Feminist revenge fantasy: three words I have never had reason to use to describe a novel since becoming books editor of this magazine back in 2008. Until, that is, a US copy of Dietland landed on my desk earlier this year.
For Dietland (published by Atlantic in the UK in May) is that rarest of things, a commercial novel unlike any other. For booksellers it is potentially a tricky sell as it can be described as all of the following; it’s a coming- of-age tale, there is a mystery to be solved, it’s darkly funny in parts and also just plain dark, it’s surreal and subversive and a bit bonkers and, of course, it is a glorious feminist revenge fantasy.
Dietland opens in New York, where Plum Kettle is working as an email agony aunt for a glossy teen magazine. She works from home though, or a local café, as physically she doesn’t quite fit the “brand” the magazine wants to project. Plum is a fat woman desperate to become thin and she is booked in for stomach-stapling surgery that will surely enable her “real” life to begin. Meanwhile, she answers the emails that come in from teenage girls across the US, counts calories obsessively and attends Waist Watchers meetings. A serial dieter all of her adult life, Plum is passive, keeping her head down to get through the day with as little abuse as possible from random people about her size. All she really wants is to “fit in”. But all that is about to change quite spectacularly . . .
Over the phone from Utah, where she is visiting family, Sarai Walker reveals the unlikely inspiration for Dietland: “Fight Club”, the 1999 film based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Chuck Palahnuik, where men meet regularly in basements to batter each other senseless. “It had this angry punk defiant spirit,” says Walker, “and I thought, nothing like that exists for women. Or, if there is something for women with that attitude, then the women are very sexy . . . Even if they act that way, they still have to be appeasing to men.”
The film may have planted the seed in her mind but it took many years to evolve into a novel. Several years later, while studying for a creative writing MFA at Bennington College, Walker wrote a short story about a young fat woman who worked for a teen magazine. “I’m fat and it was the first time I’d written anything about being fat,” she says, describing the experience as “liberating”. The story became the foundation of Dietland, although when she started reading bits aloud to other students on the course they would ask, “Oh great, is it chick lit?” Walker says: “There is nothing wrong with chick lit but that wasn’t the novel I was writing . . . that’s when I got the idea to take the tropes of chick lit [fat girl undergoes glamorous makeover] and explode them.”
“I think fat people really aren’t represented in literature that much,” Walker says. “There are fat characters but for the amount of time we spend obsessed with this issue I don’t think there are very many novels that deal with it in a serious way. It’s usually, ‘Oh I’m fat, I hate myself, I’m gonna lose weight’, and the character loses weight and gets a boyfriend. So I wanted to write this experience about what it was like to be fat because I didn’t feel like that was represented, not only in literature but TV and film too. So I wanted to write that story because I felt it hadn’t been written.”
Walker describes the world of women’s magazines as “stale territory” when it comes to fiction, citing The Devil Wears Prada as an example of a well known novel with such a setting. But trying to make the magazine sections of Dietland original, she found “forced me to push the novel in a surreal direction, which I might not have done otherwise”.
What happens to Plum in the novel Walker likens to “falling down a rabbit hole into this other world. It’s our world but it’s a world she hasn’t seen before”. Via a mysterious female stalker, Plum is drawn in to a group of women led by one Verena Baptist, heir to a diet guru’s fortune (the very same diet guru whose philosophy blighted Plum’s younger years), who challenges Plum on why she wants drastic weight-loss surgery. Verena has a proposal for Plum; follow a series of tasks successfully and she will pay for Plum’s operation.
Meanwhile, a mysterious guerrilla group known only as “Jennifer” is starting to take fierce and bloody revenge on men who abuse women—pornographers, rapists, child abusers and murderers.
Dietland is a funny, subversive novel which takes aim at the weight-loss industry and our obsession with rigid standards of beauty, but at its heart there is a kernel of fury at what is done to women by men. Walker says: “I think in the novel I wanted to explore what this [anger] would actually look like. At the beginning of the novel Plum is turning her anger inwards and I was like, ‘What would happen if she turned her anger outwards, like a man feels entitled to do?’ Like in ‘Fight Club’.
“In the 1970s, feminist novels—what a literary critic called ‘consciousness-raising’ novels—were a big part of the women’s movement. We don’t really have so much explicitly feminist fiction nowadays. I was writing that kind of novel but I didn’t realise it at first.” The seminal feminist novel The Women’s Room by Marilyn French was first published in 1977 to instant acclaim (and also criticism) and it remains a classic of its time; might Dietland provoke the same sort of debate among readers and perhaps even be the start of a new wave of feminist fiction?
Booksellers, over to you.
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 26th February 2016.
Picture: Theresa Lee