Top critical review
Wears its themes on its sleeve
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.