Plum Kettle, heroine of the debut novel Dietland by Sarai Walker, is fat. She’s on a diet, and she’s trying to lose weight.
Anyone who reads women’s fiction can foresee the plot that might easily follow from this premise: Plum becomes a butterfly and finds love. But Walker’s book quickly develops into something altogether more unusual. The early signifiers — magazines, New York City, a lonely female character — have primed your brain to think that it’s a story of a Carrie Bradshaw redux, learning to love. Plum isn’t a butterfly; instead, she gets caught up in a feminist (and borderline terrorist) guerrilla group devoted to fighting the oppressive misogyny of mainstream culture. Championed by Jennifer Weiner and named one of Amazon’s picks for the best debuts of 2015, Dietland is some of the strangest and most surprising feminist fiction you might have missed this year. The feminine anger that fires this book has shades of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, offering up the story of a drone’s everyday existence shaken up by the crazy possibilities that come with liberation.
“I wanted to write a book about what it’s like to be a fat woman in this culture,” said Walker, speaking on the phone from New Jersey. “I started off with a question that I wanted to understand: Why are fat women so hated?”
Initially, we know Plum’s weight (“‘Three hundred and four pounds,’ she whispered, and I was pleased that I was two pounds lighter than last week”) and that she’s been a member of “Waist Watchers” since she was a young girl. We also see that she lives a circumscribed life, going from home to a café where she works as the assistant to a teen-magazine editor, dutifully responding to the teen girls that ask her editor for advice, staring into the great gaping maw of women’s pain every day. But an unexpected encounter with a young woman who’s stalking her — really a white rabbit in combat boots — leads Plum into a strange new world where consciousness-raised women are fighting misogyny with guerrilla groups and pranks.
Dietland is genuinely disturbing, surprising, and refreshingly angry — it encapsulates a wide array of feminist issues from pornography to fat positivity to body image to the objectification of women’s bodies. There’s a retired actress who gets her Ph.D. and writes a book called Fuckability Theory, and there’s a terrorist group named Jennifer wreaking havoc throughout the country and kidnapping the CEOs of revenge-porn sites.
In fact, Walker says Fight Club helped spark Dietland: “The angry, punk, defiant spirit of it inspired me. I don’t feel like it comes for women in the same way unless it’s in an pretty package, like Angelina Jolie as a kick-butt action hero.” When thinking about the masochism that inspired Palahniuk’s characters to hit each other in the face as hard as they could, she wondered if there was an analogue there for women. “I think it’s dieting and beautification,” she said. “It’s an attack on our bodies. It leaves marks, redness, bleeding, and cuts. It’s painful. You learn that being a woman, like Andrea Dworkin wrote, being a woman means suffering pain, needlessly for beauty. It’s called fighting your body. You don’t let it do what it wants, and you fight it.”
Dietland wrestles with feminist theory in the real world, and Walker is the sort of talker who can go from Judith Butler to Erica Jong in a sentence. She’s spent a career thinking about women’s bodies, from time spent editing and writing at publications like Seventeen and the late Mademoiselle during the “golden age” of the ‘90s, to work as a writer and an editor on women’s health classic Our Bodies, Ourselves, to getting her English Ph.D. Her thesis was called “The Personal Is Political” and explored the theory and history of ‘70s consciousness-raising, from the streets to novels like Jong’s Fear of Flying to Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.
For Walker, her own consciousness-raising has been an ongoing process, with a variety of checkpoints: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Naomi Wolf’s Backlash, discovering the fat-positivity movement online. “A fat body is just a fat body,” Walker says. “Some people are fat, some people are thin, most people are sort of in-between and it’s about accepting that and not having these weight-based approaches to health.”
The path to acceptance can be riddled with traps, however, and some of those are rendered bluntly in Dietland. Plum’s ventures into the dating world are brutal. “When you’re a fat woman, you have a totally different view of men than more conventionally attractive women have. I think that you live in a different reality when you are far removed from what’s supposed to be conventionally attractive. It’s not pretty,” Walker said. Dating isn’t the panacea for Plum’s pain — it’s the source of it, which brings to light an unsparing perspective on sexual relationships. One scene takes place in a torture room where pornography plays on a continuous loop. “If you want to write about the sexual objectification of women you have to face it, you can’t look away,” Walker said. “This is the extreme. This is the end point of fuckability, right?”
As a reader, it’s tempting to see Walker’s New York as a Surrealist horror show, or a weird dystopia, where Victoria’s Secret ads rampage through the world like a 50-foot woman on attack. Yet Walker sees Plum’s world as our reality. “I think sometimes we don’t notice the objectification that’s around us because it’s there like the air that we breathe,” she said.
There’s a fine line between feeling hopeless about mainstream culture’s relationship with women and feeling committed to questioning and interrogating that toxic culture. Our consciousness can be raised, Dietland argues, and it’s that passion that made the book a worthwhile read. Not all of Dietland works: Some points are made with a trowel, and at times, Plum’s story looks a bit too second-wave in the context of 2015 feminism and its broad ocean of ideas. Yet its earnest idealism is infectious. Plum starts the book with a simulacrum of a life and emerges with a new sense of meaning for herself, in her values, and the way that she lives her life. Like much of consciousness-raising, it’s not a change that Plum can pinpoint, necessarily. It’s not a makeover, or a case of taking her glasses off; rather, it’s a series of choices, and by the end of the novel, the reader can feel the impact that Plum Kettle can make on herself and the world. Awakenings aren’t always a case of black and white, everything changing. Sometimes they’re a matter of small movements. Sometimes they’re a matter of degrees.