Lionel Shriver finished The New Republic in 1998. ‘At that time’, she writes in a foreword, ‘my sales record was poisonous’ and American publishers showed little interest in novels about terrorism. Both things changed: the next novel she wrote was the phenomenally successful We Need to Talk About Kevin, while ‘post-9/11, Americans became if anything too interested in terrorism.’ The New Republic stayed in a drawer, ‘because a book that treated this issue with a light touch would have been perceived as in poor taste.’
This explanation is not entirely convincing. Set in a fictional appendage to Portugal, The New Republic is a long way from The Satanic Verses, and it is difficult to see how it could upset the most sensitive post-9/11 reader (with the exception of ‘one small, irresistible’, but gratuitously offensive, addition to the epilogue). In any case, Shriver has embraced a reputation as a writer who takes on taboo subjects and creates unsympathetic characters.
Her anti-hero Edgar Kellog is a failed cynic and a collector of heroes. He leaves his job as a corporate lawyer in New York to become a journalist and persuades the National Record to send him to Barba, a province of Portugal that has spawned a violent secessionist movement. Barba turns out to be a godforsaken place, pummelled by a constant sirocco wind (o vento insano), where the only fruit that grows is a sour, hairy pear, ‘something like a kiwi on testosterone’. The incongruity of an independence movement in this grim backwater is one of the novel’s running jokes.
Edgar is sent to replace the National Record’s previous correspondent, Barrington Saddler, whose mysterious disappearance coincided with an abrupt end of terrorist atrocities. He moves into Saddler’s Moorish palace, where he finds evidence that Saddler lived in some style — part-Hemingway, part-Robert Fisk, with a dash of Lord Byron. Edgar’s new colleagues are bereft without Saddler, a charismatic, semi-mythical figure, and have effectively been made redundant by the end of the violence.
In this setting, Shriver explores the relationship between the nihilistic terrorists and cynical hacks, would-be martyrs and glory-hunting reporters, a symbiosis that can slip into collusion. At the very least, the shading of boundaries between these two, perhaps not so dissimilar forms of ego-mania creates the conditions for a particularly dark kind of comedy.
There are some wicked caricatures of the correspondents for various British and American newspapers, and Shriver’s prose is always smart, funny and profane. The novel’s best moments of satire are perfectly pitched: as the violence escalates, Barba becomes a favoured definition of ‘the political tourist: the bespectacled day-packer who bought radical paperbacks’. The political leader of the movement for Barban independence is invited to speak at ‘outré luncheons in New York’ and courted by US presidents. Elton John arrives in Cinziero to hold a concert for peace.
But there is also a facility, even flippancy to the writing that becomes as exhausting as the Barban wind. Saddler’s spectral return, a ‘Frankenstein assemblage of walking, talking gossip’, is a narrative device that Shriver leans too heavily on. The acknowledgements describe The New Republic as ‘a boy-book written by a girl’ and Shriver is adept at capturing male characters and male bravado.
The most honest — if straightforward — view of terrorism on offer, as simply awful and banal, is given to one of the least engaging characters, the wife of the Barban correspondent for the Independent. The novel crashes down on the side of the cynics, which means we never get a convincing account of the way that people create heroes and then see through them, a
process of wonder and disenchantment. The unremittingly bleak vision of the way that journalists operate might give Lord Leveson nightmares. But it has hardly been worth the wait.