form but with a distinctly first-person viewpoint – reminiscent, in fact, of many of the half-narration, half-internal monologue sections of the Red Dwarf novels (think Rimmer and the stasis booth, or Lister’s “How many people could say that?”). Grenville’s sections make use of this style to some extent as well, but the voice is more pronounced (and more amusing) in Hayleigh’s :
She slipped into the loo and, mercifully, found an empty cubicle right away. Working quickly, she dealt with her lunch first. She squeezed the banana (a hundred and forty-three calories) out of its skin and into the plastic bag, and emptied the carton of semi-skimmed milk (200ml, ninety-six calories) down the loo. She unwrapped the tuna and mayonnaise baguette (a whopping five hundred and thirty-five calories, not to mention twenty-three grams of fat) and crumbled it over its wrapping, which she then smeared with some of the filling. Incredibly, there was another sandwich in the lunchbox. Was mum trying to kill her? This time, it was ham and cheese (five hundred and fifty-seven calories and a heart-stopping twenty-seven grams of fat). Again, she removed the wrapping and, rather cunningly, she thought, crumbled half of the sandwich over the wrapping, and left the other half intact. She didn’t have to pretend to eat everything, did she? Leaving half a sandwich would be even more convincing. Ha ha. Detect that, queen of detectives. She disposed of the cheese and onion crisps (a hundred and eighty four calories), again down the loo. Crisps got soggy and went down when you flushed, unlike bananas which were, quite literally, unsinkable. They should have made the Titanic out of bananas. She gingerly removed the Mars Bar (two hundred and ninety-four calories, I don’t think so) from its wrapping and laid it beside the banana.
And there, at the bottom of the lunchbox, was Hayleigh’s Lunchtime Nightmare. An apple. A big, red, juicy apple. Fifty-three calories of fruity hell.
These chapters are the genuine emotional heart of the story, highlighting an issue that is all too frequently overlooked – our obsession with slimness and “size 0” figures is oft-mentioned, but rarely condemned, by the media that perpetuate it; and ordinary girls like Hayleigh are generally left to suffer in silence. In addition, Hayleigh herself is a great character – and despite one clear glitch in the way her mind works (believing she’s overweight when she’s in fact terrifyingly thin), she actually operates from a position of clearly thought-out logic; her plots are actually quite ingenious at times, and all in all she’s impossible to dislike. It’s also worth pointing out just how convincingly Grant gets her voice – even though he does, at times, slip in the odd instance of what almost sound like Rimmerisms (I don’t think there’s a “miladdo” in there, but it’s not far off). In fact, the only fault it’s really possible to find with these bits – other than that they, like much of the book, don’t last anywhere near long enough – is Rob’s (repeated more than once) error in saying that it was Owen Wilson and not Ben Stiller that said “Do it!” in Starsky & Hutch (did no-one, editor or otherwise, manage to catch that one? Was I really the only person that saw that film?)
Fat certainly provides an entertaining read, with flashes of the Rob Grant we all know so well; but as all three stories race towards a disappointingly predictable conclusion, it’s hard to shake that vaguely unsatisfied feeling – the slightly hollow feeling, if you like, of a stomach that’s been fed something undeniably tasty, but lacking in real substance. It’s a brave step, of course, into the unknown and out of the comfort zone of comedic sci-fi and spec-fic, but despite its highest points it’s difficult to say that it entirely succeeds. Much as you can applaud Rob for wanting to bring many of these issues to our attention, it’s unclear as to whether a book like this – particularly one that struggles so badly to make a significant impression thanks to its brevity – is the place to do so. And, while his portrayal of Hayleigh in particular is one that deserves applause – and a wider audience – you can’t help but wish he’d just held off on the soapboxing a little bit. Next time (and I do hope there’s a next time – for all the flaws of this book, I’d rather see him carry on down this unchartered path than churn out the same old books for the rest of his career), if he lets us make our own minds up just a little bit more, we might be more inclined to listen.