It wasn’t until I finished The Fatness, Mark A. Rayner’s satirical novel about obesity and how we handle it both personally and as a society, that I realized that I had read an earlier book by Rayner. Back in 2013, Rayner sent me a review copy of his novel The Fridgularity, another piece of satire, this one focusing on our dependence on social media and the internet. The Fridgularity, I wrote at the time, was “entertaining, if not entirely successful”; it was often very, very funny, but felt a bit spread thin at times, and struggled when it came to plotting. Nonetheless, the ideas and the writing were solid, and the book as a whole was a lot of fun.
I bring this up largely to say that, when I realized that The Fatness was from the same writer, I was really impressed, because it was clear that Rayner had learned from his mistakes in that book while never turning away from what he did well; The Fatness is every bit as wild and funny as The Fridgularity, but its focus, plotting, and character work are all far tighter, and its satirical points all the more effective for that craft.
The Fatness takes place in Canada – but more specifically, it takes place in a mandatory health center known derisively to its occupants as “the Fatness”. In Rayner’s novel, insurance companies, public disgust, and societal pressures have resulted in those above a certain BMI to be more or less forced into these centers until they’re able to reduce their weight. Mind you, as Rayner reminds us in his humorous interstitial notes between chapters, losing weight isn’t as simple as that, and to blame the obese for their weight loss is often to overlook all of the factors that have gone into this modern trend of obesity – factors that range from fast food technology to modern jobs to diets and more.
Rayner reins in some of the more excessive aspects of his style here that occasionally threw The Fridgularity off balance, instead keeping this largely grounded with just enough exaggeration to make his points. (The one exception is the recurring hallucinations plot line, which is sometimes funny but often just a bit odd and out of place.) Instead, he focuses on a society that judges the obese and finds them wanting, preferring to keep them out of sight and judging them for their faults, even as they’re using them to line their corporate and personal pockets. It’s trenchant stuff, but Rayner makes it work by investing us in his characters and their story, and allowing the environment and world to make his critiques.
As with most good works of satire, The Fatness goes for broke sometimes, taking on Weight Watchers, fast food corporations, dating expectations, gender norms, exercise fads, ludicrous dieting therapies, and more; what’s good, though, is that he makes it all feel of a piece, instead of scattering it too far afield. Everything in The Fatness feels like it matters to the story, and Rayner’s ability to both take on so much and make it feel streamlined and focused speaks well to his evolution as a writer. And if those interstitial chapters occasionally feel a bit too on the nose – too much telling in place of showing – he makes them self-effacing and light enough to work, allowing him to bring in some research while still making them feel like humorous asides more than lectures.
The result is a lot of fun, and if it’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as The Fridgularity, that’s to the credit of the book; he’s traded the constant jabs for focus, a grounding in his characters, and a discipline that makes the book more engaging and more effective. More than that, as his afterword shows, it shows a writer who’s reflecting on his strengths and weaknesses, and working to make sure that he doesn’t speak for things he can’t understand. All in all, it’s a satisfying, fun, clever read, one that makes its points with all the barbs they deserve while still telling a fun story.