Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The New Republic


The New Republic
By Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver's 2012 novel, The New Republic, is actually a problematic manuscript with a checkered history. Originally penned in the late 1990s, this psychological novel about terrorism was dismissed by American publishers as too jejune for American readers. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the proceeding years of earnest introspection (at least among literary circles) an ironic take on terrorism and journalism continued to frighten off publishers, until recently. Apparently the social and political climate of 2012 was ripe for an unabashed satire on media sensationalism and terrorism. In the meticulous Shriver style, there are no psychological tables left unflipped and no sociological surfaces left unswiped. Having recently finished Shriver's Orange-Prize winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, and loving it, I desperately wanted to love this novel as well. Alas, I didn't. But it's not all bad.

The New Republic is set in the fictional state of Barba, a drab, beard-like (Barba... get it?) appendage of land that extends into the Atlantic Ocean off Portugal's southern coast. Barba has recently become a European hotbed of terrorism under the guise of a paramilitary group known as the SOB – a radical terrorist cell fighting for Barban autonomy from Portugal and claiming responsibility for a seemingly random series of violent international attacks. Due to the rash of attention, foreign correspondents from the world's major media sources have descended on this European backwater previously known only for its unceasing gale-force winds, its tacky souvenir production industry and the hairy pear, a local fruit that is every bit as unappetizing as it sounds.

The foreign correspondents form a Greek chorus of media personalities (or lack thereof. Shriver's two-dimensional take on the members of the foreign press is rife with meaning), producing tired examinations, reasonings and rationales for the violence in lieu of any hard reporting on the ground. Joining this murder of squawking crows is Edgar Kellogg. Kellogg is a greenhorn journalist sent to Barba to replace Barrington Saddler, a larger-than-life personality who has gone missing and who may or may not have a lot more to do with the SOB than simply writing about them.

But the entire point of The New Republic isn't the narrative so much as the themes it illustrates, sometimes in bold relief. Shriver, obviously, takes aim at the notion of modern terrorism and the manner in which it is reported to illogical extremes but this novel is really about charisma. Why some people have it and others don't and what drives people who don't have charisma to emulate and ultimately turn on those who do have it. In this vein, Shriver is disappointingly predictable. Kellogg recounts the story of why he has quit his Manhattan law firm to become a journalist. He is determined to follow in the footsteps of his charismatic prep school friend with whom he hasn't spoken in decades. Turns out that his friend has grown up to become a milquetoast sycophant for the Daily Record newspaper and possesses none of the self-assurance that he possessed in school. This was like discovering the butler killed Lady Butterbum in the conservatory on page 12 of a 400 page book. You'd think Edgar would learn his lesson right there before shipping off to a european hellhole, but apparently Edgar isn't that bright. Diligently, Shriver trudges on and, lo and behold, exactly what she says will happen in the beginning actually happens at the end.

Predictability is certainly a problem, but my real problem with The New Republic was the characterization of Shriver's have-not anti-hero, Edgar Kellogg. Kellogg is simply irritating. He's blunt, rude and completely devoid of charisma. Furthermore, he seems to lack class, tact and common sense. He's also arrogant, haughty and condescending. He's incapable of hiding his true feelings and utterly incompetent at his job. I could go on, but you get the picture. Needless to say Edgar is a bastard.

While I understand that Shriver is attempting an examination of charisma and needed a character that was indeed lacking in it, but Kellogg is so relentlessly devoid of any emotions ascribed to charisma that he almost ceases to exist in any sort of reality understood by the reader. How does someone like Kellogg even ingratiate themselves enough with anyone to discover their lack of charisma? I wouldn't give Edgar 15 minutes before standing up and walking out on him.

By way of explanation, Edgar was once a morbidly obese kid and, though he lost the weight, he never lost the inferiority complex. Fair enough, I suppose. Consequently, Edgar has awkwardly shifted into adulthood with an acute sense of both entitlement and disdain for those around him. Why shouldn't he have what others have? He deserves it more than they do, anyway. In that respect he had transferred his personal self-loathing onto everyone else. That's some serious pop psychology right there.

In literary terms, this makes Edgar not so much a character but a caricature. He is, like the blathering idiot reporters at the local Barban watering hole, a predictable cartoon cut-out of what would happen if someone had zero charisma superimposed on a novel along side the world's most charismatic correspondent. This makes The New Republic a wolf in sheep's clothing. It is less novel and more a psychological and sociological diatribe.

Which is why the novel, as a whole, fails to impress. Don't get me wrong, Lionel Shriver's acute understanding of her subject matter is apparent, especially on the subject of terrorism and the media and the elements that would be used with such effect in We Need to Talk About Kevin are manifest throughout. Furthermore, the writing is, at times, sublime and, at points, this novel can be scathingly funny. But it lacks in any real movement, drags on so unnecessarily through the middle and leaves the reader with a rather cop out ending. Unfortunately, the strong qualities of this novel only made this reader feel cheated out of what could have been an extremely poignant book.

As it stands, it simply feels like a novel that should have remained right where Lionel Shriver left it in 1998... taking up a few megabytes of space on an out-dated hard drive. Perhaps the publishers were right the first time. Perhaps we didn't really need The New Republic.

3 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Interesting that as you say, the main point of this book is not terrorism. I could not agree amore with what sounds like a secondary point. At least in America, the mere mention of the word terrorism results in frantic overreaction on multiple levels.

Marie said...

Ouch. Well, I'll keep your comments in mind if I run across this book. I've always wanted to read Shriver but maybe I should start with something else.

Stefanie said...

I was disappointed in this book too. I didn't hate it but I didn't love it either. I thought Shriver did a great job of skewering the press, but the main subject of charisma, not so much. Edgar is doomed to forever be the side kick and his learning that lesson is not especially interesting reading. I didn't like the ending at all.

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