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Eat Fat.

In Eat Fat, Cornell University French professor Richard Klein, a self-described "fat layman," believes he can overturn medical wisdom and hypnotize people into wanting to be fat. He means to achieve this through repetitive, incantatory language, coaxing readers to view a plastic surgeon's oily blob of artificial fat as a "suckling pig" or "a beautiful fetal child." Readers who can make this leap are encouraged to try others, slowly working up to the biggest hurdle of all: deriving an erotic charge from a naked photo of Teighlor, the 5'6", 512-pound star of the heterosexual "fat porn" bible, Plumpers.

And yet, Klein's book did make me rethink my relationship to food - I was so revolted I couldn't eat for a day and a half. Klein might argue that his book made me sick because I have been brainwashed by the culture, which, in a time of prosperity, values scrawny waifs. This stands in contrast to cultures of scarcity, which eroticize models Klein seemingly prefers - the faceless, footless, bloated Venus of Willendorf or the dimpled hulks of Peter Paul Rubens, with their on-the-cusp-of-a-heart-attack ruddiness. But I think I was disgusted by Klein's elementary school urge to shock with bathroom humor and gross-out eating jokes that consistently took precedence over his desire to convert.

Whereas Cigarettes Are Sublime, Klein's last book, was a sly and successful apologia for an unhealthy habit, Eat Fat is a freak show, an absurd artifact advancing a thesis so exaggerated that its occasional interesting facts - among them, that doctors who draft studies supporting weight-loss drugs often work for the drugs' manufacturers - are lost in the folds of its hyperbole.

"Who doesn't dream about great pools of yellow, oleaginous streams of liquid fat spreading its gentle balm over rough surfaces?" Klein asks, in one of numerous queasy-making questions that presume reader and author might think remotely alike. And from an advertisement, "Ever fantasize about being fattened into massive, waddling proportions or about becoming a fattening coach who balloons an eager trainee into a waddling ball of fat?" Or, most gag-inducing of all, having explained how Olestra, a fat substitute, causes "fecal urgency" and "anal leakage," he points to a magazine photo of an Olestra-filled peach pie and inquires, "Who among us won't be tempted to slice a little bigger piece or have an extra helping?"

Klein's previous book placed him in a rich tradition of writers, such as Italo Svevo, who have explored the sinister seductiveness of smoking. Convincing readers to eat fat, by contrast, is harder work and sometimes requires distorting literary texts. He presents Hamlet as "a ham, a porky piggy hogger of the limelight, a bad actor" who remains inert because he is too fat to move. While this may lead to an ironic reading of some lines - "Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into dew! " - it is ultimately an annoying reach.

Although this country's average weight is increasing, this does not guarantee a large market for Klein's book. Weight, Klein points out, is linked to social class; as one's wealth and, presumably, education increase, so does one's tendency to be thin. Thus the average stout reader is more likely to seek out Oprah's weight-loss tips than a stylish, high-toned volume extolling avoirdupois. Finally even Klein seems to understand the futility of the task he's set for himself. He ends Eat Fat by embracing the medical counsel he had previously scorned. In an anecdote that is more grotesque than moving, he tells how his mother became so fat she couldn't breathe. At night her weight pressed against her lungs until she woke up gasping. Only exercise - and a low-fat diet - could save her.

M. G. Lord's most recent book is Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. She is currently working on a cultural history of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
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Title Annotation:BookForum
Author:Lord, M.G.
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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