I know several readers who say that they like to save an author’s best work for last, so they’ll know they have something to look forward to. I tend to take the opposite approach, starting with an author’s best-known or most highly regarded work. I figure that if I read one or two of an author’s best and don’t like them, I can cross that author off my list, whereas if I start with the worst, I’ve committed to keep trying.
With Lionel Shriver, however, I haven’t followed my usual pattern. I started with So Much for That, which despite being a National Book Award finalist, didn’t seem to be a favorite of many readers. I found it preachy, but occasionally clever, clever enough for me to know that Shriver’s best books may be worth reading. Yet I didn’t turn directly to We Need to Talk About Kevin. Instead, I accepted a review copy of her latest, The New Republic, a book she actually completed in 1998 but was unable to get published before this year. In the 1990s, a satire on terrorism and journalism seemed irrelevant. And then it was too relevant to touch.
The main character of The New Republic, Edgar Kellogg, has just given up a successful career as a corporate lawyer to become a journalist. Buoyed by idealistic fantasies of being just like his high school hero, Toby Falconer, he accepts an assignment as a freelance super-stringer for the National Record to cover a band of terrorists in Barba, a peninsula that hangs off the southern end of Portugal like a beard. The Os Soldados Ousados de Barba, popularly known as the SOB, have claimed responsibility for blowing up numerous planes and subways as part of their campaign for independence from Portugal. The National Record’s reporter on the scene, Barrington Saddler, is probably the greatest authority out there on the SOB, but he’s recently disappeared, the Sobs have gone quiet, and no one knows what they’re up to.
One of my problems with So Much for That was that the debates within it were drawn too directly from the headlines of the day. I was reading the very same talking points that I was hearing in the news. I was bored with the story before it started. By setting The New Republic in a fictional locale, Shriver sidesteps this difficulty and makes it easier to see the larger issues that she’s exploring. This book wouldn’t have worked at all if it had been set in Afghanistan or Iraq, even though the issues are relevant to U.S. involvement in those countries. The big target is the news media and the way the media literally make the news. The newspapers decide what’s worth covering and how much to cover, groups like the SOB rely on coverage, and people form opinions and take action based on that coverage.
In The New Republic, the whole system of news reporting is shown to be completely and easily corruptible. All it takes is one man with limited scruples and loads of charisma, a bunch of journalist looking for a short-cut to a hot by-line, and a reading public looking for a scapegoat, and you’ve got a disaster. The satire here is both outrageous and plausible.
So Much for That used a current hot topic–the health care crisis—and used it to drive readers to think about bigger universal issues—the value and meaning of life. Shriver does the same sort of thing here: As she skewers the fourth estate, Shriver also digs into the ways we let our personal insecurities affect the way we view other people and ourselves. Edgar, who still thinks of himself as a fat slob because he was heavy and insecure in high school, wants to jump on the coattails of the most charismatic people around. First, it was Toby Falconer, now it’s Bearington Saddler. Edgar is unable to think independently; even when he does, he attributes his ideas and flashes of insight to Bearington. He’s a born sidekick. At first, this just seemed kind of sad, but then it started to feel sinister. Edgar doesn’t get the credit for anything he does, but he also avoids the blame. The problem for the book is that as a born sidekick with few thoughts of his own, Edgar makes for a dull protagonist. What Shriver is doing with his character is interesting, but the character himself is not.
I don’t know how The New Republic compares to Shriver’s more popular books, We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World, but I appreciated the political satire more here than in So Much for That. But the exploration of the more personal issues is less effective here. On balance, I’d say it’s never quite as good but not nearly as bad as So Much for That. It’s definitely good enough to keep me from crossing Shriver off my list.