On the writing of The Fattest Man in America

'Years ago, on the front of an edition of 'Granta' magazine, I happened to see a photograph of a grotesquely fat man lying in a small room. It was a photo that succeeded in shocking me, I think as much as any other photograph I've ever seen. I know why: the man, who was naked but for a towel draped over his loins, was so fat that he no longer looked quite human. His head was human enough - he had eyes, and a nose and mouth, but the rest of him was this colossal, sprawling dune of flesh. There's a lot in the newspapers nowadays about obesity, but this man wasn't obese as you usually imagine it. His dimensions defied credulity; he was gargantuan. I felt my sense of what it takes to be human revising itself.

'When I began to study the photograph closely, I noticed that the room had a kind of window, and that on the other side of the window, staring in, were two or three men. The fat man was lying on his side, and, through close-set eyes behind thick-rimmed spectacles, was peering over the vast hummock of his right shoulder. He didn't look exactly contented or discontented, but his pose seemed to suggest a certain mental poise. He wasn't merely passive, an object for scrutiny; he was himself an observer, conscious that he was being watched, conscious of the ludicrous nature of his body. I wondered what he thought of it. I began to imagine what it would be like to be him, to live inside that body.

'That must be how the novel was sparked off, but not until long after it was finished did I bother to find out about the man in the photograph. He was an American, a Korean War veteran, by the name of Chris Walker. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he tried to commit suicide by overeating, and then earned a living by putting himself on show as 'the fattest man in the world'. Had I known this story I suspect that I would have found the novel much more difficult to write. Mickey, the fattest man in America, comes straight out of my imagination. Having said that, there really are people in the States who are as fantastically fat as Mickey.

'The novel is set in Texas - at least, in a fictionalised version of Texas. Drake, the town in which Mickey lives, isn't on any map. I first visited Texas in the nineteen eighties, when I was working for the BBC's World Service. I was making a radio programme about the idea of the apocalypse, and I talked to a number of Texans who believed that the world was going to end very soon. One serious, pleasant, sober man, who claimed to have access to an esoteric source of knowledge, assured me that it would end in 1994 - though he and his followers would survive, having decamped to their private island in the Pacific. It was he who told me how Jesus had visited America - a story that I put into the novel. I also met Christian fundamentalists who expected the world to end with an event called 'The Rapture', prophesied by St. Paul, when believers would be whisked up to heaven in an instant. Everyone else - that is, most of humanity - would be left behind, cursing their fate. At that time, there was a fair amount of concern at the supposedly dangerous influence of these fundamentalist thinkers on President Reagan, who, it was said, would effectively be able to precipitate the Biblical scenario for the end of the world by pressing the nuclear button.

'Among the things that fascinated me, on that trip to Texas, was the way in which these apocalyptic ideas were able to sit comfortably within a brash business culture. In Dallas I attended a Baptist service that felt slightly like a gathering of wealthy business executives, although the sermon was a tour de force of Biblical scholarship. I was also intrigued by the scrubby landscape, and by the odd, wacky nature of the culture. It was out of this and other trips to the States that the story of Mickey, who markets himself as a surreal tourist attraction, and who fancies himself as a business guru, took shape in my imagination.

'Mickey approvingly describes America as a fat country - which it is, not least in its consumption of natural resources - and one could, I'm sure, see the novel as an ironic take on American culture. Maybe, but I didn't set out to write a critique of the States, and in one regard at least Mickey is quite un-American. The stereotypical American hero is a man of action, whereas most of the action in Mickey's life takes place inside his head. There's certainly an irony in the way that Mickey takes so much pride in living in the freest of countries, when he himself is a prisoner of his obesity. One could argue that he's also a prisoner of his ideas.

'The novel was conceived and for the most part written long before obesity became a matter of major public concern, and it wasn't intended as a commentary on the subject. Mickey has his own very liberal opinions - he believes that he has a right to be as fat as he likes - but then that's arguably what he would say. The fact that he is religious - that he has no doubts about an afterlife - is critical here: in the end, he knows, he will be all right. In heaven it really won't matter how fat he is. When, in the novel, he talks about heaven, he always envisages himself as weightless.

'I think of the story as, in part, a meditation on the impact of religion on one man's life, and in hindsight I'm aware that 'The Fattest Man In America' owes something to a minor and largely defunct tradition of autobiographical Christian writing in which repentant sinners confess their evil deeds and describe how they found God. Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' falls within that tradition, and it has sometimes interested me to think of Mickey as a kind of Crusoe, in the sense that he is shipwrecked, marooned; he is marooned not only in his house but also in his body, and like Crusoe he has to work out how to survive. Crusoe eventually escapes from his island when he is rescued by a passing ship, while Mickey has to contrive a different sort of escape. Of course, all of us are in a sense trapped within our bodies; we all face the same problem, though to a lesser degree.

'Just how far Mickey succeeds in escaping - how far his escape is real or illusory - is another of those questions that the reader has to judge for himself. But what lies at the heart of the novel, as I see it, is his everyday predicament: how it is, with such a huge burden, that he manages to get by, to sustain himself, both physically and mentally. There's a battle going on, between his body and his mind; between the heaviness of flesh (a great deal of flesh, in his case) and the lightness of spirit which, for so much of the time, and against the odds, he achieves.'

Christopher Nicholson 9th March 2005

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