The New Republic by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins - March, 2013)
Let’s talk about Lionel Shriver. Her book The New Republic is a novel full to the brim with satire based on an inventive (mis)construction of how entire nations can be held to ransom. It’s an imaginative attempt to expose the quantum physics of terrorism while always keeping the reader in the dark about true motivation. The New Republic is as spellbinding as any detective novel is likely to get; although it is more than just a thriller.
Ever since Shriver published We Need to Talk About Kevin she has been firmly on the authors map, and, since her seventh novel was made into a box-office-hit, her rise to super-stardom has become unstoppable. Arguably, the most obvious reason for her success on screen as well as on the page is her astute flair for presenting the audience with complex yet believable characters, with much of the story being generated by the unravelling of their inner workings. The raison d’être of these intriguing personalities is a fine thread with which Shriver weaves her story.
The protagonist here is Edgar Kellogg; a middle-aged man who as a teenager was scarred by a brief encounter with morbid obesity. As he reaches the halfway point in his life, endless soul-searching urges him to ditch his well-paid position at a law firm as well as his girlfriend. He is driven to seek self-fulfilment by joining the ranks of freelance journalists. Edgar’s first assignment for The National Record is as a replacement for their former correspondent, Barrington Saddler, after he mysteriously vanishes from the fictional province of Barba, Portugal. Barba makes headlines due to the explosive fight for independence surrounding it which instigates much speculation in regard to Barrington’s kidnapping. The SOB freedom fighters, who no one has ever seen in the flesh, repeatedly assume responsibility for countless acts of terrorism on foreign soil. As Edgar moves into his predecessor’s villa and meets his colleagues from other international newspapers, he learns that Barrington is a larger-than-life alpha-male, which triggers Edgar’s old issues of self-esteem. However, Edgar has one forte, namely his stubborn perseverance, a quality that allowed him to shed the pounds as an adolescent. Now he sets his mind to explaining the disappearance, and fearlessly investigates the politically motivated bombings. Needless to say—nothing is as it seems.
The dialogues and internal monologues reveal a superb understanding of what makes people tick and what makes them engage in pretentious power games with one another and themselves. Edgar seems to have a bad habit of getting embroiled with personality cults. At first I was surprised to discover that Shriver’s background is not in psychoanalysis as she really touches a nerve when it comes to human hang-ups and quirks, what’s more, she is not afraid of addressing them. Shriver’s own experience—as a journalist—doesn’t go amiss here though.
Indeed, Shriver’s playfulness is acute when it comes to characterisation. There is a disturbing notion that the male characters are engaging in a ‘boy scout’ exercise—they use ciphers to lead to the location of a hidden den. Their childlike manner seems out of sync with their age and professional image. The question of purpose, identity and maturity comes up frequently. Shriver herself suggests in the acknowledgements: This is a boy-book written by a girl. By writing a narrator of the opposite sex she seems to gain a helpful detachment to approach irony more freely. Arguably, Shriver makes the point that terrorism is a boy’s game that got out of hand; with terrorism and anti-terrorism alike—the methods seem to have lost touch with reality, and hence she raises the question of immorality vs. amorality. Alas, it’s not that the girls are necessarily more mature, or at least in the world Shriver’s presents, but the girls appear more interested in things closer to home.
The novel is mighty impressive as, like Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, Shriver not only invents an exciting and action packed plot but she concocts an entire country called Barba, complete with national dishes (which includes, the bitter-tasting hairy pear), a wind-swept countryside, an unflattering history and a treacherous political landscape. We learn, for example, that the peninsula of Barba owes its name partly to the wordplay with ‘barbarism’ as well as to the fact that the landmass is stuck on to the most southern coast of Portugal like a prickly beard. Indeed, this story is spiked with such puns and witty retorts. On the other end of the spectrum many of the fictional events are only too recognisable as news items that bruised our eyes during the late 1990s when the IRA and ETA and other organisations were widely active.
It is noteworthy that according to Shriver’s own comments when she first promoted the manuscript in 1998, she could not find a publisher for it because:
Americans were not faintly interested in terrorism.  President Clinton concerned himself personally with the Northern Irish peace process, but back home terrorism was persistently regarded as a problem for foreigners, and as something of a bore besides.
But then the subject-matter shifted from ‘off the radar’ to ‘in your face’ following the World Trade Centre attack of 2001. Perhaps if Shriver had not been laurelled with legendary media attention after We Need to Talk About Kevin this daring novel would never have seen the light of day. I would not want to blatantly compare the two novels but it seems to me that The New Republic was an essential milestone on the way to winning the Orange Prize in 2005; perseverance is clearly a crucial asset for a writer.
Critics may suggest that this novel is rather fantastical but history shows that when it comes to terrorism, life remains far stranger than fiction, that is to say—even more extravagant than Shriver’s fiction.
For those interested in finding out more about the author: Lionel Shriver will be discussing her new novel Big Brother, at the Southbank Centre tonight (28 May).