When Edgar Kellogg, protagonist of Lionel Shriver’s The New Republic, asks someone how she knows his mail is full of rejection letters even though he hasn’t opened it yet, she replies, “These days, only bad news comes in the mail. That’s what it’s for: to blow you off with as little personal contact as possible. Good news comes in phone calls, or for the last year or two e-mail, if the opposite party is the slightest bit hip.” For those who skipped the introductory “Author’s Note,” this is one of the first hints that The New Republic is not a recent product of Shriver’s imagination. According to Shriver, she wrote the novel back in 1998, but couldn’t get it published, because her past sales record was too soft to interest “my American compatriots” in a satire about terrorism, which the chauvinistic Yanks “largely dismissed… as Foreigners’ Boring Problem.” (Though Shriver has lived in and written about Belfast and is now based in London, she was born in North Carolina, though she gives the impression that she’d buy Wikipedia if she could, just to keep that information from getting around.)
Shriver writes that, after 9/11 got Americans much more interested in terrorism, she still couldn’t bring the book out, because nobody was in the mood for a novel that played the subject for laughs. (Which is true: Movies such as Buffalo Soldiers and Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American had their releases delayed after September 11, 2001, because of fears they might be condemned as “anti-American.”) According to Shriver, her 14-year-old novel can finally join them on the shelves because the “taboo” against kidding about political violence “seems to have run its course. Sensibilities have grown more robust.”
But something else that’s grown more robust since 1998 is the sales potential of a new novel with Shriver’s name on it. Thanks to the success of her 2003 book We Need To Talk About Kevin, and the recent movie adaptation, Shriver has gone from being one more unknown writer to an established name whose penchant for dealing with issues that make a lot of people uncomfortable has turned into a commercial asset. In her Author’s Note, Shriver seems confident that no one will argue with the premise that The New Republic was once too hot and bold for public consumption, but that the times have now caught up with her. Still, it’s worth at least considering the possibility that The New Republic isn’t a bold, ahead-of-its-era effort, but instead, that most time-honored literary shuck, a musty old thing pulled out of an author’s trunk to help mark time until fresh product is ready. Given how hard Shriver works at always appearing sharp-eyed and cynical, her failure to even address that possibility, as if it might never have occurred to anyone, is the funniest thing in her book.
The New Republic isn’t really about terrorism so much as it’s about hack journalism and the far-reaching consequences of gullibility. Kellogg, who, at 37, has abandoned a lucrative career in corporate law to pursue a new life as a journalist, wangles a job at a newspaper called the National Record and is sent to Barba, a fictitious Portugal province, to replace a legendary reporter named Barrington Saddler, who vanished mysteriously. Saddler had his finger on the pulse of a terrific ongoing story, a revolutionary terrorist group called “the daring soldiers of Barba,” a.k.a. Os Soldados Ousados de Barba, whom everyone refers to by the acronym SOB. It’s hard to know which is sadder about the people in this novel: The fact that none of them sees anything strange about that, or the fact that they’re all trapped in a book by someone who thinks it’s a joke that never gets old, even over the course of 373 pages.
After an “I think I’ll talk shit to the airport-security guys and see what it gets me” scene that dates New Republic almost as much as everyone’s reluctance to conduct international business via email, Kellogg lands in Barba and gradually—like, 150 pages after it will have occurred to the slowest reader—realizes the terrorist organization Saddler was covering doesn’t actually exist. By that time, Saddler has secretly made contact with him and has no trouble at all convincing him that revealing the truth will do no one any good, and will destroy Kellogg’s own career. (Nobody likes the messenger with the bad news. Get it?) Kellogg shifts easily into a routine of scouring the papers for violent incidents and writing stories attributing them to the SOB, “recast[ing] himself as the Robin Hood of the paramilitary underworld. Instead of stealing riches from the rich, he stole shit from shitheads.” Meanwhile, his imaginary terrorist organization is helping shape real-world events by raising the profile of Verdade, an ambitious fascist who claims to be the political face of the SOB. The plot is highly reminiscent of Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana and John le Carré’s The Tailor Of Panama. Meanwhile, the attitudes about overseas reporters recall Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, with the key difference that Waugh knew how to tell a joke.
Shriver seems less interested in using satire as a vehicle for actually being funny than in being a mind-blowing provocateur and shocking readers with disturbing truths. She pursues that tactic most disastrously in a scene in which Verdade smugly talks racist anti-immigration bilge about racial “integrity” while Kellogg “found the man’s arguments unsettlingly sensible.” As Verdade becomes ever more drunk on the promise of power, Kellogg’s knowledge that he’s a front for a nonexistent bunch of killers threatens to make him a target, and to endanger the woman he loves—Nicola, a meant-to-be-smashing, “pre-Raphaelite vision” of a woman who can’t stop dreaming about Barrington Saddler. (She’s married to Henry, one of those male Cassandra figures whose upstanding moral values and unfailing ability to clearly see what’s in front of him seem to have rendered him impotent, in every sense of the word.) The doomed triangle between Kellogg, Saddler, and Nicola—a triangle that’s especially frustrating because nobody is actually getting any—sends up echoes of yet another Graham Greene story, The Third Man, except that here, the dullard at the center and the charismatic scoundrel he can’t shake loose were never friends.
Flat, overlong, consistently unfunny, and far less original than the author seems to know, The New Republic is most interesting for an ongoing theme that Shriver barely seems to know what to do with, except obsess over it. Kellogg’s decision to throw away a hard-fought-for, money-making career in law to become a newspaperman—an idea that might have seemed less insane in 1998 than it does today, though even then, it would have been a reason for deep reflection and perhaps a consultation with a pharmacist—is motivated by his wanting to be more like his old-school friend Toby Falconer, a reporter who, as his name suggests, “did everything with flair, not only because he was socially adroit, but because the definition of flair in his circle was however the Falconer did whatever he did.” Kellogg, by comparison, has always felt like “that symbiotic creature without which a Falconer could not exist.”
Kellogg, who hates Falconer for being so damned sexy and impressive—which is a bit of cheek on his part, since it’s Falconer who gets him his job—is obsessed with the fact that some people, like him, are plodding and ordinary, while others, such as Falconer and Saddler, are dazzling and magnetic. Kellogg toys with the idea of somehow becoming more of a Saddler, but it’s always clear that he never really believes he can, and part of his obsession is his conviction that it’s not just mysterious, but deeply unfair that some people are more exciting and attractive than others. He even suspects that charisma itself may be a lie; at some point, somehow, he thinks, everybody decided he was boring and Barrington Saddler was fascinating, and from that point on, everything Saddler does can only confirm how fascinating he is, while everything Kellogg does is inevitably seen as the mark of a boring man. These twisty ruminations feel like something Shriver has been chewing on a long time. If she, with her taste for daring subjects and flinty epigrams, wants to be seen as more of a Falconer than a Kellogg, then she’s done herself no favors by putting this stale, plodding book between covers and sharing it with the world.