This review first appeared in the South China Morning Post on April 15, 2012
The New Republic
by Lionel Shriver
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Lionel Shriver is an award-winning writer who probably doesn’t dabble in quantum theory. Yet, her latest novel, The New Republic, pivots on a fundamental principle of that theory, albeit satirically, as it demonstrates that the very act of observing affects that which is being observed.
In a fictional place called Barba, which is a promontory on the Iberian peninsula of Portugal, an insurrection for independence is brewing. A terrorist group, Os Soldados Ousaos de Barba, pithily called SOB, is blowing up people and buildings in its attempt to draw attention to the plight of the locals who are being swamped by Muslim immigrants from across the Mediterranean.
Expectedly, a horde of scavenging journalists from Western newspapers have laid siege to Barba as they report on the maneuvering of the main political party, O Cream de Barbear, which through its militant arm, SOB, is seeking independence from Portugal. The star reporter is Barrington Saddler, a larger-than-life figure, whose inside scoops on SOB have made him a reporting legend to other hacks and editors.
And then, one fine day, Saddler vanishes, poof, as if taken by the hot wind that blows mercilessly across the barren Barba. Enter Edgar Kellog, a high-paying lawyer who, sick of being “one of life’s runners-up,” has quit his job to try his hand at something worthwhile. Believing “better History’s secretary than Phillip Morris’s lawyer”, the 37-year-old is aiming “to get at the truth”. Saddler’s editor sends him as a stringer into Barba to investigate the disappearance of his star reporter and also report on the sudden lull in terror activities of the separatist movement.
In an author’s note Lionel Shriver mentions the book was completed in 1998 but she was unable to interest an American publisher in the manuscript. “At that time, my sales record was poisonous. Perhaps more importantly, my American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as Foreigners’ Boring Problem.”
Clearly, she was prescient. Her books have often knocked upon issues that seem to ring contemporaneously true: We Need To Talk About Kevin dealt with high school shootings and she tackled failing of the health care system in the US in So Much For That.
However, since 1998 things have changed. The USA saw 9/11, two wars and a nationwide rallying on terror that attempted to divvy the rest of the world into neat slabs of ‘you’re either with us or against us’. Shriver, meanwhile, won the Orange award in 2005 for We Need To Talk About Kevin, a penetrating look at society’s eulogizing of the maternal instinct. The book was made into a film recently and the author’s sales trajectory has only been upwards. Consequently, Shriver could publish The New Republic in 2012 as she first wrote it.
Shriver has written for The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The New York Times and The Economist. But she isn’t enamoured of journalism. In an epigraph she quotes Conrad Black: “My experiences with journalists authorize me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised…”
In Barba Edgar meets the other reporters in Barking Rat, their watering hole, where everyone holds forth on his missing predecessor, his absence only fuelling his mythical persona. None takes his disappearance seriously, dismissing it instead as a Saddler whimsy.
Shriver’s reportage of the troubles in Northern Ireland that she covered as an American journalist in Belfast seem to inform the narrative. The reporters gathered in Barking Rat – the cynical Reuters correspondent Win Pyre, the arrogant Alexis Collier of the New York Times, the stringer Henry Durham who writes occasionally for a British newspaper – are faithful illustrations of the aforesaid epigraph.
Durham is caught between a rock and a hard place. He lost his parents and sister to a terror attack by the SOB, received a huge packet as compensation and was dispatched to Barba to “expose the moral poverty of the family’s killers”. However, the other journalists treat him with condescension, his wife Nicola Tremaine had an affair with Saddler, and the recent drought of SOB operations has left Durham with little reporting to do.
The New Republic is a tongue in cheek examination of the phenomenon of terrorism and its reportage. To what extent is the terror industry fanned and supported by the media circus that surrounds it? Does the act of reporting an incident of local terror disseminate it to the world and thus amplify and exaggerate its potential?
Shriver has to be credited for attempting what her countrymen have largely shied from – a farce on terror. American born but resident of Britain for the past fifteen years, she has had an uneasy relationship with her native country. The novel that won her literary acclaim was rejected by every American publisher it was submitted to until it was picked up by a small UK publisher.
To make this book written in 1998 up to date Shriver has made “one small irresistible addition in the epilogue that readers will readily recognize” – the 9/11 addition to the terror timeline.
As Edgar takes up residence in the erstwhile home of Saddler he discovers a locked up turret which houses disposable gloves, hotel stationary and a kazoo, none of which he can account for. As he samples his host’s significant alcohol collection and traipses around the mansion in his oversized robes he begins to have conversations with Saddler whom he can envision in the cavernous living room.
These encounters start to reveal hitherto unknown connections between the activities of SOB and the missing journalist. After all, Saddler was sent to Barba as a punishment posting after being disgraced on an assignment in Russia for cooking up stories. Edgar gleans a way to end the drought in SOB activities that began with Saddler’s disappearance.
As the other journalists wonder if Edgar has stumbled upon Saddler’s contact list, the terror attacks by SOB ratchet up. His dalliance with the beautiful Nicola gathers momentum and Edgar, the perennial runner-up, finds himself in the thick of action, an avatar of Saddler no less. “There was nothing disgraceful about lieutenancy should your captain be splendid,” avers Edgar as he follows Saddler single-file, his childhood demon exorcised in that “vast man’s shadow”.
The New Republic starts off with promise as Shriver’s biting humour and witticism take Edgar careening from the corporate jungle of New York to barren blustery Barba, equally besieged by wind and terror. However, the dialogue begins to grate when the political diatribe beneath rears its head in discourses posing as conversation. The central protagonist’s drive to achieve lies in his battle with adolescent obesity – childhood trauma leading to bad adult behaviour is understandable; as propulsive force for a satirical novel on terror, it peters sluggishly.
Half way through the book the narrative acquires the globby consistency of Peras Peluda, Barba’s native fruit that stalks drinks, food and pavements with its glutinosity.
The central theme of Shriver’s book is resonant with today as the issue of immigrants plagues Europe. Yet, the story is heavy-handed and devoid of suspense, the treatment of its theme flippant instead of ironical.