Awad, Mona. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. Penguin, Canada, Toronto, 2016. F;9/17.
I’m reading the novels shortlisted for the Canadian Giller prize in 2016. I was pretty taken with the winner Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, and some of the others are also good including this one. The genre here is a series of self-contained short stories sequential in time and narrated by the same Liz (Lizzie, Elizabeth), starting in high school and ending up somewhere in middle age. As the title suggests there is a preoccupation with body image but also a lovely development of a credible character, a lot of carefully balancing humour alongside a tremendous ironic sense of the frustrations and falsehoods of modern life, especially for women. “13 Ways…” has become a bit of a literary meme, eventually (I finally figured out) ironically in reference to Wallace Stevens’s poem about a blackbird.
Teenage Liz and her friend Mel are preoccupied with their looks and with men, boys, and sex. The language and point of view is stark and graphic. Liz’s idea of herself as unattractive has kept her from developing self-respect, and she is subject to passively abusive drunken boyfriends reminiscent of some of the characters in Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. She is envious of pretty and popular girls and shamefully idolizes them.
A wee bit more sincere boyfriend in Is That All there Is? is Archibald, a bookstore sales colleague who proposes and does cunnilingus with Liz in the back of a taxi. She connects with an older woman who claims to be Archibald’s steady live-in girlfriend, and we sense Liz beginning to see past the vacancy of romantic relationships based on commercial makeup and clothes.
Seeing herself as fat and hating thin girls and women remains a big problem, but men who prefer zaftig women exist, and in fact it’s Liz’s eventual success at losing weight that destroys her marriage and drives her back to preoccupation with her mother. We see the mum as having helped Liz develop her superficial world view, but as someone with whom she also has an unavoidable bond.
Awad can be incredibly funny and this rescues some of the awful self-loathing her character endures. Describing her friend she tells us, “The boss kept trying to fuck her. Also they had this photocopier she’s pretty sure was possessed by Satan.” A thin coworker in The Girl I Hate continually gorges on food in front of Liz who is in the throes of serious dieting. This girl “… trots off, and I see how her little heart (stocking) seams are perfectly aligned down both calves. All afternoon I have the waking dream where she gets so fat on scones, she explodes.”
In Caribbean Therapy there is wonderful tension between the glib superficiality of her relationship with a manicurist, and an emotional connection between them.
I’m impressed with the honesty and impact of a few young female authors I’ve read lately, and Mona Awad in this novel shares with for example Julie Orringer and Julia Elliott an ability to render real emotion finding its way through a hideously superficial and self-interested world. This short-story-aggregate novel has its bare patches but crazy humour and real feeling kept me looking for more until past the end.