Book review: The Motion of the Body Through Space, by Lionel Shriver

Never mind the dismal title. You’ll probably forget it anyway. Never mind that the book is at least 50 pages too long, with scenes that continue long after they have made their point. Lionel Shriver is an exuberant novelist, fertile in ideas, robust in argument and disdainful of economy. Her faults are venial. She writes bold and fearless comedy and delights in slaughtering the sacred cows of the stupid times we live in. Few novelists now raise a laugh. Shriver does so time and again.

Lionel Shriver PIC: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty

“I’ve decided to run a marathon.” The speaker, Remington Alabaster, is 62 and has never been given to exercise. But he has just lost his job as the deputy director of the city’s Department of Transport, charged with threatening his superior, an African-American woman less than half his age who is both arrogant and incompetent. So he feels diminished.

His wife, Serenata, is unimpressed and thinks he is daft. She has been an exercise fiend herself, but privately; the only person she competed against is herself. Now she has ropey knees, one of them ready for a replacement. Theirs has been a good marriage. They are a well-matched couple, and so close that they have been lousy parents – their daughter has turned to Jesus and their son is a layabout.

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Rem is not only determined; he is soon obsessed. A marathon won’t be enough. He must tackle a Triathlon. He hires a personal trainer, Bambi Buffer, whose “body recalled the diagrams of human musculature in anatomy text-books.” Remington represents a challenge for her. He becomes one of her team and Serenata finds them invading their house. Her reasoned arguments and warnings are brushed aside. Fanatics don’t listen to reason. Can their marriage survive? Or will Rem collapse dead before it does so?

“Tri,” the ghastly Bambi says, “is a belief system, but the belief is in yourself.”

“Isn’t that on the slight side,” Serenata replies. “It sounds awfully like egotism.”

It is indeed that, though solipsism might be more accurate. Moreover, this cult of fitness is narcissism. What has happened to America, to the City on the Hill?

These questions are at the heart of Shriver’s writing. She is appalled by the American decline, the retreat from adulthood, the kneejerk intolerance, the eagerness to take offence. And it’s not just the good old USA. Serenata recalls reading about an event in England where “the contestants start to hallucinate... One runner said the object of the exercise was to feel ‘dead’... We invented the computer and put men on the moon. Now we’re running in manic circles, like tigers churning themselves to butter. A once-great civilization, disappearing up its ass.”

Like so much in the 21 century, it’s enough to make you weep. The alternative to weeping, as Byron said in “Don Juan,” is laughter. For Serenata, her husband’s obsession with the body would be comical if she didn’t also recognize it as “a battening down of the hatches.” You push your body to the limits and even beyond, so that you don’t have to think. It’s a rejection of ordinary social life.

The novel is also a study of a marriage, one that tests its strains. How can you be a couple when you are being pulled apart by one person’s obsession, another’s rejection of it? The narrative interest lies here. Just as in both classic and popular novels the central question was: who should the heroine marry? now it is “can this marriage hold? Does she even want it repaired?”

This novel isn’t as ambitious or comprehensive as The Mandibles, the best of Shriver’s that I’ve read, or as painful, while still being comic, as her prize-winning We Need To Talk About Kevin, but it’s a fine and enjoyable piece of work.

Orwell considered the novel to be a Protestant form because by its nature it was oppositional and a celebration of the individual’s right to exercise judgement on the society he lives in. Shriver is that sort of writer, a critic of the world as it is, and always quick to expose the cant of the day. She does this here with admirable vigour and sharp humour.

The Motion of the Body Through Space, by Lionel Shriver, The Borough Press, 338pp, £16.99