Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Book Club: Dietland by Sarai Walker

The Receptionist Blog Book Club: Reading Dietland by Sarai Walker and wondering what would happen if "Jennifer" came to the real world?

I had no idea what to expect when I started reading Dietland. It was in a stack of feminist literature my friend was lending me for some (light) summer reading, including Shrill, Bad Feminist, and All the Single Ladies. This was the only fiction in the pile, and I'd never heard of it, but I thought, what the heck? I'll try it out!

As someone who has mainly been reading sci fi/fantasy fiction lately, Dietland has reminded me how awesome straightforward narrative can be.

Dietland tells the story of a girl (Plum) who is overweight. She hates the word "fat", so I won't use it either. She leads a very quiet life, trying to keep herself as unobtrusive as possible. She has tried various diets her entire life and is finally planning on getting a gastro-bypass surgery. After this, she will be thin and can start to lead a normal life.

Before Plum can get her surgery, however, she meets a group of women who live their lives differently than the rest of us and, as one might expect, goes on a transformative journey.

(SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILERS! This is the line where spoilers will begin.)

I have never found a transformative journey to self-acceptance so relatable and interesting. I assume it's because, while I've never struggled with weight the way Plum does, I have certainly hated myself. Her journey also felt more real to me than the usual "Fairy Godmother imparts wisdom, suddenly everything is okay and the protagonist finds a boyfriend" structure.

Sure, there's a touch of Deus Ex Machina in how Verena (the closest thing to a Fairy Godmother in the story) shows up in her life, but it's more than that, because her bizarre methods are also kind of legit. Plum goes through actual hard experiences that help her to see herself differently.

Alongside her story, is another fascinating plot line: a group of militant feminists, calling themselves "Jennifer", go on a terrorist mission to topple the patriarchy. They kidnap and dramatically murder rapists. They blackmail businesses into replacing scantily clad women with scantily clad men. They publish a Penis Blacklist of powerful men who have made their livings off of exploiting women and car bomb people who publicly disregard it.

To be clear: it's not a revenge fantasy. It is a simple imagining of what would actually happen in the world if such an organization developed.

I love that Sarai Walker simply made this a backdrop to Plum's self-discovery instead of the focal point of the story. That as she learns to accept herself as a woman, the world is being violently confronted with its hatred for women. For Plum, there is a sense of wholeness at the end - for the world? I don't know. Probably back to normal.

Questions and thoughts raised by Dietland:

Verena's treatment of Plum is legit, but also manipulative and a bit nutty? Is Plum an experiment? A project? Would she have supported and cared for her if the results had been different?

If Jennifer were to strike in the real world, who would the targets be? How would world leaders react? CEOs? The stock market? The military? Who would die, who would rally together into a vigilante support group, and who would be a suspect?

Admission time: I felt some pleasure at the feminist terrorist storyline. I would never ever ever want that to happen in real life, but it's sort of like how in movies we feel satisfied when bad guys "get theirs." We know full well that one head splattered in a helicopter blade does nothing to undo the horror that came before. It's bad. It only creates more heartache and death. It doesn't fix anything. Yet it provides some temporary satisfaction to our inner darkness and anger at the original wrongdoing.

Is it possible that a violent upheaval is necessary to truly change our patriarchal structure?

Would that violent upheaval even work, or would it just drive us further into factions and end with the dystopian future-style dictatorship of a young adult fantasy novel?

I love how Plum's journey to self-acceptance includes full swings before it settles: she doesn't just realize she loves herself and then become a happy, healthy person. She swings far in the other direction first: she eats uncontrollably, nests, acts out her anger through petty theft, and dances with violence. Then, eventually, she settles into a place of purpose and comfort.

Could it be possible for her, or any of the women in this story, to do their work and enjoy their callings and self-acceptance if they also had to work for a living? It helps that they were funded and housed by a millionaire.

Is the Calliope House a paradise or a bizarre cult?

What event am I waiting for so that my life can "begin"? Am I expecting some transformation? How can I live as though it's already happened?

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