IN 1998, a satire on terrorism would probably have been a hard sell for most American authors. For Lionel Shriver, who describes her sales record back then as “poisonous”, it proved impossible. So her newly published novel, The New Republic, isn’t new at all.
Mothballed for 14 years, it has piggy-backed on the success of We Need To Talk About Kevin, her bestseller about a school shooting, to make it into print. Shriver also believes it has benefited from a change in mood: in the Nineties, her compatriots saw terrorism as “Foreigners Boring Problem”; post 9/11, the subject was too raw for the light-hearted approach she takes.
Her protagonist in The New Republic is Edgar Kellogg, a misanthrope just shy of middle age who has left a lucrative job in law to become a journalist. Five foot eight, formerly fat and still forgettable, Edgar is a natural sidekick, a perpetual second-placer who clings to life’s “golden boys” while yearning to be the big man himself. Thanks to a recommendation that it pains Edgar to ask for from his high school hero, he somehow wangles a foreign reporter role at The National Record– a job made vacant by the disappearance of another man who casts an enormous shadow: Barrington Sandler.
This brings Edgar to Barba, a peninsula Shriver has stuck onto Portugal’s rump. It is a place with little to recommend it: the wind is “a piercing whistle” that can get into your head. Like tinnitus”; and the native crop is the hairy pear, a bitter, staining fruit that they cannot export. Once the “dullest corner” of Europe, after the arrival of Sandler – who was sent there as a punishment – it rapidly became a hotbed of terrorism, spawning “the single most lethal terrorist organisation of the 20th century”, the amusingly-named SOB, who want independence. Edgar’s first assignment is to investigate Sandler’s disappearance.
All Shriver’s hallmarks are here. There’s a cast of prickly characters, none of whom you are invited to like. There are the same intelligent observations – she is good on wealth’s knack of inspiring laziness and the attraction of hero worship. There’s cynicism and an occasional fixation on bodily fluids.
And yet, after a strong start, The New Republic cannot sustain interest. There are touches of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and perhaps Vile Bodies, but it isn’t anywhere near as funny. Nor are there enough laughs to sustain what turns halfway through into a ludicrous plot, one that feels in increasingly poor taste. Plus her portrait of journalists lacks subtlety, chiming with a Conrad Black quote she has borrowed for the introduction: “a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised”. Even Leveson doesn’t make us look half as bad as she does.
Shriver is a fine writer, but this is a long way from her best work. Whether or not readers are ready for a terrorism satire, I suspect they just won’t like this one.
The New Republic
by Lionel Shriver
HarperCollins, 400pp, £14.99
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