Lionel Shriver mocks ‘cultural police’ and more in her new book

Veteran novelists often have a special, predictable asset—a knack for portrayal, a clever plot, a unique style. Lionel Shriver, however, is surprisingly unpredictable—and that’s what makes her interesting. She seems to be actively resisting satisfactory expectations.

Her novels have gone from the provocative “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2003), about the mother of a school shooter, to the more intimate “Big Brother” (2013), about a woman caring for her morbidly obese siblings , to the highly-conceptual near-term dystopian ‘The Mandible’ (2016). Her 2020 novel The Movement of the Body in Space is a satire on the fitness industry.

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Abomination, Shriver’s first nonfiction book, is more predictable. In this series of essays, speeches and op-eds written to order, she adopts a single tone: the provocateur. Whether she’s talking about Brexit (which she supports), cultural appropriation (“artificial taboos”) or taxes (“criminalization of money making”), Shriver is bucking the trend. And for the most part, she doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of messing up the feathers: “Bringing ridicule,” she quipped, “I welcome being laughed at, as long as I don’t have any real-life manifestations of the visions that plague me. .” Although she occasionally poses as being scolded and snubbed by the PC, she mostly prides herself on expressing opinions that are “underexpressed, unpopular, or downright dangerous.”

In her novels, Shriver’s bellicose side is often easily dismissed. Her 2010 novel, So Much for That, is a Jeremead about American health care, and it does so with the power of its characters. However, based on the facts alone, Shriver often gets angry, misses the target or stabs the scarecrow vigorously. This trend is most evident in a series of articles on cancel culture, most notably a 2016 speech in Brisbane, Australia, in which she bemoaned cultural appropriation and lured a crowd by donning a sombrero . “Ideology has recently caught on, challenging our right to write fiction,” she warned.

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In “Abomination” and elsewhere, she complains that the “cultural police” try to exclude authors who write outside of their lived experience. “I’m now more anxious about portraying characters of different races, and the accent makes me nervous,” she wrote. As if thinking twice about it might be a bad thing; as if it’s not the writer’s job to navigate that anxiety and try to understand it. Given that the growing wave of banned books has primarily targeted LGBTQ writers, Shriver’s radar about who represents the “cultural police” and who is under threat may be a mistake.

She went on to say that our “dull and critical times” have led to diversity initiatives that can only mean that publishers “no longer see the company’s raison d’être as acquiring and spreading good books.” Writing about trans people Either put her on a slippery slope—”We seem to be entering an era where everything we don’t like is modified”—or a childish crack on pronouns and LGBTQ+ culture. (“A three-year-old typing on a keyboard produces more practical shorthand.”)

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But her arguments lack depth. She warned that liberals should pay attention to what they say, as it angers Trump, who is tired of “being told what they can and cannot say.” (Rest assured, they’ve been outraged—whatever they’re trying to say.) She laments that the removal of the Confederate monument in her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, “would result in unspeakable atmospheric loss.” Evidence from the paper See, the unspeakable atmosphere is mostly made up of hot air.

The condensed, click-chasing nature of the column may explain the fragility of some of her arguments. The bad news is that Shriver’s fondness for the debate has infected her novel. In “The Movement of the Body in Space,” she expresses a strange dissatisfaction that movement is both bad and fashionable (except for the way Shriver moves). The novel focuses on a man in his 60s who finds time to train for a triathlon as he gets kicked out of his job by a young Nigerian-born woman who weaponizes her gender studies degree to destroy the sights. every white man. This novel-like lecture may be the worst novel of 2020.

However: Shriver follows up that book with “Should We Stay or Should We Go” (2021), a witty and sensitive speculative story about a couple’s different responses to old age. There’s something equally well-made in “Abomination”—considering her religious upbringing, the memorial to her late brother, a fun riff on self-improvement during Covid-19 quarantine, and the constant flow of words like “performative” Evolutionary misuse.

But Shriver couldn’t seem to pass up an opportunity for an empty provocation. In her 2020 speech, which appears at the end of the book, she recounts the disastrous scaling feat of the COVID-19 era, mixed with legitimate concerns about inflation and monetary policy, and how China will somehow take advantage of America’s anti-racism movement The weirder statement that we won’t have an iPhone. “I can be an alarmist weirdo,” she admitted. But that’s okay. Contemporary literary culture is broader than Shriver suggests. There is room for the crank. Here’s a whole book to prove it.

Mark Asitakisis a critic in Phoenix and author of “new midwest. “

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