Body and Soul
Three years ago, I undertook a process bodybuilders call a “dirty bulk.” In essence, you eat and drink well beyond what you’re hungry for until you feel you might puke: the perfect diet after a breakup. I found new and obscene ways to sneak protein into my meals and gulped shots of olive oil before bed to meet my calorie count. I followed a full-body workout regimen from men on YouTube with distended steroid guts, visiting the gym six times a week. I worried my creatine supplements might be eating away at my hairline. My face swelled with water weight. Despite these side effects, it was exhilarating to watch my body conform to my vision for it. But the obsessive discipline required was unsustainable, practically an eating disorder.
I was emulating those bodybuilders with impossibly tapered waists, tree trunk thighs, and what Adrian Nathan West describes in his new novel My Father’s Diet, as “scalloped striations” of musculature from calf to neck. West, a literary critic and award-winning translator of more than thirty books, dabbled in bodybuilding as a teenager after a run-in with death—that is, he says, “pericarditis, then pleurisy with two bouts of bronchitis in between.” He, too, thrived off of the routinization the sport offered. But the same workouts every week grew boring, and he has since moved on to other things. Before the recent surge of Omicron Covid-19 cases in Barcelona, where he lives with his wife, he practiced Brazilian jiu-jitsu around five days a week.
In My Father’s Diet, the narrator’s father turns to fitness after a divorce in a search for meaning. It’s a failed journey from the start: upon entering a fitness competition, he flexes in the mirror with an “expression of bare desperation veiled by a factitious smile.” But the father isn’t alone: each of West’s characters is lost and self-conscious, strangers to themselves. The narrator, who’s also had a recent breakup, is aloof and quick to disparage his parents’ search for purpose while practically incognizant of his own coping mechanisms. And Karen, the father’s second ex-wife, is a burnt-out nurse who turns to holistic health for answers. The novel is a concise portrait of a family’s desperate pursuit of fulfillment, told with insight and caustic humor. Often, their separate journeys are narcissistic—or lead to the consumption of cow steroids.
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sam Russek: Both your narrator and his father take it as a personal failure when their romantic relationships fall apart. I think it’s pretty common for men to feel this urge to reclaim their masculinity after a bad breakup, but where do you think this impulse comes from?
Adrian Nathan West: It’s tough to say because I might be one of those guys. I might be trapped within the ideological cage that makes me fail to see it from without. But even if you look at the novel’s cover—not to say that you should judge a book by its cover—there’s no head. It’s just this exterior, this core, that’s flexing itself. And that does have something to do with our idea of masculinity. Nobody says, You should reclaim your masculinity by going to the symphony, or you should reclaim your masculinity by going to the theater, or by engaging in some other intellectual activity. The idea is to become only a body, an invulnerable type of body, this thing that you look at. Bodybuilding used to interest me a great deal. It is full of people with absolutely mind-blowingly weird stories, but when you look at them you just think, Oh, this guy. He’s flexing, looks like everything’s fine.
SR: As a sport, it requires almost absolute lifestyle control. I think the common phrase is that it’s 20 percent lifting weights and 80 percent diet. What do you think is so compelling to people about this idea of discipline ostensibly to improve the self?
ANW: I think similar to a religion, cult, or anything else: it solves your problems for you. If you’re just floating in the ether and feel that you should have values but don’t really know what to attach them to. The father talks about drinking oatmeal shakes every morning; he thinks, you know, everything is solved for him now that he’s got this oatmeal shake. He doesn’t have to think about his diet anymore.
SR: I do love a good oatmeal shake.
ANW: The shake in the book is actually my recipe. I have that every day for breakfast.
SR: Is routine important to you?
ANW: A light routine is important to me. Nowadays, that means waking up whenever I do, one cappuccino, one espresso, cold shower, breathing exercises, work, and then weights or jiu-jitsu in the afternoon, but Omicron has fucked that up.
I had a really difficult translation project that coincided with the Omicron surge. And so my wife said maybe I should stay home from Brazilian jiu-jitsu for a couple of weeks. I haven’t gone in three weeks, and I’m losing my fucking mind.
SR: Something your novel captures really well is how a father and son can feel unsure about what to do in order to bond. They spend time together, but I wouldn’t say either of them understands the other. What do you think holds them back?
ANW: Their relationship is founded on a distance or even on a void. It’s founded not on mutual responsibility and not on mutual love but on the sense that a mutual responsibility mutual love should exist. Because the father is only nominally a father. He thinks he wants to get to know his son, but what does it mean to think you want to get to know a person you don’t know anything about? I think that’s the initial difficulty. And then, of course, with the son, he’s a character who has not learned very well how to love.
SR: The narrator is hyper-analytical of his father’s relationship, his mother’s relationship. But I don’t think he’s able to look inward in the same way. Do you think he’s held back by his own ideas of who he wants to be—this “person of culture?”
ANW: I don’t think we understand very well why things happen at all. When I read a book, and it has a character who gets abused, and then they have post-traumatic stress disorder, but then they overcome it through therapy, and they’re a happy person, I think, Well, I’m not really sure if this is how things work. Even if the person does come out happy, and even if they think that it’s because of their therapy, it may be because of other things. When we feel that we understand our relationships with other people, when we feel that we understand families, when we feel that we understand what we want to do, that’s because we’re integrated into cultural systems that give us ideas and self-perceptions on which we can rely. And in the situation of the narrator, what I wanted to show here is the fragmentation of those things to a point that they’re absent, and you can’t rely on them.
So, what the narrator has is nothing; when he reaches inside there’s just not anything there. In a sense, I really view it as a bit of a parallel with the father’s bodybuilding competition. The world crashes down on him, and he thinks, What should I do? I’ll do a fitness competition. In the same way you have a narrator who doesn’t really have any sense of where he’s going and just says, I’ll go to France, and I’ll do French things. Which is preposterous. But it gives you a solution to work towards, which is often what you need to just get by from day to day.
SR: The book relays a kind of middle American claustrophobia. How much do you think this run-down atmosphere influences the characters’ vulnerability to the self-help industry?
ANW: I think it does a lot, in all honesty. For the book, I was thinking about a specific place. I’m from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and there’s a part of town called Brainerd, which used to have this mall. It was fine, everybody went there, but for some mysterious reason, they said, No, we need to build one that’s five times as big in this other section of town. And then we watched it just slowly sink into the ground. It is profoundly depressing.
You go to these places, and they’re incredibly ugly. I hadn’t been back for a long time because I live overseas. I was driving through this area with my dad, and one of the things that you don’t see in Europe that you see all over the states is powerlines crossing all over the road. And then, of course, you have the Krispy Kreme sign, and over it the Wendy’s sign, all trying to compete with each other. We had just gone out to get lunch and see a movie, and by the time it was over, I thought, I’m gonna fucking kill myself.
It’s not as though you can say, Oh, well, look, there’s the old bowling alley, and it doesn’t look as good as it used to be. It’s that they take an entire tract of a city and just say, We’re gonna let this go to shit now. Funnily enough, those decaying areas of cities are often places where you find the herbalist business or the independent supplement shop because that’s where you find the kind of strange characters who want to open these businesses, and that’s where real estate is cheap.
SR: That brings us to Karen, the father’s ex-wife. She’s a nurse, but after feeling frustrated with her job she turns to holistic health and mindfulness meditation. There’s this idea in your book that mindfulness is marketed as a solution to anxiety and all these other modern ills while, at the same time, practitioners are supposed to reject the impulse to “solve” those same problems.
ANW: When mindfulness as a practice tells people to look inward, I don’t think that it means look at yourself and think of how important you are. But I do tend to find that attitude is fairly prevalent among people who practice mindfulness. I’ll give you an example of a friend who a group of us rented a house with for Christmas one year. This person was saying, You know, I’ve just realized I really need to focus on myself, I give too much to other people. Well, this person is single, she lives by herself, she has a job working by herself, and essentially spends all of her time doing yoga. Occasionally, she talks to her brother on the phone and tells him what an asshole he is. This is the end of the story. But I think that she does believe what she’s saying is true.
This is one of the difficulties with these industries. What they do is create a monologue that you buy the way you buy a suit at a store and just put it on. In the case of a character like Karen, it seems to me that what she fundamentally suffers from is being transplanted in a soil she can’t grow in. And at a certain point, she begins to blame her relationship—and the minute she blames the relationship, it’s doomed.
SR: Is there a way to seek self-fulfillment, without falling into those traps? Or is fulfillment as it is popularly defined kind of farcical?
ANW: Well, if we look at the father in the book, I don’t think you can say the fitness contest was bad for him. I think it’s actually good for him—it’s not great for him, but most things aren’t great. You may say it’s not great because he’s placing too many expectations on it, but he also doesn’t know what his expectations are, and that’s part of the problem. When people define their expectations poorly, they get poor results, and in the United States, there’s such an emphasis on results. If one thing doesn’t solve your problems, you just move on to the next thing. You throw your torso track in the trash and replace it with CrossFit gear, and when that doesn’t work, you replace it with whatever comes next.
SR: At the end of the book, the father says the competition served its purpose and he’s happy with his life. That, to me, rang hollow.
ANW: We, as you know, in America have the national myth that if you try hard enough, you can be the next president or LeBron James or whomever. And obviously you can’t. When the father begins this thing, it’s obvious he’s not going to win it for a number of reasons. He’s busy, he’s going through a divorce, he’s old, he doesn’t know shit about working out, and so on. But, of course, he still believes.
When I go to the States, there is this optimism that I think Europeans see as fake but actually isn’t fake. It’s something that’s extremely endearing. That’s what pushes him through. But your optimism can be authentic and not particularly effective. I think that’s the case with the father.
SR: The narrator comments that his father has a “physically more robust, but inwardly diminished life.” I love that phrase. But I was also thinking about how the narrator has this fetish for inwardness. It made me wonder if the narrator really understands his father.
ANW: I don’t think that the narrator gets him at all. In no way can he link fitness to a quest for meaning, which is really what the father has done. He can’t do it because he’s somebody who doesn’t have a sense of his own body. I think the narrator would prefer to just not have a body at all.
SR: There’s this idea that men have to perform total control over their own mind or body—those are the two options. Was the choice to make the father focus on the body while the narrator focuses on the mind an intentional foil?
ANW: What I think they share in common is a sense that they need to find out who they are, and their way of finding out who they are authentically is adopting a script. The narrator thinks he’s figuring out who he actually is, but what he’s doing is plucking a bunch of cliches about how an intellectual acts out of the air and adopting those.
In the same way, the father has this vague idea of the muscular, confident person from the Charles Atlas ads he probably saw growing up. What I wanted was two forms of scriptedness, and the paradoxical search for authenticity through something that’s very clearly been written out and sold to you.
SR: Do you think that authenticity is just another self-help buzzword?
ANW: Thomas Metzinger is a great German philosopher who interests me a great deal. His well-known books are The Ego Tunnel and Being No One. And his entire thesis is that the idea of the self is not tenable. He attempts to analyze the way consciousness appears in response to certain problems and disappears in response to others, or when those stimuli disappear. That’s something that I think excludes the idea of finding an authentic self.
If you were to ask personality researchers, they would probably tell you the self is the equivalent of an optical illusion. Like an optical illusion, it looks real to you. You sit there and stare at it and treat it as though it were something with internal consistency when it probably isn’t. So yes, I think the search for authenticity is probably completely vain.