Lionel Shriver wrote her latest novel, The New Republic, before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and, according to the book’s foreword, held it back until both her sales record and the public appetite for a terrorism-themed satire increased. Her first stroke of good fortune came swiftly when her 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, a school-massacre thriller that arrived a tasteful distance after the 1999 killings at Columbine High School, became a mega-hit and, eventually, a film starring Tilda Swinton. As for a public willingness to chuckle at anything terrorism-related, a decade would seem to suffice for the old mantra about tragedy plus time yielding comedy. The problem for Ms. Shriver is that the first wave of terrorism black comedy must necessarily have a sharpness, and a sense of gravity and for the facts on the ground that The New Republic utterly lacks.
The novel takes its title both from the real-life magazine for which its bumping-up-on-middle-aged protagonist, Edgar Kellogg, has freelanced and from Barba, a fictional peninsula dangling off the bottom of the Iberian peninsula, seeking independence from the government in Lisbon. Kellogg has thrown aside his legal career to write professionally and, having been swiftly hired by a USA Today-ish daily, is yet more swiftly dispatched to the would-be independent nation of Barba, where a terroristic nationalist front is centered and where his predecessor has gone missing.
More so than We Need to Talk About Kevin, The New Republic deeply indulges Ms. Shriver’s worst quality as a prose stylist—a tendency toward didactic, inhuman dialogue. Her tin ear for the patterns of human speech borders on the Randian; her political philosophy is, simply, that life is nasty, brutish and far too long. “Saddler’s appetite for poontang was suspicious,” says one character. “The nightmares were fabulous, lush with fantastic fears, hilarious with misadventure,” says another. The nadir: “Nicola, you’re the only one in town who’s ever noticed that the emperor might not be dressed to the nines. Your journo friends here operate like Visa card outfits.”
The jags of dialogue in this novel are neither colloquial enough to be honest nor outlandishly posh enough to approach the best of Evelyn Waugh (though Scoop is a clear influence here)—they indicate an author seemingly unsure of just how grounded in reality she wants her novel to be. Ms. Shriver’s ineptitude with human speech served We Need to Talk About Kevin well; it was told in the first person, through letters written by a haughty woman brought low who clearly labored over each word. The tormented prose could be read as the product of a tormented mind. So Much for That, Ms. Shriver’s most recent novel, had a similar problem with its dialogue. A political tract centered upon in the American health-care debate, its characters (who, to be fair, felt far more real and recognizable emotions than the characters in The New Republic) recited hastily rewritten policy papers.
What does tend to save The New Republic’s dialogue from the worst kind of didacticism is how apolitical it is. The foreign correspondents with whom Kellogg works spout off constantly but rarely express coherent political philosophies. Instead, they end up repeating the same tautologies about getting the story and the same gripes about how hellish Barba is.
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.
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