Sunday August 12, 2012
Time well spent
Review by MARTIN SPICE
The New Republic
Author: Lionel Shriver
Publisher: Harper, 373 pages
LIONEL Shriver’s fame has been assured first by the 2004 book, and then the 2011 film of, We Need To Talk About Kevin. So perhaps the first thing that needs to be said is that The New Republic was written long before that success, in 1998 to be precise, at a time when her; sales in the United States were “poisonous” and, as the author reportedly said, “My American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as Foreigners’ Boring problem”.
As a result she was unable to interest any publishers in the book. Then the climate changed with the 9/11 terror attack in New York, at which point, she writes, “I was obliged to put the novel on ice, because a book that treated this issue with a light touch would have been perceived as in poor taste”. Only now, then, it seems, is the world ready for The New Republic.
I am not altogether sure that it was worth such a long wait. My first impression was that Shriver had moved wholesale into Graham Greene territory. We have a remote, failed and backward country, a bunch of variously eccentric and largely unappealing expatriates and a muddled but evolving and increasingly violent local political scenario in which the expatriates are more involved than they should be. It has a familiar ring to it!
The imaginary province of Barba is tacked onto Portugal and seeks independence – or so it appears. Because it is deemed newsworthy it is the gathering point of a group of journalists, the centre pin of which is Barrington Saddler. Or rather was, because Saddler has disappeared without trace leaving a massive vacuum at the heart of The Barking Rat, the bar where the journalists hang out and whinge.
Shriver prefaces the book with two quotations, one from George Orwell and, tellingly, this one from 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.” Shriver is intent on bringing these characteristics to life.
The New Republic has two central characters, although one is largely in absentia. Edgar Kellogg is a bored and disillusioned New York corporate lawyer who is looking for more in life than a large salary. He thinks he will find it in journalism and, after gaining a handful of freelance bylines, he is offered a position by the National Record, replacing Barrington Saddler in Barba. Thus he finds himself amongst the hardened pros in The Barking Rat and is immediately made very conscious of the fact that he is not Barrington Saddler and nor will he ever be. Saddler is a legend, the charismatic centre of the book whom Kellogg stands no chance of living up to.
It is in these personal, relationship terms that the book is, I think, at its strongest. Kellogg is not exactly a loser but he is certainly not charismatic or a personality around whom others revolve. A major influence on his school days was Toby Falconer, “one of those golden boys” whom others seek to emulate and who remain effortlessly at the centre of what is happening. Call it leadership qualities, call it charisma, Falconer has it and Saddler has it and Shriver is clearly interested in exploring what this intangible quality is and how it both inspires and undermines others. Many of the book’s developments occur because Kellogg is in reaction against the secondary role to which he has been assigned in life.
Shriver’s larger purpose, however, is to make fun of insurgency and terrorism as it is handled by the media. Without wishing to give too much away, there is a very strong dose of media “if nothing happens, make it up” about the events in Barba. I found this a hit and miss affair. By making her set of journalists so extreme, she robs them of true drama. By making Kellogg both rather insipid and crassly manipulative she creates a central character devoid of sympathy and by making Barrington Saddler larger than life she makes his absence all the more keenly felt, so that the reader, along with the hacks at the Rat, ends up rather wishing that he was actually at the heart of the book in place of Kellogg.
Whatever you ultimately make of The New Republic, one thing it does not do – to return to Shriver’s introduction – is treat anything “with a light touch”. This is full on, in your face political and media satire. It is clever, occasionally funny, biting, cynical and distinctly unsubtle. On the plus side, it is well written and from time to time hits its targets with considerable impact. It is also very readable. The New Republic is a flawed early novel but it still has important things to say and, on balance, time spent in the company of Barrington Saddler and his side-kick Kellogg is time well spent.