Lionel Shriver in January. | The Oxford Union

Scold Habits Die Hard

On Lionel Shriver’s stale contrarian schtick

Lionel Shriver in January. | The Oxford Union
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When Lionel Shriver was a little girl growing up in North Carolina in her pastor father’s household, the person she most admired was her defiant older brother. This brother, in keeping with the mythology of rebellion created around him, ran off at the age of fourteen. In a letter she wrote to her future self, little Lionel, then Margaret Ann, promised to outdo him in lore and plaudits. In the years since then, she has done just that; the older brother, obese and relying on support from his parents, died years ago at the age of fifty-five. It is unclear whether Shriver mourned him at all.

There isn’t a thing wrong in being a resentful younger sibling, covetous of the parental attentions that others command. It would have been unremarkable were it not that the resentment, fermented into spite, became a recurrent theme in Shriver’s life. In a new profile published in The New Yorker by journalist Ariel Levy (whose pardoning pen recently transformed a white missionary responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Ugandan children into a misunderstood almost-saint), Shriver reveals the story behind her marriage to Jeff Williams. As it happens, Williams had been married to Shriver’s literary agent for years. But when that agent admitted she was “horrified” at Shriver’s manuscript for We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which a mother comes to terms with her mass murdering son, the literary partnership dissolved. Not too long afterward, Shriver married her ex-agent’s ex-husband. For this “leathery” woman who describes herself as a “type,” conquest is incomplete without the looting parade of humiliation.

Shriver’s latest book, The Motion of A Body Through Space, is a romp of similar sorts, a would-be-funny novel were it not so obviously constructed as a platform for Shriver’s ideological positions. All of Shriver’s gripes with the world, about wokeness and political correctness and affirmative action, are in there—tedious long bits relished by the writer but not the reader. In using her characters and circumstances as a launchpad for her invective, Shriver seems to have forgotten a basic rule of fiction writing: the author’s allegiance is to the reader rather than to the authorial self.

Then there is the bizarre duplicity with which Shriver treats her different audiences. In Levy’s profile, for instance, Shriver makes a fuss about not appearing anti-lockdown, or as she terms it “a lockdown skeptic.” But in her columns for the Spectator, a conservative British publication, she goes far beyond skepticism, declaring herself one of the valiant group who “don’t take blithely for granted that a prolonged ‘lockdown’ of all the healthy people in a society is necessarily the most effective or intelligent approach to contagion.” In an interview for a British podcast,  Shriver continued along the same lines; public health officials, we learn, give her the “willies.” Epidemiologists are also not to be believed, incentivized as they are to exaggerate the danger of the viruses they study, for reasons of ambition and career-advancement. In another Spectator column she scoffs at the death tolls: “We’re under-aware of it, but scads of people are dying around us all the time. Hate to break it to you, but we’re mortal.” The sudden deaths of hundreds of thousands over less than six months, Shrivel wants to scream, are just business as usual—we’re only paying closer attention.

In using her characters and circumstances as a launchpad for her invective, Shriver seems to have forgotten a basic rule of fiction writing.

All of this digging up of the ulterior motives of others, one would think, would signal some similar insights into her own: why she chooses certain characters over others, why the evolution of a cultural morality that aims for a more egalitarian, less white-centric society so threatens her. There is little to be found in her recent interviews and essays. Promoting her book through various podcasts, Shriver admits that her own knee problems (she used to be an avid runner) and her own late-life marriage have some bare resemblances to the events and characters in The Motion of the Body Through Space. But there is no further parsing of the motives for making the husband (Remington Alabaster) such a pitiable character, albeit one wronged by an African American woman. Nor do we ever get to the bottom of why wife Serenata Terpischore, a voice-over artist, has to be told by her neighbor that doing “voices” of people of color in funny accents is racist?

Novelists, after all, are not represented by just one of their characters but necessarily by all of them. Shriver has long insisted that the right to write about anything and construct any character is absolute. Despite this, the “other” characters in her books are routinely flat. In The Mandibles (a dystopic novel published in 2016 about a financial crisis that features a shortage of toilet paper), the particular humiliation faced by waitress Florence Darkly is that she has to wait on “foreigners”; the villainess in her new book is also black, and ignorant as to just how passionately Remington cares about the Kelvin measures of street lighting. It seems never to occur to Shriver that a true allegiance to her self-described “contrarian” position would be, maybe, to occasionally go against this sort of boring and predictable casting.

It has not happened; she can’t get out of her rut. Instead there is an ontological problem. Has the fame and attention Shriver won as a contrarian poisoned her talent, any vestige or possibility of originality? Or is it vice versa—she takes loud and quarrelsome ideological positions to cover up a lack of mastery or achievement in fiction writing? It is difficult to tell. Behind the faux-bravado, the feckless provocateur, I would bet, is a very frightened woman, scared of losing her money, her entitlement, and her relevance, a Shriver becoming merely shriveled, unable to deliver the authenticity she claims to craves in others.

As many fans of the Shriver oeuvre like to reminisce, a New York Times review of The Mandibles called her the “Cassandra of American Letters.” A more apt, more relevant characterization of Lionel Shriver as she exists today would be the “Karen of American Letters,” a disgruntled literary scold who uses her privilege against others who are seen as threats. She brings the “I would like to speak with the manager” attitude to the publishing world. Her voice cries out for a return to the days when whiteness was great, its dominance unquestioned.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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