By Sarai Walker
All Posts Contain Spoilers
This is probably just a coincidence, but I’ve been reading a lot about female rage recently.
It’s very strange that I’m on this run of books about women’s anger. It’s not by design, but I have, in the past few months, picked up book after book with this theme: ‘Alias Grace’, ‘The Power‘, ‘I Love Dick’, ‘Shrill’, even ‘Fates and Furies’. I’m not doing it on purpose.
At least, I wasn’t doing it on purpose, but then I read this article in The Atlantic about all the new T.V. shows about female rage which are being made, one of which is a show based on the novel ‘Dietland‘. I had actually never heard of the novel ‘Dietland’ before, but this article describes it as a novel in which “a guerrilla group of women kidnaps and and murders men who’ve been accused of crimes against women, ranging from institutionalized misogyny to violent sexual assault. But that’s just a subplot.”
Vigilante justice is an old interest of mine (whether or not the avenging agents are female) and, if we’re being totally honest, I enjoy consuming a healthy dose of fictional violence in my media. I am used to getting this dose from movies and television, but I’m not at all averse to taking it in book-form.
So I was all over this book. I ordered it right away and started it within minutes of its arrival.
‘Dietland‘ is the story of a few months in the life of Plum Kettle. Plum weighs 300 pounds. She wears all black, and counts calories obsessively. Every day, she goes to the same cafe and ghost-answers emails on behalf of the editor of the teen magazine Daisy Chain, dispensing advice to thousands of desperate teen girls every day about the issues which trouble and occupy them. She secretly orders colorful clothes for a thinner woman, hiding them in her closet.
Plum occupies a permanent sense-state of unreality, the persistent belief that her ‘real life’ has not yet started. That life, the real one, will begin when she is thin, and she has scheduled bariatric surgery to finally achieve what years of dieting and misery has not. One day, however, while she waits, she notices that she is being followed. She soon learns that she is being observed for recruitment to a feminist collective, Calliope House. Calliope House was founded by the daughter of a famous diet guru, and now serves to shelter and protect women as they free themselves from the cultural baggage which has been loaded on them.
While Plum is trying to decide whether or not she would like to set her baggage down in the care of Calliope House, a group of vigilantes acting under the name ‘Jennifer’ begin killing men. What begins with the gruesome murders of a few rapists will escalate into a crime spree across nations, the killing and terrorizing of men responsible for violence, both physical and psychological, against women.
It’s not Great Art. ‘Dietland‘ is probably not a novel for the ages. Walker has said that she wanted to write ‘Fight Club‘ with women, and that’s probably a decent approximation of what she’s accomplished. ‘Dietland’ is a lot like ‘Fight Club’: it’s a single-note novel, extremely readable, funny and quick. Grounded in the specific culture and moment which produced it, and speaking to a very specific unhappiness which denizens of that culture might experience. Both are novels of modern isolation, but they lack the grandeur of true loneliness and the art which speaks to it. ‘Fight Club’ is cleverer, but ‘Dietland’ is more emotionally focused.
What do I mean, ’emotionally focused’? ‘Dietland‘ isn’t just about female rage – it’s about one kind of female rage, the kind which grows as you receive ceaseless, personal, painful reminders that you are not a good enough female, that you are not attractive enough, not thin enough, not pretty enough. When you are bombarded by images of women whom you will never resemble, offered products and services to make you look at least a little more like them, and threats about what will happen to you if you don’t look like them: no one will want you, no one will marry you, the person who loves you now will get tired of you and find someone younger, prettier, better. About the ways you begin to mutilate yourself when every piece of cultural information suggests that you should, when every female who is held up as ideal does not look like you.
The constant grinding of this message afflicts most women, no matter how thin or pretty they are. For Plum, it has exiled her from all normal human intercourse, from love and relationships not only with men but also with other women. It has convinced her that she will not even be real until she is thin.
And it is about the sort of rage, the sort of spiritual violence, which it takes a soul like that to break past a life of shame. About the price we pay for towing the line, and the price we pay for breaking out.
And it’s focused on that problem, on communicating it in language that other women will understand.
The clearest, most pointed, and most effective, device in the novel is a room in the basement of Calliope House, a small room lined floor to ceiling with screens which stream, at all hours of the day and night, the most searched for pornography on Porn Hub:
‘The room was circular, larger than my bedroom and the other bedrooms combined. The walls were banks of screens, all of them synchronized with the same scenes…On the screens were a naked woman and three naked men on a bed. The men’s penises were inserted into the woman’s vagina and anus and mouth. After a minute, the men removed their penises and reinserted them in different places. There were always three penises inside the woman. The men twisted and contorted the woman so that what they were doing was visible to the camera. As the scene went on, the woman became haggard, her black eye makeup smeared with semen and sweat. She was the underside of a piece of Lego, her bodily orifices nothing more than slots for the men’s penises.’ (p. 182)
It’s not beautifully written, but it’s very…well, focused, right? Walker has figured out what makes her angry, and she’s pretty good at communicating it, which means that if you are at all susceptible to prose text, by the end of ‘Dietland‘ you will probably be angry, too.
Which, I would argue, is a good thing. Novels are one of the ways that we can see the world through other people’s eyes; it’s how we try on other people’s feelings. You don’t have to keep this anger with you, don’t have to buy it, but it’s worth taking it for a test drive, to see how it might feel to walk around the world in Plum Kettle’s body, to listen to her describe her own rage. It will, I suspect, echo in the hearts of most women, but even if it doesn’t echo in yours, isn’t it worth knowing?