Thursday, July 25, 2013

Consumed: Jami Attenberg, "The Middlesteins," and the Social Novel

Upon finishing The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg's 2012 novel, I realized I admired it for a reason similar to Alissa Nutting's Tampa. Much like Nutting used sexual abuse as a device to reflect other problems, Attenberg's novel uses obesity and food addiction to highlight other issues. Its striking cover design, mimicking a crumpled fast food wrapper, would seem to indicate a novel about a woman's addiction and how it reflects societal addictions as a whole. However, that's not the case: the majority of the novel's core is a story about an extended family with unexpected divisions, unities, and tensions. Edie, the obese, food-addicted mother, is the center, with the problems circulating in spite of and because of her unique problems. While a reader may or may not see the same problems in his or her own family, there are more than a handful of issues that we can relate to, even if in a veiled manner. It's fitting that Jonathan Franzen provided the cover blurb for The Middlesteins, since it so aptly reflects his assessment that (and this isn't an exact quote) "the only average American family I know is my own." By using a series of flashbacks, revealing unexpected crises at various intervals throughout the text, and drawing some unexpected closures, Attenberg practically dares the reader to come in with expectations, knowing that she will break them or at least have them veer into a sharp turn when one expects a straight trajectory.

The Middlesteins are an upper middle class Jewish family in the suburbs of Chicago. Edie is preparing for another surgery in relation to her weight, and her husband Richard is at his breaking point. They are the parents of two children, Robin and Benny. Robin, while worried about her mother, is dealing with her own crises, from her lapsed faith to her uneasy romance/friendship with a young man named Daniel. Benny, at first glance, seems to be the more "stable" of the two--he has a wife, twins, and a large house, but things are tense on his end as well. His wife, Rachelle, feels he isn't concerned enough about his mother's well-being, and she even goes as far as to occasionally spy on her mother-in-law. Edie's food addiction isn't presented as a typical American obsession; it has roots in her upbringing as the child of once starving immigrants. Some chapters are titled with Edie's weight at a given time, and the opening chapter, "Edie, 62 Pounds" is written with dizzying implications. Edie's mother doesn't want to deny her daughter, but even without saying so, she knows something is wrong. However, she always gives in to her too-growing child.

"Her mother sat there with her arm around her daughter, until she did the only thing left she could do. She reached behind them on the floor and grabbed the loaf of rye bread, still warm in its wrapping paper, baked not an hour before at Schiller's down on Fifty-third Street, and pulled off a hunk of it and handed it to her daughter, who ignored her, and continued to sob, unforgiving, a tiny mean bone having just been formed.

'Good,' said her mother. 'More for me.'

How long do you think it took before Edie turned her head and stuck her trembling hand out for food? Her mouth hanging open expectantly, yet drowsily, like a newborn bird (Attenberg 6)."

Because of Edie's condition, several events occur, leading to their own unique plot diversions. Richard abruptly leaves his wife and begins a madcap series of encounters with online dating. Benny and Rachelle's children are preparing for their b'nai mitzvah, adding to their already heavy schedules. Robin is still making sense of her life and where she should be going, a stress in itself in addition to worrying about her mother. She accompanies Daniel to his family's Seder after much deliberation and worry, and she finds a bickering family not terribly different from her own. Her lapsed relationship with Judaism and her family blends very explicitly.

"'Me and Judaism, we don't get along,' she said.

'It's a family dinner,' he said. 'With just a touch of Jew.'

'Please,' she said. 'Don't make me.'

'I'm the one saying please,' he said. 'You're the one saying no.'

She crushed herself into a ball on his couch, knees up, arms around her legs, head against her knees.

'Why is this so hard for you, to just say yes? It's a dinner, a really good dinner, with some nice people. It's not a big deal.'

'If it's not a big deal, then why do I have go to?' she said.

Daniel sat next to her on the couch, and, in a shocking display of spine, put his face next to hers and said, 'What is this really about (Attenberg 103)?'"

I'll admit to not knowing much about how contemporary Judaism is experienced within modern Jewish families--perhaps there's a struggle or a bigger metaphor that links the Jewish history to the modern situation of the Middlestein family. However, the looming b'nai mitzvah grows closer, and the reader wonders how everyone will come together to celebrate the ceremony of the youngest members of the family. The Seder mentioned above is possibly a way for Robin to interact with another semi-dysfunctional family before another interaction with her own. Richard, despite being estranged from his family after leaving Edie, is allowed to accompany his grandchildren to the temple for a practice ceremony. He's appalled by their behavior and sees many similarities between his granddaughter Emily and the antics of Robin when she was that age. It's a culture and age clash, and is rendered very clearly and painfully. The reader is uncomfortable, as if witnessing the situation in public, and feels sorry for Richard's dilemma.

"Middlestein looked at Emily, smashed up against the window, dark, fearful eyes. She knew she had screwed up.

'If I were your father, I'd smack you so hard your head would spin,' he said.

Emily's eyes widened, but she did not cry.

'But I'm not. I am your grandfather. So all I can tell you is that was just terrible, terrible behavior tonight. You, too, Josh. Just because you're the lesser of two evils, that doesn't mean you weren't being bad (Attenberg 215).'"

Attenberg has fun with family names. A later portion of the novel is told from the point of view of a conglomerate of families attending the b'nai mitzvah. And upon reflection, the Middlestein name is carefully chosen. This might seem like an obvious assessment, but everyone in the family is caught in the middle of something, from Edie's weight to their own everyday problems. However, the name also implies, at least for me, the idea of being average, and not in a negative way. The Middlesteins is about a unique family, but anyone can see similar problems within his or her own family. Therefore, "the middle" is both a larger context and a very apt portrayal of the issues as they are presented and resolved (or unresolved in some cases).

That brings me to another positive reflection with Attenberg's prose. There are many revelations and secrets within the family, but as they are revealed, she does so in a straightforward manner, without any big "ah ha" reveals. The various personal scandals are real and, well, personal and don't need to be accentuated with any needless twists. Richard and Edie end up falling in love with different people. This is hinted at until it becomes reality, and while some could see these relationships unfolding a mile away, they're both handled honestly. At the novel's end, Richard makes peace with his granddaughter in a very moving scene. Attenberg writes very masterful, dramatic dialogue, alternating between dark comedy and unsentimental emotions. There are so many scenes and passages that are begging to be overwrought and sappy, but Attenberg is careful to keep things centered, even in the face of heightened emotions and senses.

"'We're going to talk about your grandmother's health for a little bit,' said Robin.

'Maybe we shouldn't do that in front of her,' said her grandmother.

'Is it going to bum you out?' said Robin.

'The whole thing is already a bummer,' said Emily. Her grandmother started to cry. 'Don't cry,' said Emily, and then she started to cry, and so did Robin. Anna walked up with three dishes of ice cream, made a small, horrified expression with her mouth, and then walked away, silver dishes in hand.

'Everyone cut it out,' Robin said finally, dabbing her eyes with a napkin.

'It's going to be fine, honey,' said her grandmother, who did not stop the tears dripping from her face. 'Come here, bubbeleh.' She extended her arms toward Emily, who slung her one good arm around her grandmother's torso and clung tightly (Attenberg 188)."

It's also curious to note how little of the novel is devoted to explicit depictions of Edie's food addiction. That's not to say that there aren't notable passages of such a large idea in the novel, but again, Attenberg shows wise restraint. As I'm fond of saying, in other hands, there would be many more pages laden with almost pornographic detail. By keeping the focus on the family as a whole, the reader never forgets why everything is happening: Edie is very unhealthy and at risk for even more damage. When Attenberg does show Edie engaged in her downfall, the writing is crisp and unforgiving. A little bit goes quite a long way.

"She cracked open the McRib box and eyed the dark red, sticky sandwich. Suddenly she felt like an animal; she wanted to drag the sandwich somewhere, not anywhere in this McDonald's, not a booth, not Playland, but to a park, a shrouded corner of woods underneath shimmering tree branches, green, dark, and serene, and then, when she was certain she was completely alone, she wanted to tear that sandwich apart with her teeth. But she couldn't just leave her children there, could she? You didn't need to be a graduate of Northwestern Law to know that that was illegal (Attenberg 97)."

The Middlesteins is one of the better family sagas I've read in awhile, and perhaps this is because I've been so focused on short stories as of late (generally, the stories I read, even if they mention families, are focused solely on individuals). As I mentioned before, the packaging of this novel hints to something else--a contemporary novel about grotesque food addiction. But someone picking this up sight unseen and expecting a voyeuristic modern downfall will be steered elsewhere. The food is just one of many problems Edie suffers. Therefore, this novel will remain timely for quite some time, whereas fiction that attempts to capture the modern world solely with too many specifics will grow dated and unnecessary very quickly. However, this is a story of a family with timeless problems, hopes, and fears. There are no gimmicks or attempts to cling to passing modern ideas. The reader becomes swept up in the family's sometimes comical journey, and the the biggest issue sometimes becomes a side note. I'm very impressed with Jami Attenberg's prose and dialogue, and The Middlesteins is a very quick read that still gives the reader a variety of issues to think about and analyze. I may say this often, but it never loses its necessity: contemporary novels can be both entertaining and mentally stimulating. The Middlesteins achieves this quite well and opens up many avenues I didn't expect to encounter.

Work Cited:
Attenberg, Jamie. The Middlesteins. Copyright 2012 by Jami Attenberg.

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