14th Aug 2012
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver
As Shriver explains in her author’s note, no one wanted to publish it back in 1998. It was written just before her blockbuster We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was an obvious turning point in her career.
But it was also a very different time in which to launch a book about terrorism, which The New Republic makes claims to be.
In 1998, her audience may have cared too little about terrorism; and directly after 2001, anything relating to terrorism would have struck uncomfortably close to home.
The New Republic focuses on wannabe reporter Edgar Kellog who, desperate to escape his own mediocrity, quits his job as a lawyer and volunteers as foreign correspondent in the fictional Portuguese peninsula of Barba, a funny little beard on the ‘face’ that is Portugal.
Comically bleak, windswept and hideous, Barba is an insignificant blip on the edge of a continent, until a local terrorist group – the SOB – starts random attacks around the world in the fight for an independent nation.
Edgar is sent to replace larger-than-life journalist Barrington Saddler, infamous for his unprofessionalism, womanising, laziness – and incredible, indescribable charisma.
Plagued by crippling low self-esteem and contradictory illusions of grandeur, Edgar has lived his life in the shadow of impressive, fascinating men like Barrington, and has dedicated years to trying to capture that illusive je ne sais quoi for himself.
When Barrington mysteriously disappears – apparently the victim of SOB kidnapping, or worse – Edgar is dropped into his ready-made fantastic life.
Edgar desperately wants to be Barrington almost as much as he wants to be drawn into Barrington’s irresistible orbit as yet another admirer; and as he’s pulled further into the mystery of Barrington’s disappearance, Edgar has to weigh the evils of being leader or follower.
He suddenly finds himself inside Barrington’s ridiculously opulent home, complete with outlandish clothes, circle of friends and top-shelf liquor cabinet – and quickly looks for ways to get inside Barrington’s beautiful girlfriend.
I found The New Republic to be a surprisingly boyish book; not just because the main characters are all men, but because they are consumed by such ludicrous and stereotypically manly things and talk in such a clichéd, cowboy-masculine way.
Women are either absent altogether, or unconvincing caricatures. The only woman given any non-condescending attention at all is The Love Interest, whose highly-lauded qualities seem more or less limited to pretty hair, baking skills and charming textile craft projects.
I’m not someone who thinks that women writers should write exclusively from a woman’s point of view – I’ve read many beautifully convincing and complex male characters written by women – but even if I generously assume that it was meant to be one more element of satire in a satirical book, the treatment of women in The New Republic is grating.
In general, the elements that seemed like they were meant as satire fell a bit flat. Rather than poking fun at the politics of terrorism, The New Republic seemed mostly to point out that a few deeply ridiculous people are, in fact, ridiculous.
Edgar’s small and private mental crumbling was by far more interesting, and funnier, than any wider comment on the unravelling of societies.
The New Republic was a quick, light read and sometimes genuinely funny, but the characters were all a bit too annoying to warrant much emotional investment – unless annoyance counts – and I found myself ready to get the hell out of Barba.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in the early work of a now blockbuster author.
Other recommended reading: Shriver’s depressingly relatable bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin: slightly over-hyped, but I still couldn’t put it down.