Read All About It! Or… Don’t: Lionel Shriver’s New Novel Disappoints

The book’s politics occur mainly in Kellogg’s mind and his relationship with his editor back in America. He discovers that his predecessor, a beloved foreign correspondent, had been fabricating stories and claiming that terrorist attacks by the Barban liberation front were the work of others. Satire is only effective when it’s believable, and The New Republic beggars belief when Kellogg begins calling American papers, impersonating a Barban terrorist and claiming that various terrorist attacks on European and American soil are the work of his comrades.

Ms. Shriver never bothers to show quite how this maneuver actually helps his journalistic career. He generally calls papers he isn’t working for; how this results in scoops for his own paper is never made clear. And a setting that features a steady stream of terrorist attacks for which no one claims responsibility is itself a stretch for anyone who even occasionally follows the news cycle.

Bret Easton Ellis set his 2005 novel, Lunar Park, in what was clearly an alternate reality, wherein terror was visited upon families by an unknown and unknowable entity. The only significant differences between the world Ms. Shriver has created and our own are wildly unrealistic dialogue and a picaresque focus on incident. The author legitimately seems to believe that a series of terrorist attacks could be claimed by some fellow using a kazoo to disguise his voice, because no one else would come forward.

Ultimately, The New Republic drips with condescension for its reader, nowhere more so than in its closing two pages, where it’s implied that Kellogg took credit for the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on behalf of the Barban terrorists for whose cause he cares little but whose existence nebulously boosts his writing career.

The concept of a writer conflating real events into ludicrous fantasies to boost his or her career cannot be a foreign one to Ms. Shriver. Indeed, The New Republic seems less ghoulish and more clever when it’s read as a comment on its own existence and Ms. Shriver’s career as a magpie of human misery. Despite or perhaps because of its flaws, The New Republic is compulsively readable—just like the news coverage of global tragedy that Ms. Shriver implies exists merely for the pleasure viewers find in catharsis.

In this novel, deaths that occur offstage are treated so lightly that the reader comes to care little for those that happen onstage—those of central characters. The theme here is charisma—why some men’s lies are easily swallowed and help bolster their myths, while others’ merely make them appear pathetic—and yet Ms. Shriver makes little effort to fully investigate this phenomenon. Things are interesting because Kellogg thinks they are, and he thinks they are simply because he is insecure about having been fat as a child.

This is programmatic writing that is as devoted to simple cause-and-effect as a briefing in a big USA Today-style paper. It bears no resemblance to the complexities of the truth—either about world events or, more pertinently, human nature—and in that it is similar to the prose of a harried writer on deadline, working toward the end-of-night pint. If Ms. Shriver, herself a journalist who has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, set out to summarize through her style the manner in which journalism fails its subjects, she has succeeded brilliantly.

The sad irony of The New Republic, ultimately, is that it violates the journalistic dictum an editor articulates in its first 20 pages: “The hack who fancies himself a mover-and-shaker gets slipshod—thinks he’s covering his own story.” Ms. Shriver strives to shake up her readers’ sensibilities regarding both terrorism and human nature by overstepping the bounds of what she is able to convey, and ends up covering a story that is irresistible only to her.