Barbarians at the Transom

The New Republic  By Lionel Shriver, HarperCollins, 400 pages, $26.99

What if there were a war, and no journalists covered it? Alternately, what if there weren’t a war, and every journalist covered it? How might our lawmakers react? It’s worth remembering that in 1993, when Spy magazine prank-called U.S. congressmen, asking what the administration should do about ethnic cleansing in Freedonia, several of the officials demanded immediate action. Freedonia, as it happens, was not a warring Balkan land but the fictional setting of the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup. Spy soon exposed the trap it had laid, but are there not other fictions that go uncaught and unrevealed and end by affecting foreign policy? This is the provocative question that the writer and social observer Lionel Shriver sports with in The New Republic, her latest published novel and a satire about—of all things—terrorism.

“Provocative” is the right word for Lionel Shriver, a North Carolina–born writer who has lived chiefly in Belfast and London since the 1980s and who specializes in fearless novels, often set in foreign nations, that take on such sacred cows as marriage, civil war, philanthropy, family, and fidelity. Describing her fourth novel, Game Control (1994), about an American aid worker in Kenya under the spell of a demographer who believes that the best cure for poverty is death, Shriver wrote in an author’s addendum a decade later, “I have a misanthropic streak a mile wide.” She mines this streak in her work to call attention to social hypocrisy, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, William Thackeray, and Evelyn Waugh. After publishing for two decades, Shriver’s profile rose in 2005, when she won Britain’s Orange Prize for We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003), a thriller (recently made into a film starring Tilda Swinton) that shocked less for its subject—a bad-seed boy who goes on a Columbine-style killing spree—than for its subtext—the rejection of the inevitability of maternal love.

It’s no coincidence if Shriver’s literary influences reflect her time in Ireland and England. Yet it’s also no accident that the effort that belatedly won Shriver critical acclaim was set in New York City and its suburbs and is thoroughly American in sensibility. The reality and familiarity of the setting of We Need to Talk about Kevin couch her barbs so they can land more deeply. In 2007, she followed up with The Post-Birthday World, an entertainment set in London about a woman deciding whether to have an affair with a star player of the British game of snooker. But Shriver’s next significant novel, So Much for That (2010), feelingly portrays an American couple whose marriage is threatened first by staleness, then by cancer, and then by the inhuman U.S. health-care system. This author, one senses, sees this country as Kryptonite; yet paradoxically, when she returns here in her work, her force grows stronger.

The New Republic, though only now appearing in print, was completed by Shriver in 1998, near the end of a decade when the United States seemed fortunate and frivolous to observers overseas. The economy bobbed merrily on a high tide; credit was easy, unemployment was low, the dollar was high, and so was the American ego. Headlines at the time focused on the sexcapades of the president and even a bad omen like the botched World Trade Center bombing of 1993 had almost faded to a troubling memory. In a shirty author’s note, Shriver writes that, in 1998, she was unable to find a publisher for her satire because, three years prior to September 11, Americans “dismissed terrorism as Foreigners’ Boring Problem.” After the fall of the Twin Towers ended the national sense of detachment, she adds, her book risked being perceived to be “in poor taste,” so she shelved it. Now, she suggests, “sensibilities have grown more robust.” More to the point, so has Shriver’s literary reputation. Shriver writes that she is “hopeful” that today the novel can “see print without giving offense.” Of course, the hope she expresses here is disingenuous: The raison d’être of satire is to offend—wittily—so if the novel didn’t succeed in offending, its author would be out of luck. Not to worry.

 

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The action in The New Republic takes place on the bleak southern tip of Portugal known as Barba (barba means “beard” in Portuguese, and the region derives its name from the pointed, goatee shape of its borders). Known for its profusion of Moroccan immigrants and for its plentiful crop, the pera peluda—an acrid-tasting purplish fruit covered with kiwi-like hair—Barba is a wind-blasted “dung-heap” of a place where nothing ever happens and where the only decent bar in the capital city, Cinziero, is called the Barking Rat (O Rato que Late). Unprepossessing though it may be, Barba luxuriates in international media attention, because it’s the home of a xenophobic separatist organization called the SOB (Os Soldades Ousados de Barba—“the Daring Soldiers of Barba”). The SOB sponsors terrorist atrocities around the world, downing a British passenger plane, bombing a New York tourist attraction, and blowing up a crowded Delhi bus to gain attention for the cause of Barban independence. The SOB’s political arm, a legal party called O Creme de Barbear, refuses either to accept responsibility for the SOB or to denounce it but applauds its goal of independence. If, having read this far, you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of any of this before, that’s because the place and the nefarious group do not exist.

Like Ishmaelia, the war-torn backdrop of Evelyn Waugh’s dark comedy Scoop (to which Shriver pays homage), Barba is real enough for the purposes of this novel. As a putative hotbed of terrorism, it serves as a launching pad for the careers of a motley flock of foreign correspondents who have parachuted into Cinziero to pursue their self-serving dreams. There’s only one problem for these would-be Edward R. Murrows: The SOB doesn’t bomb at home, and at the novel’s outset, their global terrorist operation seems to have fizzled. The only reporter who (maybe) ever managed to make contact with a living, breathing SOB bandido is the swaggering Barrington Saddler (“Bear” for short), of New York’s National Record, and he has gone missing. The Record sends in a surly greenhorn named Edgar Kellogg—a midcareer lawyer who wants to reinvent himself as a newsman—to fill in as a stringer. But what stories can Eddie file with the SOB lying low?

Sulking and often pie-eyed on gin, whiskey, and choque—acrid beer made from the pera peluda—Edgar whiles away his Barba days praying for career-boosting carnage, envying Bear’s mythic reputation among the expat media, and lusting after Bear’s exquisite inamorata. Before long, he begins to wonder: Would it be an altogether bad thing if he gave the news a little nudge? Sure, it would play havoc with journalistic ethics … but Edgar considers “journalistic ethics” an oxymoron. “Journalists need news,” he can hear Bear say: “Deprive them of news long enough, and they’ll make their own—much the way the starving will eventually turn to cannibalism.” The ensuing chaos recalls the newsmen to life and invigorates the Barban independence push.

Shriver, who frequently defends her fondness for unlikable characters, probably doesn’t care if her readers dislike a man who sees terrorism as a stepping-stone to his brilliant career. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Edgar tells himself, his “contemporaries were hungry for another all-purpose enemy.” Seen in that light, “the SOB filled a psychological, even religious void.” If its destruction also fleshes out a cub reporter’s sparse résumé, so much the better. Nonetheless, Edgar feels like a caricature, and so do his cronies. This means that despite Shriver’s cleverness, the satire here is only effective, as Waugh might put it, up to a point.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a book like The New Republic doesn’t strike the reader as offensive so much as out of date—sometimes amusingly so, sometimes irritatingly so. One of the sacred cows Shriver pummels is the media, which she portrays as cynical and lazy. Fair enough—the media is always a safe whipping boy. But in the current age of downsized newsrooms and shuttered papers, it’s poignant to see the print media resurrected in Shriver’s pages with the blustering profile it enjoyed decades ago—reporters posturing with brusque brio, as sure of their own importance as Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. The journalists in this novel are self-absorbed, preening nonentities or soulless Machiavels, jousting for dominance whether competent or not. But Shriver’s other target is the whole terrorist enterprise itself, which she sends up as a band of goofily unserious amateurs. It’s hard to laugh at such a portrait, now that the protracted silly season of the deep-pocketed, complacent 1990s is over, and terrorists from regions more benighted than Barba have done significant harm.

History repeats first as tragedy, then as farce: With The New Republic Shriver takes a gamble, upending the famous formulation by making farce come before tragedy. It doesn’t pay off here. But in another decade’s time, the book may get a third chance to be appreciated, when it can be read as a time capsule unto itself and not as a tardy wake-up call to a country already on alert. In the meantime, here’s hoping that Shriver resumes her recent path and brings her social criticism back home.

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