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Lionel Shriver is best known for her Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. The colleague who suggested I read Alaa Al Aswany (excellent Egyptian writer) also said that he loves the work of Shriver, I too loved We Need to Talk About Kevin, so when I found a copy of The New Republic 2nd hand I bought it expecting to read a ‘prescient satire about terrorism’. However I definitely did not love The New Republic and instead diligently plowed through it just to finish it.
This preposterous, unengaging and extremely dull novel comes with an author’s note explaining why it failed to find a publisher after its completion in 1998. Shriver attributes this to a “poisonous” sales record and an American ambivalence to books about terrorism … but it seems clear that in fact it wasn’t published then because it is a bad book: The Guardian
The setting is the fictional state of Barba which is a severely windy (o vento insano – the insane wind), arid spit of land attached to Portugal’s south-west coast. Barba has become home to a group of terrorists known as SOB who are attempting to establish independence for Barba from Portugal and to stem the migration of North Africans to Barba. The SOB has claimed responsibility for a string of nasty terrorist attacks, always outside of Portugal.
The unlikable protagonist, formerly obese and perennially unpopular, Edgar Kellogg leaves his lucrative job as a lawyer in New York to emulate his high school idol (Toby Falconer) and becomes a journalist (but without any training). Falconer secures him a job with a US newspaper and Kellogg is sent to Barba to replace Barrington Saddler, a legendary foreign correspondent who has swashbuckled his way across the world collecting bylines, women and adoring acolytes and now gone missing in Barba.
According to this blogger, who went to Shriver’s public reading and discussion, Shriver decided to write about terrorism after living in Belfast amid the IRA heyday:
She argued that the biggest problem with terrorism is that everyone was so quick to give them international focus, which is what they really want. Instead, they should be charged as criminals and not give in to what they want.
Aspects of the book are diverting, such as some of the interactions between the international journalists based in Barba, for example Kellogg’s description of trying Cerveja de pera peluda.
Before the beer was down his gullet, Edgar’s oral membrane had constricted into a dry pucker, like mouth eczema… Edgar was reminded of the time he sneaked into his parents’ bathroom to swill what he thought was codeine-laced cough syrup, and instead chugged his father’s prescription anesthetic for rectal itch.
and this insight:
You could only obtain new information by admitting you didn’t know it already. You had to ask crude, obvious questions. The trouble was that savvy coated your brain with plastic like a driver’s license: nothing more could get in. Hence the point at which you decided you knew everything… you became an ignorant dipshit.
Unfortunately there are too few of these gems and the book was repetitive and boring.
The New Republic is a witty enough novel and particularly acute on the subject of charisma: why some people are naturally magnetic and most others mere iron filings: NPR Books
The plot was unbelievable, not entertaining and the characters lacked morality:
… its central character, a hapless twit named Edgar Kellogg, doesn’t fall under the spell of a terrorist but deliberately sets about impersonating one — or at least taking credit for unattributed bombings — thereby igniting more real terrorist activity and a cascade of other violence: The New York Times