In her 2010 novel So Much for That, Lionel Shriver examined the American healthcare system with a spiky sensitivity. Big Brother (2013) took on American obesity, and The Mandibles (2016) thoroughly imagined a doomsday economy. Shriver’s latest book, The Motion of the Body Through Space, casts the same keen eye over the ‘fetishising of fitness’.
Serenata Terpsichore, a voiceover artist in her early sixties living in New York State, has been a compulsive exerciser all her life. When her knees give out, she is deprived not only of an outlet and a private routine but part of her identity. It is at this moment her formerly sedentary husband Remington Alabaster, a one-time civil servant, announces his wish to run a marathon.
Naturally suspicious of mass participation or groupthink — not ‘a member of anything. Not a professional organisation, not a political party’ — Serenata believes her hobby was an extension of her independence, whereas the general popularity of exercise is due to herd suggestibility, ‘imposed from the outside. It’s a contagion, like herpes.’
Though unsympathetic to her husband’s new interest, she decides to let it exhaust itself. But when Remington finishes his marathon in woeful time, he is accompanied by Bambi Buffer. She’s an intimidatingly attractive young woman who has already signed him up to compete in a ‘MettleMan’ triathlon. It isn’t long before Remington starts bringing his local ‘tri club’, a gang of dead-eyed or damaged fanatics, round for Serenata to feed, while she shuffles about waiting for a knee replacement.
The result is satisfying when contained. But the novel can be unbalanced by chunks of unsynthesised ideology that are consistent with its central concerns — the passage of time, the feeling of being left behind, ignored and resented in equal measure by subsequent generations — yet somehow don’t seem organically generated by them.
The couple’s daughter Valeria, now a born-again Christian, claims to have suffered ‘abuse’ as a child through being left to her own devices. A drawn-out subplot involves Lucinda Okonkwo, an inexperienced black woman, being given a job above Remington and getting him fired. During a conspicuously poor tenure at Albany’s department of transport, she changes street names to ‘Robert Mugabe Terrace’ and ‘Jacob Zuma Way’. She speaks with a blaxploitation inflection that is dated and embarrassing to read: ‘Let ’em get curtains ... Streetlights supposed to be bright’; ‘I been trying to tell you, friend ... I already place the order’; ‘Now you’re losing me for true, Alabaster.’
Concerning her voiceover work, Serenata makes an argument that echoes Shriver’s own widely publicised keynote speech in 2016 on the subject of cultural appropriation: ‘An authentically rendered accent pays tribute to the fact that there are lots of ways to speak English, right?’ It’s hard to know what sort of tribute Shriver’s jive speak is supposed to offer. Her mode is naturally satirical — the social or family novel played out under grotesque pressure. But Remington can’t elicit real sympathy for his loss of job and sense of self as one of Shriver’s designated nuanced creations when his treatment is at the hands of such unreal ones.
This undoes the careful work with which Shriver has treated the melancholy core of her story. Often hard to read in the best kind of way, this speaks powerfully of being ignored, doing anything to escape mortality and, ultimately, of acceptance. ‘But no one had cared about her grandparents’ pain, and now no one would care about the pain of the granddaughter who’d once been so unfeeling. Rough justice.’