Even though I’m an optimist, even though I know there’s beauty in the world and the world holds many wonderful things that make me happy, the world is still ill in so many ways. For every terrible news story we hear about for days on end, there are several worse ones that are being brushed aside. Anyone who tries to keep her eyes on the news knows there’s only so much one person can take before they need to look away.
That means that, sometimes, when I read fiction, especially women’s fiction, it feels like a beautiful escape from a terrible world. Good people and hard work are rewarded, and bad ones disappear from the story in a puff of smoke or a flash of green light. The logic is simple and sweet and easy to sink into.
But Dietland, by Sarai Walker, is different. Yes, it’s about the overweight Plum Kettle half-living her life until she can get stomach-stapling surgery to reduce her size. And yes, then it’s about how she learns to love herself – but not in the usual way of finding renewed interest in her career, or finding a man who really loves her. Instead she joins ‘Calliope House,’ a cabal of women who unflinchingly examine all that we’re afraid of as women, particularly rape culture and how attainable or attractive or just plain submissive society expects us to be and behave towards men.
Throughout Dietland, we are reminded of that which we so desperately want to look away from:
There’s the constant dieting and disordered eating Plum subjects herself to, from as early as middle school, a feeling that I, and perhaps you, too, will recognize from our own lives.
There’s the male-gaze-like imagery that an unnamed lingerie store uses to sell women bras — Plum describes it as “a pair of breasts on a bus,” which gives me shivers just imagining it.
Then there’s the violent and rude way that men react to an bigger woman for merely existing. This was particularly painful to read because even as I couldn’t believe the hideous way Plum was treated, on some level I could see it happening.
Finally, and most painfully, there’s the constant news about horrible things happening to women and no one doing much about them.
Alongside all the small ways women are taught to hate and fear and rue about ourselves, the larger issues presented in Dietland are all things we’ve been taught to strictly look away from and avoid. But I read this book in the span of two days, because facing these issues felt so real and truthful, like water in the desert. Like, finally, someone’s writing the words we need to read.
Another thing that struck me: I was left with the last few pages of Dietland before I re-watched Mad Max: Fury Road and I couldn’t help but notice the stories are similar. These are profound stories about the dark side of being a woman, about the way some men commit heinous, almost unspeakable crimes against us for being women, with no retribution unless the victims themselves do something about it. I wasn’t surprised by the violence of MMFR, but I was surprised at how intensely I felt it as a part of the story. And it was because the villains in these works don’t have infinity gems or weird superiority complexes or alien incursions — instead they’re villainous in the way we see, hear about, and, most of all, fear in real life.
Sarai Walker has stated her main inspiration for Dietland was Fight Club (both the movie and the book), another story about waking up from the deep sleep of conformism. Not surprisingly, I felt the similar adrenaline moving through my veins with Dietland as I did when I first saw Fight Club at 18. But Fight Club has a considerable dearth of women, focusing primarily on the way masculinity becomes diseased in our consumerist culture. And while a lot of people are well-versed in feminist critique – Sarai Walker has a PhD on the subject – feminist rhetoric can sometimes just feel like, well, rhetoric. I was a feminist since I was in middle school, but, like many women, my voice-box sometimes hurts from trying to get people to listen. Dietland is a story that flips the script and turns a lecture into a call for rebellion.
Dietland isn’t perfect. While full of momentum and suspense, sometimes the writing lacks a depth of feeling, though I have the same problem with Chuck Palahniuk’s writing. There were also references to class and race that weren’t given as much space as I would’ve liked. Luckily for us, Sarai Walker is writing yet another novel….
But what Dietland does achieve is it gives you something to do about the sometimes-terrible world we live in: it peels your eyes open, and tells you that calling out has power, if not for the world as a whole, then for yourself.