BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 24, 2010
I don’t normally send fan notes to writers. After all, I’m a critic; if I want a writer to know I liked his or her book, I ought to do it in print. But I made an exception for Lionel Shriver, partly because I didn’t discover her last novel, The Post-Birthday World, until it was too late for me to review it, but also because it is one of the wisest and most original books about love I’ve ever encountered. The book describes a fortyish woman named Irina who lives peacefully with her steadfast partner Lawrence until one fateful night, when she suddenly discovers her attraction to a mutual friend of theirs, a professional snooker player (all this takes place in England) named Ramsey who is glamorous, flashy, and passionate—everything that staid Lawrence isn’t. From this moment on, the novel splits into two alternating strands, so that it is essentially two books in one. In the first, Irina gives in to temptation, kisses Ramsey, and eventually runs off with him, abandoning her former lifestyle to throw herself into his world. In the other, she resists the impulse and returns to Lawrence, cohabiting with him in domestic placidity while continuing to contemplate how things might have gone differently. Handled by a less subtle writer, this conceit could feel like a gimmick, but Shriver interweaves the strands with great skill, using each to mirror the other. In the end, the book’s ingenious structure becomes a perfect mirror of the dilemma Irina faces—the classic dichotomy of stability versus passion—and the ultimate exploration of what might have been.
What moved me to write to Shriver, in addition to simple admiration, was a sense of injustice on her behalf, because her tough, complicated, brilliant novel had gone largely unappreciated by critics who seemed almost willfully to misunderstand it. (Its best review came from Entertainment Weekly.) The reviewer for The Guardian divided the strands into “Good Irina” and “Bad Irina,” failing to recognize that Shriver had carefully avoided any kind of moral judgment regarding her character’s choices. The Times reviewer thought the book was about “the slow, excruciating death of lust in long-term relationships.” I was mystified by this, because I thought, if anything, the novel wore its obsessions a little too plainly. Shriver isn’t the kind of writer who lets her themes bubble up opaquely; she seizes them and interrogates them for all they’re worth. The resulting no-stone-left-unturned sensation can be a little exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating to be in the presence of a writer who exercises her intelligence so vigorously.
Shriver and I struck up a friendly acquaintance, and when we eventually had lunch together last summer, she told me she was finishing a new novel about health insurance. I was pleased on her behalf that she had chosen such a timely subject, figuring that her book would be sure to get a lot of attention. It’s still early—So Much for That just came out a couple of weeks ago—but I’ve been surprised to see, again, that critics in America aren’t getting this book. (The British critics are doing better this time.) Compared with The Post-Birthday World, Shriver’s new novel springs from a relatively simple premise. Shep Knacker has squirreled away nearly $1 million from the sale of his handyman business, but he is forced to abandon his dream of living on the cheap on a remote island when his wife is diagnosed with a rare, virulent, incurable form of cancer. He has to stick with his job because she needs his insurance, which they soon discover to be laughably inadequate for the kind of medical care she requires. After a year of paying for her treatment (out-of-network, of course), combined with additional demands on his finances from his aging father and his layabout sister, Shep winds up bankrupt and desperate.
The difficulty with Shriver’s work, I think, is that the form she has chosen—for all her novels, but especially this one—has largely fallen out of fashion. For lack of a better term, we could call it the “novel of ideas,” though her approach to it is more pragmatic than philosophical. Thirty years ago, in Ideas and the Novel, Mary McCarthy defended the novel form as an “idea-carrier,” lamenting the death of the nineteenth-century tradition of using novels as a vehicle for exploring political, religious, or social questions. Shriver has enthusiastically embraced this vision, investigating issues ranging from overpopulation (Game Control) to high school shootings (We Need to Talk About Kevin). Even a novel of ideas, of course, cannot be only about the ideas; as Denis Donoghue pointed out in a critical review of McCarthy’s book, “Ideas are vivid when they become motives in the person who holds them and lives by them … not in their intrinsic quality.” Shriver’s reviewers, however, have often failed to recognize this distinction. Distracted, perhaps, by the novelty of being confronted with a novel of ideas, they miss the deeper point.
Despite what Shriver told me at lunch, So Much for That is not actually a novel about health insurance. It is, instead, a novel of fury only barely contained, fury at an American way of life that is so broken and dysfunctional that it has become impossible for people to conduct their lives in a decent, humane way. Shep’s misfortune results not because he has made poor choices, but because he has always behaved as he was supposed to—working hard, paying his taxes—while the system he has been working for has betrayed him. Peopled with vivid, just-this-side-of-farcical characters and told with a rollicking narrative pace, So Much for That has the feel of an “entertainment,” but it exudes a cloud of rage and despair—a despair that becomes all the more poignant in the consoling confines of the bourgeois novel. Its ripped-from-the-headlines topicality notwithstanding, So Much for That is no kind of polemic. The facts that it marshals are in service of a different purpose: to chronicle a particular moment of modern misery, a society so tortured that the only route to happiness might be simply to abandon it and start anew.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.