4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The New Republic is a satire on the Troubles of Northern Ireland. Don't be fooled by the apparent setting in a fictitious southern peninsula of Portugal or by the hairy pears, this is a novel set fair and square in Belfast suggesting a strange symbiosis between the press corps and Sinn Féin (the Shinners) - trying hard to maintain a legal distance from Óglaigh na hÉireann (the Ra). There are mirrors for detecting car bombs; there are dogs on the streets; there's the incessant bad weather; and there are the murals and grafitti.
And at the centre of this heady brew, we have Edgar Kellogg, a corporate lawyer who has jacked in the law in search of adventure. He calls in a favour from a schooldays hero and finds himself on a newspaper string in Barba, this supposedly Portuguese backwater blighted by a terrorist independence movement. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to uncover the fate of his predecessor, the disappeared Barrington Saddler. To help him achieve this, he is to step into Barrington's home, inherit his friends and carry out his job.
On arrival, it becomes clear that Barrington had charisma. Edgar doesn't - he is a perpetual lieutenant. Much of the novel revolves around Edgar's soul-searching, trying to work out just what charisma is.
There is a plot - and it's fairly predictable from the blurb - which meanders slowly through its course. As with any satire, the story itself is far fetched but the real humour is derived from the kernel of truth at its core. In this case, we see paramilitarism and revolutionary politics not as the glamorous glad-handing in the White House or Hillsborough Castle, it is cheap offices with broken furniture above tacky souvenir shops or taxi depots. It's about cowards carrying out minor misdemeanours - throwing a few stones each during a night of rioting - whilst trying to keep their heads down during the daytime. It's about posturing and being the king of a pub with no windows.
But most of all, the novel is about the relationship between Edgar and Barrington - played out in Edgar's head as he tries to reconcile his station in life. He wishes, oh how he wishes, he could be Barrington. But to Edgar's frustration and the reader's amusement, Barrington couldn't care less.
There are also some wonderful cameo characters from the world press pack and most of all, Tomas Verdade doing Gerry Adams impressions.
I loved this book - it was just like being back in the Ould Country.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The New Republic is a dark satire about journalism and world politics, set in a fictitious Portuguese peninsula desperate for independence. It is important to realise upfront that this is a satire, as I think having that frame of reference helps when reading (I didn't realise until halfway through). I have seen this described as a 'satire about terrorism' - a description that would have put me off reading if I'd seen it beforehand. This is not a satire about terrorism - it is a satire about human society which happens to feature terrorism as a theme. At no point does this book belittle, glamorise or excuse the appalling human cost of terrorism. It is in no way disrespectful to those affected by terrorist incidents, and is not distasteful to read. In fact, it is a good example of how pointed humour can sometimes bring about a more honest and profound emotional response to an issue than any amount of more earnest writing.
The central idea of the novel - which doesn't become apparent until halfway through - is rather brilliant and original, one of those ideas you wish you'd thought of yourself. Shriver manages to write a story that is both funny - in a very dark way - and genuinely moving. The themes mean it would have been very easy to get wrong, but I think she manages to handle her subject sensitively. It is occasionally laugh out loud funny, but the humour is mostly a more subtle ironic type. Like all good parodies it manages to combine the frankly ridiculous (which is why you need to know it's a satire before starting) with enough basic truth about human nature to still ring true. It reminds me of Catch-22, one of my favourite novels, which also took potentially grave subject matter (World War II) and managed to make it both funny and sad.
This is very much a novel of two halves, with a massive twist partway through. The first half I found rather heavy going, and I wasn't at all sure I was enjoying it. The central character, Edgar, is not easy to like - although this is deliberate and part of the point. I didn't particularly like her writing style either - Shriver is very fond of using lots of long words, and can be over-descriptive, loading up sentences with adjectives. It's a book that does require a fair amount of concentration to read and I wouldn't recommend it for public transport or other environments with distractions, at least not for the first half. Sometimes it feels like it's trying to be too clever. I also found the dialogue a bit hard to believe - maybe it's just that I don't move in the right circles, but generally in my experience people don't go for in depth character dissections with people they've literally just met. The first half of the book is very much about setting things up, and I found the endless pages of Edgar angsting about his childhood crush and habit of falling into the thrall of more powerful men rather tedious. Shriver uses a device to move the plot along of having her protagonist engage in long imaginary conversations with his disappeared predecessor, which I found annoying at first but on reflection was perhaps preferable to the pages of explanatory prose she'd have had to use otherwise.
Once the halfway point is passed however, it becomes a different beast. The plot moves on apace and it becomes genuinely gripping and intriguing. Edgar improves with familiarity and the reader is drawn into his world. This is where the moral dilemmas implicit in the storyline become really interesting and nuanced, and where the humour is darkest and funniest. There are some real shocks to come, and the last few chapters are real heart-in-the-mouth stuff. All the sometimes tedious setting up of the first half really pays off in the second part. It's a book that could be read on several levels, a good choice for a reading group, and is thought-provoking. I'll never look at the news in quite the same way again, for one thing. In particular it shines a light on the role of the media in world events and global politics, and although it is set in the 90s before the internet had such a big world role as it does now, I still think it is salient to the modern era.
Overall, I give this four stars because of the difficult beginning and my personal feelings about the writing style. But it deserves full marks for originality, daring and a thrilling second half. I would recommend it in particular to readers with an interest in politics or journalism, but anyone who enjoys 'literary' fiction will probably enjoy this, or at least find it thought-provoking and interesting. It's not exactly light reading, and you do need to be prepared to persist through the less inspiring first 150 pages. But in the end, it's worth it.
on 27 March 2015
Satire is difficult to sustain over the span of a novel, particularly when Lionel Shriver goes out of her way, in novel after novel, to invent unsympathetic or flat characters. Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” works better as a satire of the intelligence world because at least two of the characters matter to readers, and the novel is gently amusing. Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur” is, in the end, sufficiently ambiguous in its commitments and very funny in its detail, even during the mass violence of the final battle. “A New Republic”, in contrast, is hard-going, smart at its best, for instance in describing Barba’s claims to independence before, part way through, we discover the reality to this contemporary slice of geo-politics; but also lacking in tonal variety. Most sentences are too significant, too quotable in support of the satire of terrorism. Moreover, the search by the central character, Edgar Kellogg, for an alter-ego is, finally, not that interesting, either as a study of a certain type of modern figure or as the journey of someone we care about (I didn’t care for him).
This doesn’t mean, though, that there isn’t anything to admire in passing as we follow Edgar seeking to find out who he is, at first, in his pursuit of Toby Falconer in the preamble to his visit to the Barba region of Portugal as an exposé journalist in search of a story about the terrorist organisation, the S.O.B., and, then, in search of Barrington Saddler, Edgar’s charismatic predecessor, who has gone missing, leaving all of the expatriates and foreign correspondents incapable of talking about anyone or anything else. To appreciate the sheer farcical logic of a media-driven, terrorism-obsessed world it is enough to report that, at one point, Edgar telephones his editor on the New York City paper that had sent him to Barba to report on the S.O.B., and, in a pretend Portuguese accent, claims responsibility on behalf of S.O.B. for a car-bomb exploded by the Basque's E.T.A. The novel was written before 9/11 and then held over because of the sensitivity of its subject-matter; now, with a fresh-wave of terrorism underway, it is quite timely to have a satire of the media’s take on and involvement in the subject.
on 16 March 2015
Lionel Shriver seems to specialise in writing about unpleasant people, to such an extent that it makes for an unpleasant read. The protagonist of this book, Edgar Kellogg, is unpleasant and unlikeable, which is ironic because the book is all about his misguided attempt to make himself liked. If the reader had been given some hint of his secret likeableness, we might be more sympathetic, but as it is, I was put off, and only became interested in the story after the twist came about halfway through. Nobody in the book is likeable, even Kellogg's love interest, who comes across as bland and faintly stupid. The other reporters are all stock characters. The book is theme-driven, with the plot only giving it oomph halfway through. The themes are charisma/unpopularity, and terrorism, which come together in a discussion about the dividing line between amorality and immorality. The first theme seems to take precedence over the other. The first few chapters are devoted entirely to Kellogg's lack of charisma and his slavish adoration of someone who has it. Even when he sees through the other man's mystique, he's not cured of the disease of wanting charisma and popularity for himself. Hence his psychological attachment to the missing journalist, Barrington Saddler, which seems even greater than his attachment to the woman he falls in love with.
The creation of the state of Barba and its fight for independence is a fairly entertaining comic creation, but because it was portrayed in such a comic way, I could not take the discussion of terrorism seriously, and nor could Kellogg. By making Barba unreal, Shriver makes it almost impossible to believe in it, and I had to stop and think every time I tried to relate it to the real world. Shriver said she wrote the book before 9/11, but no-one wanted to publish it then or until a while after, even though in the meantime, she had written We Need to Talk about Kevin and become hot property. Even now, slightly edited, the book makes too much light of terrorism, which is virtually dismissed as the actions of a few madmen.
There is also a thread of magical realism (if that's the right expression) relating to Barrington Saddler which I find wholly unbelievable. Was the reader supposed to wonder whether he really appeared to Kellogg on those long dark nights? If not, I found it impossible to believe that Kellogg, with his supposed lack of originality and creativity could conjure him up in such fine detail.
The style in which the book is written is perhaps its greatest redeeming feature. The language is colloquial, funny, and very rude. One can't help thinking that Shriver writes as a man here so that she can use the kind of language a man would use. But even that becomes tiresome after a while, when she seems to scrape the barrel for revolting descriptions and slurs on people. There is too much of Edgar Kellogg's 'inversion' here: everything nice about anyone is turned into a detraction.
On the whole, an intellectually interesting book that is clever but not a particularly good read.
on 20 September 2013
It's a little late in the day to discover Lionel Shriver. She is an accomplished novelist of the first rank with a distinctive and highly perceptive view of human nature and the human condition.
She presents this novel as a comic but this is deceptive. It is comic in the wayu that Measure for Measure is comic; that is seldom funny and not intending to be.
It explores serious isssues in serious ways. A major theme is, of course terrorism, giving in to terrorism and realpolitik. She wrote it in Belfast and was influenced by her perception of terrorism there. It is also a book about charisma: why some people have it and some don't; the desire to be loved and to make a mark; why goodness is not always the attraction. A perceptive comment is that good-looking people need a reason to be disliked, unattractive people need a reason to be liked. It is also a satire on journalism and introduces a variety of characters who are quite distinctive. But the most interesting are the protagonists Edgar and Barrington.
This is not a slight novel, even though Shriver presents it, according to Graham Greene's categories, as an 'entertainment'. It is, but much more than that. Read it and see.
on 10 February 2014
I believe this is one of Shriver's older books, before she hit the big time with "Kevin". If I'd read it earlier and hadn't read her later work then I think it may have got 4 stars, but when I know the quality she is capable of (We need to talk about Kevin, The post-birthday world, So much for that, and even Double Fault) this one doesn't quite hit the mark.
The story is good, as is the concept, but it's all rather predictable with very few surprises along the way. I thought for most of it that I must be wrong about what was going to happen but nope. The characters also seem a little one-dimensional - they all have a defining characteristic, which is fine, but then there doesn't seem to be much more to them than that.
I could be wrong about this one being written earlier and published later - it only says 2012 when I look it up - but I thought I'd read that somewhere. It would make sense if so, as I feel her writing is far superior in the other books I mentioned and would recommend them to anybody before they hit this one.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Lionel Shriver adds a beard-shaped appendage to Southern Portugal in "The New Republic" and immediately has it fighting for independence, taking a wry look at terrorism as well as the ethics of the international press corps. After a series of international terrorism acts, the "Os Soldados Ousados De Barba", or the SOB for short, have gone quiet at the same time as charismatic journalist Barrington Sadler has vanished without a trace. In steps insecure former lawyer Edgar Kellogg to Barrington's post: Kellogg on the hunt for serial killers, as it were.
Set in pre-9/11 times, the Portuguese are still using the Escudo setting it at some indistinct time in the past, although economic cynics may suggest that the currency may equally suggest a time in the future. Shriver adds a refreshingly candid author's note to the book, noting that it was written before her critically lauded "We Need To Talk About Kevin". She acknowledges that pre-"Kevin", her sales record was "poisonous" and the book was rejected by several publishers. Then with the 9/11 events, a book that treats terrorism lightly was perhaps in questionable taste. But if 9/11 temporarily hindered the book's potential, in a form of literary karma, the book's other target, the disreputable behaviour of the press, makes this even more salient to British readers in light of the ongoing Levison enquiry into press standards.
This begs several questions. Is a book that treats terrorism with a light touch now "OK"? Were the initial rejections correct or were they blind to what the prize givers saw in the writer of "We Need To Talk About Kevin"?
I certainly didn't find it offensive although some readers may still think this is in poor taste. What is more dated is the view of Americans as seeing terrorism as "somebody else's problem" and her revisions of the book have not materially addressed this. A large part of the issues in her fictitious Barba region are to do with Arab immigration, and the repeated referral to these immigrants as "rag heads" is, at best, not exactly helpful. The issues remain if anything more pressing now though and the strength of the satire is that it takes real issues and takes them to extremes.
In one of the aspects that works particularly well, an epilogue of search engine articles that updates what happened to the characters and to Barba, Shriver cannot resist a 9/11 mention which seems to go against her expressed hope that "sensibilities have grown more robust". For any reader on the fence about offence, this will surely nudge them over.
But certainly in comparison with "Kevin" it lacks the psychological twists and depth. The characters are all very stereotypical. At heart an unconfident not-very-nice man wants to be like a supremely confident not-very-nice-man who in turn doesn't want to be lauded by others. There's little depth of character and Egdar's driving force is largely attributed to childhood obesity. I wasn't convinced that his sob story would lead to this SOB story. Too much of the narrative is over-written too which affects the pace of the book.
It's certainly not a bad book. At times Shriver takes moral questions and drives them to amusing ends in a way that is thought provoking and in part probably not far from the truth. She has an extensive and rich vocabulary and at times this jars a little with the lightness of the plot development. As Shriver also notes in her acknowledgments, it's also quite a "boys' story" both in subject and treatment. It would, in my view, have benefitted from a little more emotional depth to it.
I found the subject matter interesting and some of the ideas amusing, but ultimately I was disappointed. Prizes for subsequent deserving books don't necessarily mean that publishers were necessarily wrong in their views on earlier works, although equally books of far less merit do pass through the mesh.
on 10 December 2014
At first I thought this was Shriver trying, and failing, to be Tom Wolfe. I was wrong...it's nowhere near as good as that. Page after page of hot air gets tedious after a while. If you haven't read it yet, I wouldn't bother.
on 4 August 2014
Well observed satire. Very different book to "We Need to Talk About Kevin", but similarly illuminating and engrossing.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 19 March 2013
Good style and enjoyed it but not up to expectation. "We need to talk about Kevin" was such a hard act to follow