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Lionel Shriver refuses to run with the herd on cult of fitness in new novel

Fiction: The Motion of the Body Through Space

Lionel Shriver

The Borough Press, 350 pages, hardback €18.20; Kindle £7.99

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Contrarian: Lionel Shriver enjoys challenging liberal sensibilities

Contrarian: Lionel Shriver enjoys challenging liberal sensibilities

The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver

The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver

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Contrarian: Lionel Shriver enjoys challenging liberal sensibilities

Strange times for Lionel Shriver. The US author who joined fiction's upper crust with the publication in 2003 of We Need To Talk About Kevin is in danger of becoming more known for her outspoken opinions than her writing.

Shriver's withering dismissals of woke culture have made her both a handy antagonist on literary panels and a target for those who see her as dangerous critic of latter-day sacred cows. For Shriver, the charge of "cultural appropriation" is a threat to fiction-writing. As for diversity quotas, she is in favour of only the first half of that phrase.

What's more, she seems to have grown into the role and the occasional mask-slip reveals someone taking mischievous enjoyment in prodding tender liberal sensibilities, as if the contrarian hues of her Spectator column were spilling into her day job as a novelist.

She now finds herself with an excellent new novel to release in a world without high-street bookshops, facing into a ruinous economic meltdown like the one she mapped out in her 2016 financial dystopia The Mandibles. Not only that, but in The Motion of the Body Through Space characters are employed to illustrate her own qualms about the woke police, as is her wont. The problem is that the very people she would be happy to goad are looking away at something far more serious these days.

Whatever about Shriver and her battles, the big fear is that the book-buying public will be less exposed to this new novel. And at a time when concentration levels are suffering and many are reporting difficulty in staying focused while reading, books that demand your complete attention are more important than ever.

The quasi-religious dogma of the fitness world is the latest herd mentality that Shriver takes apart with her scabrous wit and wiles. The book tells of Serenata and Remington, a US couple approaching the winter of their years who find themselves on opposite sides of the activity coin. A lifelong exercise devotee, she has been forced to stop daily workouts due to impending knee surgery - a situation that Shriver apparently faces herself. Her husband, meanwhile, has fallen hook, line and sinker into the world of extreme athletics and signs up for a triathlon.

There is a debate raging within Serenata about ageing and the process of existing inside a body winding down after a lifetime of agility, beauty and sexual affirmation. As ever, Shriver teases this internalised combat out through a character so in tune with her own tendencies, prejudices and gripes that we can't help but root for her. Her husband mentally vacates the marriage at a time when her self-worth as a woman is shaky, yet she refuses to go quietly when she sees what her husband is risking at his age. Her unwillingness to read from the supportive-wife script is one of the things that endear her to us. "'You can't hold me in contempt for doing what you did for… 47 years.' 'Oh, yeah?' she said with a tight smile before pivoting towards the staircase. 'Watch me.'"

As for Remington, his all-consuming single- mindedness is rooted in a recent dismissal from his long-held position in the Department of Transport following a tribunal for threatening behaviour, racism and sexism towards his new boss.

The young woman crying foul, we learn in a gripping flashback to the trial, was an incompetent "diversity hire". Very few novelists anywhere would dare approach such a scenario, let alone integrate it so entertainingly into the DNA of a central character.

That section is an example of Shriver climbing on her soapbox without it seeming like a point- scoring exercise, but elsewhere she cannot avoid being a little more opaque, comedically hectoring a changing world via her characters.

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In one aside, the couple chuckle over morning coffee at the real-life 2018 news story in which the perpetrators of a gruesome gang rape in India were sentenced to a fine and 100 sit-ups by their village council. The enraged rapists ended up burning the girl alive and beating her parents, to which Remington quips, "the lengths to which some people will go to get out of sit-ups". While an effective indication of how imperfect the couple are - as all characters in fiction are entitled to be - it is a little close to the bone, even for Shriver.

Mostly, however, we get smart analysis of body image and the fitness freak's ultimate desire to regain control. Remington's triathlon club features those for whom the goal is not to just become better but to become narrower. A militant taint of Darwinism wafts about the group as their trainer Bambi barks out butch slogans. Injury and fatigue are shouted down as weakness.

Representations of the female form in marketing are now imbued with hard-body traits: rippling midriffs, chiselled thighs and blown-up shoulders. By the time Serenata is accompanying Remington to the contest, she notices a preponderance of white males participating, the young seeking status, the old seeking meaning, and all withdrawing into a new materialism that is anti-intellectual.

For all Shriver's bad-girl stylings, she is unstoppably good on her day. Though the worlds of publishing and culture warfare may be upended, this looks like one of those days.


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