Wednesday 21 March 2018

Review: The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

HarperCollins, €21.45

A BLEAK PICTURE: Lionel Shriver's new book about how we report the war on terror, lacks
the readability of her breakthrough novel 'We Need to Talk about Kevin'. Photo: Gerry Mooney
A BLEAK PICTURE: Lionel Shriver's new book about how we report the war on terror, lacks the readability of her breakthrough novel 'We Need to Talk about Kevin'. Photo: Gerry Mooney


Edgar Kellogg is a world-weary lawyer in his mid-30s when he decides to ditch his secure job at a top legal firm for the more financially precarious field of journalism.

Kellogg seems like a lovable schlub when we first meet him -- a little cranky and still traumatised by having been obese as a teen. He doesn't know how he will pay his next month's rent, and his girlfriend has begun to notice that fewer expensive meals and nights out have come her way since his career switch. But everything changes when he receives an offer to report on terrorists who are campaigning for independence in an imaginary part of Portugal.

Kellogg's new role is to replace the charismatic journalist Barrington Saddler who disappeared while covering the activities of a militant group called the SOB (Os Soldados Ousados de Barba). With a sceptical brand of eagerness -- Kellogg is already 37 after all -- he drops everything, leaving his New York apartment and his girlfriend without bothering to tell her. In journalistic terms, Kellogg embarks on the opportunity of a lifetime. In novelistic terms, he begins a journey that will see him becoming a less likeable and more complex figure.

The New Republic is Lionel Shriver's 11th novel, and it's a cross between a thriller and a twisted coming-of-age tale. Shriver finished the first draft in 1998, when its subject matter was prophetic. She says that she wasn't able to get an American publisher at first, because "at the time, my sales record was poisonous. Perhaps more importantly, my American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as foreigners' boring problem."

Her sales record shot up after We Need to Talk About Kevin, but hesitation about the novel remained. "Post-9/11 Americans became, if anything, too interested in terrorism ... [A] book that treated this issue with a light touch would have been perceived as in poor taste." It's a fair assessment. The attitude towards terrorism in this book is a strange mix of jaded and blase.

In Portugal, Kellogg moves into the flat belonging to the absent Saddler, and joins the ramshackle posse of reporters who are covering the terrorism beat.

He meets Nicola, a beauty whose marriage is floundering because she fell in love with Saddler, and her husband Henry, a journalist whose parents and sister have been murdered by the SOB.

He interviews Dr Tomas Verdade, the creepily eloquent leader of the political party most closely linked with the militant group. And he gets to work, or rather, "work". For Barrington Saddler's lazy (but charismatic) influence pervades the apartment in which he lives and it begins to affect Kellogg, too.

Kellogg has two main obsessions -- getting the girl and outshining the friends he looked up to in his youth. As the novel proceeds, he becomes more and more obnoxiously selfish. Simultaneously his confidence, social life and overall prospects improve.

In the novel's opening, Shriver quotes George Orwell's statement: "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable." She adds this more recent pearl of wisdom from the disgraced former newspaper owner Conrad Black: "My experiences with journalists authorise me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised ... They have huge power, and many of them are extremely reckless." These passages set the tone for Shriver's presentation of journalism and terrorism.

Her slant on paramilitaries is cynical but what's surprising is that her opinion of reporters isn't that much better. Both groups, in this account, collude in the creation of a compelling story, and violence feeds off the media attention it attracts. From time to time, wry moments of observation enrich this bleak picture.

The over-the-shoulder glimpse we get into Kellogg's crappy life at the beginning of the book is dryly amusing. He left a promising career in corporate law, but "what it promised, of course, was more corporate law." Ultimately, though, The New Republic is weighed down by the heaviness of its own ideas. It lacks the addictive readability of some of Shriver's other books like The Post-Birthday World and We Need to Talk about Kevin.

In the postscript, Shriver includes what she describes as a "small, irresistible addition" that she came up with after the book was originally written. It's a list of (fake) internet links to articles about this imaginary conflict, which reveal that the terrorists got their way. This last detail is a playful touch from an astute observer of the world of media and reporting. It's also a final depressing testimony to the fact that, at least in The New Republic, the bad guys win.

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