Lionel Shriver taunts the ‘culture police’ and more in her new book

Seasoned novelists usually have one particular, predictable asset—a knack for characterization, clever plots, a distinctive style. However, Lionel Shriver is oddly unpredictable — and that makes her interesting. She seems to actively resist meeting expectations.

Her fiction has evolved from the provocative “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2003), about the mother of a school gunman, to the more intimate “Big Brother” (2013), about a woman who takes care of her morbidly obese sister in the wildly high-profile dystopia of the near future “The Mandibles” (2016). Her 2020 novel The Motion of a Body Through Space is a satire on the fitness industry.

Review: “The movement of the body through space”

“Abominations,” Shriver’s first non-fiction book, is more predictable. In this collection of essays, speeches and commentaries written to order, she adopts a single tone: provocateur. Whether she’s talking about Brexit (which she supported), cultural appropriation (‘a made-up taboo’) or tax (‘the criminalization of making money’), Shriver is always the antagonist. And for the most part, she doesn’t seem to care about the aftermath of excitement: “Be ridiculous,” she sneers, “I’d be happy to be laughed at as long as I have a real… life manifestations of the visions that haunt me.” Though they do occasionally When she catches a cold from PC scolding, she mostly sells herself as conveniently voicing opinions that are “suppressed, unpopular, or downright dangerous.”

In her fiction, Shriver’s polemical side tends to get lost fairly easily. Her 2010 novel So Much for That was a jeremiad about American healthcare that thrived on the strength of its characters. Left to the facts alone, Shriver is often angry, misses the target, or stabs viciously at straw men. This bias is most evident in a series of articles on abandonment culture, the most notorious of which was a 2016 speech in Brisbane, Australia, where she lamented cultural appropriation and fooled the crowd with a sombrero. “Ideologies that have come into vogue recently are challenging our right to write novels at all,” she warned.

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There and elsewhere in Abominations, she rails against a “cultural police” that seeks to marginalize writers who write outside of their lived experience. “I’m much more concerned about portraying characters of different races now, and accents make me nervous,” she writes. As if it’s a bad thing to think twice about; as if it weren’t a writer’s job to navigate into that fear and try to understand it. Given that the growing wave of book bans is primarily targeting LGBTQ authors, Shriver’s radar on who represents the “cultural police” and who is at risk from them may be a tad flawed.

Our “grumpy and censorious age,” she continues, has led to diversity initiatives that can only mean that a publisher “no longer sees the company’s raison d’être in acquiring and distributing good books.” When she writes about transgender people, it either gets her on the wrong track – “We seem to be entering an era where everything we don’t like about us will be subject to revision” – or childish comments about pronouns and the LGBTQ+ community. Culture. (“A three-year-old banging on the keyboard would make more functional shorthand.”)

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But their arguments lack depth. Liberals should watch what they say, she warns, because it upsets Trumper “that they’re being told what they can and can’t say.” (Rest assured, they’re already upset — and say whatever they want anyway.) The removal of Confederate monuments in her hometown of Raleigh, NC, she laments, “would result in an unspeakable loss of atmosphere.” According to the essay, there is indescribable atmosphere mainly of hot air.

The condensed, click-hunting nature of the comment might explain the weakness of some of their arguments. The bad news is that Shriver’s affinity for polemics has infected her fiction. In “The Motion of a Body Through Space,” she expressed an odd complaint about movement being bad and fashionable (except for the way Shriver does it). The novel focuses on a man in his 60s who finds the time to train for a triathlon because he was forced out of his job by a young Nigerian-born woman who graduated with a degree in weaponized gender studies, to undermine every white man in sight. This Lecture as Fiction might have been the worst novel of 2020.

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And yet, Shriver followed up this book with Should We Stay or Should We Go (2021), a funny and sensitive speculative tale about a couple’s differing responses to old age. There are some similarly well-crafted bits in “Abominations” – reflections on her religious upbringing, memories of her late brother, a fun riff on self-improvement during the Covid quarantine, another on the evolving misuse of words like “performative.”

But Shriver never misses an opportunity for hollow provocation. In a 2020 speech appearing near the end of the book, she delivers a full-on feat of Covid-era catastrophism, a mix of sensible concerns about inflation and monetary policy with more curious statements about how China will somehow exploit America’s anti-racist movement, and we will remain without iPhones. “I might be a scaremonger,” she admits. But that’s ok. Contemporary literary culture is more spacious than Shriver suggests. There is room for cranks. Here’s an entire book that proves it.

Markus Athitakisis a Phoenix critic and author of “The new Midwest.”

Selected essays from a career of courting self-destruction

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