Thursday 19 September 2019

Conflicts arising out of possession and territory

Fiction: Property, Lionel Shriver, Borough, €18.19

Lionel Shriver brings her deadpan skills to a collection of stories about owning - and being owned
Lionel Shriver brings her deadpan skills to a collection of stories about owning - and being owned

Vidyan Ravinthiran

This collection of stories is bookended by two novellas, one of which, The Subletter, is quoted on the back cover: "You could own something just by taking care of it... You could also own something through violation."

Lionel Shriver is interested in tangible things: about when, for instance, a wedding gift becomes a burden (Repossession), and the challenges of house-buying (Vermin). But - considering Shriver's other life, as a journalist and provocateur - it seems to me that there are other forms of property she doesn't believe in: for instance, the experience of being black, which some claim (to her dismay) that only black writers can write about. Are certain subjects owned by writers from particular backgrounds?

Channelling (but not citing) George Eliot, Shriver claims that "the spirit of good fiction is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion... fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people." She isn't alone in protesting against the constrictions that identity politics set on literature. For the academic David Bromwich, good fiction must exercise the "moral imagination" - by making us enter, and understand, other minds.

But Shriver doesn't appear to practise what she preaches: her self-conscious protagonists tend to carry resentment like a virus into all their encounters, failing to get beyond themselves. The point may be to press the reader toward their own act of moral imagination (ironising these voices) but these are, in the end, the sort of people the author is interested in, and whose snowballing insecurities she'd have us accept, dispiritingly, as those of human nature.

Shriver's style can be turbulently good, or jumbled to no good end; but it seems pointless to criticise her for, say, pile-ups of speech-tags - "Jillian asked tentatively", "Paige said stonily" - or imprecision: "As they coupled, too, he couldn't help but notice the odd tear drizzle [sic] down her temple and pool in her ear." Her jam-packed, dash-happy sentences arrive in noisy spasms because her metier is conflict, is amplification.

This was clear in her breakthrough novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin - crammed with as much explosive as, one feels, the author could muster. In retrospect, it is a work of grotesque freewheeling exaggeration. (Shriver gives her school-shooter a crossbow, and has him destroy his sister's eye with drain cleaner.) Lynne Ramsay's 2011 film recognises this, and becomes, I think, a black comedy.

Perhaps that novel was really a cry of anguish from Kevin's neglected, idealised little sister (the detail with the eye is so over-the-top).

Shriver has spoken of growing up a tomboy, and in another novel, Big Brother (2013), transformed her sibling's death from over-eating into a narrative energised by cross-currents of vindictiveness and affection.

There are moments, in fact, when Big Brother seems to contradict her new stance on experience as property, for (rather like the writers of colour Shriver opposes) the narrator does feel that her brother's experiences are being appropriated: "Ever since obesity had become a social issue on top of a personal one, big people must have encountered the conviction that what they ate was everyone else's business. In truth that chocolate bar did feel intensely like my business, but only because he was my brother."

Shriver remains at her best when writing about families. In this collection, Exchange Rates concerns father and son ("Harold didn't condescend to his younger son exactly, and Elliot hated to think that he might still be yearning for his father's approval"), as does The ChapStick, in which Peter Dimmock, raging mentally at his father, is prevented from seeing him before he dies when held up by two black officials at the airport.

I fear the screening process is Shriver's none-too-subtle metaphor for political correctness: "Oh, great," thinks Dimmock, "this encounter had every capacity to escalate into a race matter." She's voicing, once again, the curious persecution complex of the white writer, who feels that they must pass some kind of exam before being allowed to put their thoughts before an easily-offended public.

Harriet, in Domestic Terrorism, wants her son to finally grow up and leave home, is paranoid about how to compliment his African-American girlfriend, and doesn't seem to like her daughter much either: "At 26, Alicia possessed a knowing sourness that Harriet recognised. It was a weak disguise of knowing absolutely nothing and having unrealistically high expectations of everything and everybody."

These pop-psych capsule biographies, Shriver's stock-in-trade, expose (when lent to her characters) the people who voice them, as much as their victims. They are people who, to feel better about themselves, do others down. This is a simple lesson, but Shriver labours it: is her interest in scorn objective, or complicit? Her dialogue is twisted, at times, by the infiltration of psychological analysis (which gives the aggressor a superior perspective) into unconvincing depictions of speech: "Honestly, I no sooner begin to see the horizon beyond which we can stop fighting over that woman than she moves into our house."

Shriver has never been the novelist she idealises (who would imagine her way into the lives of others, with humane sympathy, and precise depiction of their particularities) but a writer grossly enmeshed in the travails of identity. She is most powerful in her portraits of the hyper-competitive, self-pitying ego, which lashes out one moment and shrinks back the next - craving to be the most loved, and grumpy towards those believed to have special privileges (a favoured son, people of other races).

I don't mean to deny her relevance: after all, one exponent of this personality-type is in the White House. And we find her gleefully skewering this type on both sides of the political argument. She's especially good at observing how Left-wing righteousness can turn into one-upmanship, a sort of power-grab. Sara, in The Subletter, recognises that her "rigid sense of justice ought logically to have corresponded to a Right-wing outlook", but in fact doesn't: "helplessly, she kept a lengthening mental ledger of trifling material grievances". Helplessly is tender, it has a trace of sweetness to it.

The trouble with a book of short stories, though, is that analysis of character is less possible, and one gets, through repetition, the feeling that the author has never convincingly entered into the perspective of anyone significantly different to herself.

She claims she isn't permitted to write her way into the lives of others (snorting, for instance, at the wearing of sombreros being designated "cultural appropriation"), and feels oppressed by this restriction. But is it really placed on her by others, or a failure of imagination she refuses to acknowledge as her own?

@The Daily Telegraph

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