If you happen to be hosting book club on the night your group discusses Dietland, Sarai Walker’s arresting debut novel, do yourself a favor and buy a few extra bottles of wine. As the book jacket’s cheerful pop-art image of a cupcake grenade suggests, there’s a lot to, well, chew on in these pages. Walker begins the book sweetly enough, sketching an intimate portrait of Plum Kettle, a young, “fat” woman trying to make her way at a women’s magazine in New York. With no romance or friendships to speak of and no relief from a soul-sucking job ghostwriting emails in the guise of her editor-in-chief boss, Plum feels “suspended in time, like an animal floating in a jar of formaldehyde.” When she’s not counting calories (and there are many calories to count) or enduring insults hurled by strangers, she fantasizes about weight-loss surgery and the new life it will offer.
The sudden appearance of an odd, wide-eyed girl trailing Plum’s every move ushers the novel into more explosive territory. Soon Plum is introduced to a subversive women’s collective whose ambitions go further than burning bras. A strain of violence courses through the novel that first shocks then satiates. What begins as one woman’s attempt to come to terms with her own body becomes a meditation on modern misogyny, an indictment of the beauty, fashion, and weight-loss industries, and a surreal revenge fantasy in which men, particularly rapists, don’t fare too well. (See, for example, body bags dropped onto the LA freeway: page 77.)
“When I set out to write the book, I knew I was going to write about this fat woman, and I had an almost philosophical question: why are fat women so hated? Why are they so discriminated against? It was a personal question and not just an intellectual question for me,” says Walker, who has spent her career (including a Ph.D.) thinking about women’s bodies and their cultural currency.
Throughout the ’90s, Walker wrote for women’s magazines, including Mademoiselle and Seventeen (where she foraged the archives for Sylvia Plath’s work). “When I was a teenager I was always obsessed with magazines,” says Walker. Yet writing for publications that glorified the very ideas that Walker railed against wasn’t easy. “I always felt conflicted because I didn’t fit in physically and I didn’t fit in politically—I was a feminist,” says Walker. “I justified it by thinking, ‘It’s better for someone like me to work here than someone else.’ ”
Occasionally Walker would pitch articles that stood at odds with the magazines’ traditional narratives, like a piece that criticized the modeling industry. “That didn’t go anywhere,” she says. “As I got older, I just got sick of it. The work paid pretty well, so it was hard to give up, but at one point I made a decision to leave.”
In 1999 Walker went to see Fight Club, the movie based on Chuck Palahniuk’s anarchic novel. “I remember walking away from the theater thinking ‘I have to write something like that for women—something that has that aggression, that defiance.’ But I had no idea what that would be.”
A few years later at an MFA program at Bennington College, Walker wrote a short story called “Pretty on the Inside,” which became the basis for Dietland. The story, about a young, fat woman working at a women’s magazine, “had a different kind of energy,” says Walker, who had never revealed so much of herself in her work. “I took a risk and all of a sudden my novel had a heart. It had its heroine.”
Kirk Reed Forrester is a writer based in Birmingham, Alabama