Pamela Erens’s new novel, Eleven Hours, opens with the push and tug between laboring patient and nurse. Lore, the expectant mother, rigid and stubborn — “No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt” — and Franckline, her nurse: “These girls with their birth plans…as if much of anything about a birth can be planned.” Orphaned, friendless, and estranged from her baby’s father, Lore is poised to deliver alone. Franckline, by contrast, is more sociable, a seemingly happily married woman from Haiti. Through Franckline and Lore, Erens continues interrogating the core contradiction that threads through two earlier novels: The simultaneity of twinness and aloneness.
In light of this core contradiction, Eleven Hours’s outwardly different protagonists – Lore is white; Franckline is black — share important characteristics. Franckline is herself pregnant. Out of superstition of miscarrying, she has not informed her husband. Just as Lore’s isolation derives from loss and betrayal, it also transpires that Franckline’s past is one of suffering and disruption. Thus Lore and Franckline form a pair, each with private misgivings about her pregnancy and impending birth, each entangled in the other’s present.
Layers of finely wrought details frame these women as matched puzzle pieces. Moving seamlessly between them, Erens renders them singular and affecting, deftly weaving in their backstories while remaining rooted in the novel’s central drama: Lore’s labor. With indulgent pragmatism, Franckline watches her patient fight to control the uncontrollable process of birth. Lore is inflexible; Franckline knows better:
Anything can happen, and often does…Babies twisted up on the umbilical cord, starved for oxygen for a little too long. Birthmarks obliterating a child’s face, absent fingers or toes. Fifty-hour labors, a mother suffering a heart attack while pushing (that one was only thirty-two years old, grossly overweight, yes, but seemingly hale, with an energetic, generous laugh; they saved her, but it was touch and go).
Lore is less than self-aware; Franckline is generous, attuned, and self-aware, to the point of underestimating her own kindness: “The pregnancy has made her mean, made her small, Franckline thinks. On the subway and in the street, she looks away from pregnant women — seven, eight, nine months along — so as not to poison them with her envy.” Lore is a speech teacher at P.S. 30, while Franckline considers her own, hard-earned English: “How supple her speech is now! How she surprised herself at times! She is proud of her English; after eleven years it is almost flawless.”
Eleven years, eleven hours. Duality is literature’s lifeblood; writers frequently quarry opposites. William Shakespeare loves his twins; Mark Twain, his Prince and the Pauper. Contemporary novels embed alternate endings within the same book. Jenny Erpenbeck’s recently translated The End of Days offers two interpretations of the same facts in each of its five segments. Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World splits into divergent paths — the road taken and the other road taken.
Erens makes a fresh contribution. Along with creating original and nuanced characters, she pits duality against intense isolation. Her astonishing debut, The Understory, tells the wrenching story of John Frederick Ronan, who squats in his deceased uncle’s New York apartment, living in his head. He is obsessed with twins, hunting for them around the city, using two personal aliases. Readers wend through his warped reasoning — twisted from either his inability, or his lack of desire, to engage with others. He arrives at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York seeking shelter, having been evicted into homelessness. In the silence of the monastery’s enforced, pre-dawn meditation, Ronan reflects: “I have no family, no home, no friend, no books. Surely they can leave me my thoughts.”
Reading The Understory is itself a meditation. Sublimely paced and rigorously crafted, The Understory investigates not only Ronan’s raw isolation, but also his drift toward coupling; a love that unfolds with disastrous consequences.
Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, centers around two teenage lovers at a tony boarding school. While their classmates imagine steamy sex, Aviva and Seung’s relationship is rife with the unsaid — misunderstandings and misconceptions that ultimately coalesce in tragedy. Aviva and Seung come from different cultural backgrounds, but their disconnection is rooted in something more fundamental; a set of experiences that impedes their ability to trust the people with whom they should be closest.
In Eleven Hours, the characters are similarly disconnected. Franckline has had to break with her family of origin, imbuing her with a powerful streak of self-reliance. Lore was orphaned young, but it is the ugly betrayals of those around her, including the father of her child, that have convinced her to go it alone. Erens deploys a character named Julia — who introduces Lore to the man who will father her baby — to address the subject of rape and its aftermath. With this subplot, Erens signals what is finally being publicly acknowledged: Rape is endemic to the female experience, far more common that we choose to admit.
Perhaps Lore’s child will splice her loneliness, but during labor, her isolation is stark. Here is a contraction, exquisitely captured:
…the moan this time is not simply a moan of will and pain but a call into the emptiness: Is anyone there? There is a blackness spreading into her vision and she feels herself spinning in an unlit sky. Empty, empty, her moan cries.
And later, as Lore strengthens her resolve that the baby’s father will never be part of her baby’s life: “Now she would be her own fiancé; she would marry herself. She would be both father and mother to this child. It was, really, one of the most ordinary stories in the universe.”
Eleven Hours is, at its most basic, the story of a woman about to mother a daughter (Lore has found out she is carrying a girl). Erens writes thoughtfully on pregnancy and mothering, mining her own challenges with breastfeeding. Mother-daughter pairings appear throughout the book. At Lore’s mother’s funeral:
…she looked down at her mother’s face, relaxed of some of its characteristic lines, and thought that here lay the only person who would every truly understand her, the only person she would ever care to be close to.
Franckline, whose mother’s “soft murmuring patter dried up near Franckline” after a teenage dalliance, is rescued by another mother, the one who would become her mother-in-law. Neither Lore nor Franckline share information about their mothers; instead they engage in a kind of emotional parallel play, in which they give free reign to their thoughts within the confines of a small hospital room, keeping everything to themselves. Between nurse and patient, there is a whiff of the mother-daughter, as if Lore were a cranky toddler continually saying “no” to Franckline’s experienced advice, and Franckline her long suffering parent.
Franckline reaches for Lore’s hand…There is flesh bunched below the wide silver band on the fourth finger, like a thick putty squeezing out…The finger above the ring is paler than the other fingers, with a bluish tinge. Franckline should tell Lore in no uncertain terms, in her practiced nurse’s voice, that the ring must be cut, that she could lose a finger. Franckline should use a word like necrotize, a word that makes young women pale and listen. But Lore would simply repeat ‘no.’
Lore sneaks out of her room, wandering into another part of the hospital like a rebellious teenager escaping an overbearing mother, and realizes she has gone too far: “Come get me, Franckline, she thinks. Come find me. Come help me, come make it all easier.” Contrite, Lore makes it back and shuts the door.
Franckline arrives at the room a couple of minutes later, out of breath, her eyes reproachful. ‘I’m sorry,’ blurts Lore. How she hates that phrase! It’s like trying to move sand around her mouth. But she cannot bear Franckline looking at her like that.
With passages like these, Erens skates perilously close to troubling, clichéd territory: Competent, wise black woman supports white woman in her struggle. Erens seems to recognize the dangers of descending into such a well-worn trope, skirting offense by giving Franckline a complex interior life, and by masterfully filling out each character.
Eleven Hours is crafted with the taut economy of The Understory, and with the same laser focus on human alienation. In fewer than 180 virtuoso pages, Erens knits together two women, two lives, two stories. Each woman has borne serious trials; each is detached from her family of origin, albeit for different reasons. Each has reason to worry about bringing new life into this world. They are together, but brutally alone. And yet for the duration of Lore’s hospital stay, their communion feels both necessary and illuminating. What passes between Franckline and Lore lifts them above despair, thrusting them toward life itself.
In 1989, Welsh journalist John Williams crossed the Atlantic. Operating on the theory that crime writers were the best chroniclers of American society, Williams hoped to pinpoint the connections between the real clime and fictional crime. So he talked with the writers.
Williams found out that James Lee Burke’s novels had emerged, in part, because of his love for Louisiana music. Gar Haywood spent his twenties latching onto science fiction’s escapist hatches before confronting the open doors of South Central’s ravaged reality. In 2005, returning for another transcontinental spree of conversational investigations, Williams learned that Vicki Hendricks had used her bodybuilding and scuba diving experience for Ramona Romano, the tough-as-nails Miami nurse in Iguana Love. He also discovered why Daniel Woodrell’s settings were so authentic. “I don’t want to live on the Upper West Side or something,” said Woodrell to Williams. “There is something here for me…I’m just one generation from illiteracy.”
These experiences – originally published as Into the Badlands and later rewritten as Back to the Badlands – helped confirm Williams’s hypothesis. Crime fiction was indeed drawing from vivid personal experience, sometimes working territory that other practitioners wouldn’t touch. But Williams still didn’t ken why the gatekeepers routinely ignored these faithful annalists.
In recent years, crime fiction hasn’t faced the histrionic threat of a Meghan Cox Gurdon declaring that YA books “focusing on pathologies help normalize them,” but it has faced crusty, post-crest condescension from The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella. Yet even Acocella, in her reductionist view of Blomkvist as “anti-masculinist,” had to concede that Stieg Larsson “may have had a weakness for extraneous detail, but at the same time, paradoxically, he is a very good storyteller.”
There’s no paradox about it. There are, in fact, two crime novels on the 1998 Modern Library list of the 20th century’s top 100 novels: James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Even John Banville, who has written many crime novels as Benjamin Black, has called Georges Simenon and Richard Stark (the name with which Donald E. Westlake wrote his remarkable Parker novels) “two of the greatest writers of the 20th century.” Crime fiction is bona-fide literature. Why such reluctance to qualify it further?
Perhaps this failure to encourage the rising crop comes from recent developments in the field, especially those involving women writers. On May 14, 1990, two Newsweek writers had this to say of the mystery landscape: “Call her Samantha Spade or Philipa Marlowe and she would deck you. A tough new breed of detective is reforming the American mystery novel: smart, self-sufficient, principled, stubborn, funny – and female.” While women had been creating such crackling heroines well before 1990 (see Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and others), these gains had been somewhat swift.
Megan Abbott, the author of five striking novels, isn’t merely a natural response to this increasingly progressive atmosphere. While her quintet can be found in the mystery section, and while she has won a well-deserved Edgar Award for a highly entertaining pulp tale of a take-no-shit woman clambering into the casino underworld (Queenpin), Abbott’s novels are distinguished by rhythmic prose, historical settings (in sequential order: 1954, 1949, 1950s, 1931, and the 1980s, with The Song is You and Bury Me Deep taking inspiration from real criminal cases), and a candor about the way people live that isn’t often found in today’s well-groomed posterboys.
Abbott’s protagonists are not professional investigators. The character who comes closest to a true-blue boy in blue is Bill King, a junior investigator in Abbott’s debut novel, Die a Little, who is the brother to Lora, a schoolteacher in 1954 Hollywood concerned about the new woman that Bill has married. In fact, detectives tend to show up in Abbott’s novels at the last possible minute, long after the reader has been presented with some version, often subjective, of the facts. And with the long arm of the law tied behind the world’s back (and very often corrupted), this gives Abbott the focus and the restraint to contort her universe.
Abbott’s sentences are frequently stacked with a stylish repetition telegraphing the schism within action. In The End of Everything, told through Lizzie Hood, a thirteen-year-old girl who has seen her best friend disappear, Abbott writes, “And I thought of Bobby in the front seat of his parents’ cars, his forest green varsity jacket with the chenille C. I thought of him hunched there, gazing up at Dusty’s bedroom window, its frothy curtains, Dusty’s frothy girlness.” Aside from the striking imagery (especially the lovely “chenille C”), we see how the phrase “I thought of” generates two discrete moments: Bobby’s visual image in the first sentence and an effort to affix longing that reverts back to another visual image leading to Dusty. And when the prose reverts from the feeling to the object, Abbott repeats the word “frothy,” suggesting that Lizzie’s thoughts will return to this same visual/emotional cycle.
But her prose is also quite chewy. There is a grab-them-by-the-lapels quality to some sentences which demonstrates why melodrama is sometimes the best method to send a message. Consider this moment from Bury Me Deep, my favorite of the five: “This is what the man with the Adam’s apple thick-knotted in his long neck was singing in Ginny’s ear, plucking at a banjo.” This is told from the perspective of Marion Seeley (based on Winnie Ruth Judd), a woman who ends up in a heap of trouble while estranged from her husband, shirking his duties as doctor and husband by fleeing to Mazatlán. This sentence’s beauty comes from the way it undercuts an intense Adam’s apple twice: both in describing the man with some hyperbole (“thick-knotted in his long neck”) and by appending the phrase “plucking at a banjo.” But it also hints at the horrors ahead.
An author’s understanding of the human condition (to say nothing of how far she is willing to go) is often revealed through the manner in which they write about sex. John Updike, of course, was fond of external sexual imagery. Lionel Shriver’s greatly underrated novel, The Post-Birthday World, succeeds in part because of its attentive detail to sexual position and how it often determines status. But with Abbott, when sex isn’t used for diabolical ends (this is a dark world; so it does), it is often something that is either observed or confessed. And this quality permits the reader to become implicit in the way certain characters judge others. In The Song is You, Abbott has Barbara Payton reveal she’s “such a dumb cluck” just before describing a sexual episode to impress her listeners: “So he backs me into the tub and fucks me for five minutes, my head hitting the faucet over and over again like a freaking knockout bell.” This fictive directness from a real-life public figure is clearly descended from James Ellroy, but, in Abbott’s hands, the anecdote itself carries an odd humorous quality that generates an additional question: why is this the story Payton’s using to impress? In The End of Everything, Abbott employs voyeurism during one moment when Lizzie observes her mother having sex with her new partner, Dr. Aiken (like Bury Me Deep, another doctor as partner): “I want him to turn around, to face her. I want him to look at her.” That Lizzie issues this judgment when neither her mother nor her lovers can see her suggests a certain lack of self-reflection.
Stewart O’Nan (Songs for the Missing), Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), and Michelle Richmond (The Year of Fog) have been called “literary” for their missing girl novels. Why not Abbott’s The End of Everything? Abbott’s ability to tap into tangible teenage experience is equal to O’Nan’s, especially when describing the “body-closeness” of girl get-togethers (“I’d look at my own left thigh and wonder where the white curl went, the scar like a half-moon, a nail dug deep, from falling off Dusty’s Schwinn in second grade.”), detailing a folded-paper game called FLAME, and providing glimpses into “the teen-boy world” (“a world of sweat socks and thumping bass and torn-out magazine photos of bulbous tan breasts and white rabbity teeth and yellow flossy hair”) that elicit an unflinching image of comparative innocence.
Where Sebold and Richmond have compromised their talents by settling for, respectively, sappy late-stage farewells between a dead ghost and her boyfriend and a hypnotist helping a mother to extract abstract details about her daughter’s disappearance, Abbott is too smart a novelist to fumble with bald attempts to play to the bleachers. If Bury Me Deep demonstrates how malicious forces can push a lonely soul into a deepening abyss, The End of Everything examines how tampering with memory and maintaining a quiet solipsism can flick you into the same pit of despair. Abbott’s most recent novel shows a greater willingness than Sebold and Richmond to bury hypocrisies and prevarications within the text. Late in the book, we encounter a bloody incident mimicked in a manner suggesting that Lizzie’s memory is far from fallible. Instead of pursuing neat resolution, Abbott ponders the untidiness of all seemingly “neat” endings. In the end, Lizzie confesses that memories are “self-spun, radiant fictions” – a remarkable statement from a thirteen-year-old girl that you certainly wouldn’t expect from Alice Sebold’s Susie Salmon. If such finesse can’t also be called “literary,” it’s outright criminal.
As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.
I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.
On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.
It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.
No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.
But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.
He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.
But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.
Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.
So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.
And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.
This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.
All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)
Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.
Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.
[Image credit: Tim]
With her new novel, So Much for That, Lionel Shriver strengthens her already credible claim to the title of best living American writer. This won’t surprise her readers in the UK and much of Europe. In many countries, she is now regarded as one of our most important novelists. Americans, however, have been slower to find her. That’s okay. We were the same way with Faulkner and Poe. Nothing’s more American than not quite recognizing some of our most accomplished artists.
Besides, Shriver’s lack of recognition in the U.S. is relative. Her novels tend to be highly valued by the American critics who discuss them, and she has received strong reviews from that toughest of readers, Michiko Kakutani. The Post-Birthday World, Shriver’s last novel, was a New York Times bestseller, and I’m sure we’ll all start arguing about her breakthrough book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, as soon as the movie version comes out next year.
Still, we don’t need to wait for the theater screens to bring her to our full attention, especially when most of her novels are in print and easily available. Her work offers an appealing combination of qualities that seldom come together in a single writer. She couples the hardheaded social observation of Edith Wharton or George Eliot with a relentless psychological and artistic boldness that belongs more to the tradition of Melville or Dostoevsky. Exerting these different skills with immense confidence and penetration, Shriver is one of our great American originals.
Shriver didn’t become well-known until she was in her late forties, and she had the talent and the will to deepen her work gradually, making the most of what must have been a trying period of obscurity. Born in 1957, she grew up in North Carolina, graduated from Columbia, and supplemented her fiction writing with a career as a journalist. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist. More recently, she has become a columnist for The Guardian, and has divided her time between London and New York. In addition, she has lived all over the place: twelve years in Northern Ireland, a year in Kenya, and shorter stints in Israel and Thailand.
The fierce independence of her writing seems to come from her compulsion to push her thoughts as far as she can take them, whether she is describing demographics experts in Africa or the pressures of professional tennis. Her two best early novels are Game Control and Double Fault. The main character in Game Control moves to Kenya so she can work on a family-planning project. She then falls in love with a man who believes that the solution to the world’s overpopulation problem is mass murder. Like all of Shriver’s novels, Game Control is intellectual and political in the best sense—not as a polemic, but as an examination of ideas in action, ideas as part of people’s lives. Here’s the main character scrutinizing some of her boyfriend’s research associates:
Eleanor had already noticed their tendency to circulate the same informational tidbits, as in small incestuous communities where neighbors copy one another’s recipe for chicken balls. For example: that if we had dropped a bomb the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima every day since 6 August 1945, we would still not have stabilized human population: she had heard that three times now. The repetition felt clubby, claustrophobic and it was boring.
Double Fault, Shriver’s tennis novel, came out in 1997. It traces the brief marriage of two low-level professional tennis players, and presents a merciless study of their collapsing relationship. It’s a cruel book, a Revolutionary Road for our times. The story is determined to show us the worst of both the husband and the wife, and it goes so far in this direction that it seems to have freed Shriver for the more generous and contradictory vision of human nature in her recent novels.
The narrator, Eva, lives out a nightmare: Kevin, her teenage son, goes on a killing spree at his high school and murders nine people. Shriver creates a bracing story of a mother who has always hated her son as intensely as she has always loved her husband and her young daughter. Eva can never be sure if her hatred helped turn Kevin into a murderer, or if she simply identified his savagery before anyone else did.
The novel follows Eva’s motherhood from Kevin’s birth to the time of the killings, and grows into a meditation on all kinds of things we don’t at first expect. We Need to Talk About Kevin plows deeply into anti-Americanism, the sacrifices women are expected to make for their children, the complexities of family life, and the dizzying questions of where individual responsibility begins and ends. Shriver has finally discovered a subject that makes full use of her ruthless psychological honesty. Eva’s narration is often brutally tough on herself and her son, and she slowly wins our trust—in part because she is smart enough to see that her version of events contains its own distortions, which are worked into the story with intriguing elegance. We Need to Talk About Kevin is an exhilarating book, alive with the author’s excitement at constantly going further than even she might have expected, and it gets better on repeated readings.
Shriver’s follow-up novel, The Post-Birthday World, is her best-known work in America, since it was released by HarperCollins with great fanfare in 2007. It would have been easy for Shriver to continue in the sensationalistic vein of Kevin, but with typical stubbornness she chose to try something different. The Post-Birthday World is a meta-fiction love story. It takes us through two parallel plotlines, two possible lives for the same woman. In one plotline, she remains in a troubled marriage. In the other, she leaves her husband for another man. The chapters alternate between the first plotline and the second, and much of the novel is a formal tour de force, with nearly every sentence in the first story playing off against another sentence in the second. Shriver also brandishes an unexpected flair for writing about small pleasures—her characters’ love of snooker and home cooking, the satisfaction they take in their casual conversations. Yet the story always opens onto broader perspectives: the rise of terrorism in the background of our lives, the influence of our relationships on our careers, and the different possibilities that we create for ourselves and that are created for us by others.
So Much for That, the new Shriver novel, offers us her ferocious take on the American healthcare system. Shriver has always been good at the dark comedy of catastrophe. Here she faces a monster worthy of her clear-eyed attention to absurdity: the giant insurance-powered beast of medical costs that devastate two families in New York.
Shep Knacker is a handyman whose wife is diagnosed with cancer. His best friend, Jackson, is a fellow employee whose daughter is slowly dying of a degenerative disorder. With methodical Catch-22 illogic, Shep is forced to give up all the money he has saved over the years to pay for the medical care that his grotesquely inadequate (but perfectly standard) insurance fails to cover. The treatments cause his wife nothing but agony, and provide little hope of curing her or even of extending her life for very long.
Meanwhile, Jackson and his wife carry on with their daughter, who has been ill since birth. Her disease plays an ongoing part in Jackson’s sometimes entertaining and sometimes destructive obsessions, from his compulsive spending to his frenzied hatred of the government and of nearly everything else in the world.
Health is the novel’s constant concern—not just physical and economic health but health in friendships, marriage, work, parenthood, and society at large. Shep is in some ways a modern Prince Myshkin, determined to do the right thing even if some people think this makes him foolish. One of the novel’s many thorny questions is whether Shep’s foolishness is truly admirable or a mistake in judgment, a personal flaw that condemns him to pointless pain. Shriver’s effects are hard to summarize because she builds them up so densely, thickening the texture of her world with each page. She makes our vision of Shep and the others depend not on glib generalities but on the total force of the novel’s accumulated impressions, with their many crosscurrents and subtleties.
We learn, for instance, that Shep associates his wife Glynis with the metalwork she makes, and the role of this metalwork becomes a continually deepening part of Glynis’s illness. Without giving away too much of the plot, the metalwork is at the core of Glynis’s shifting views of Shep, Shep’s shifting views of her, and both of their ideas about personal and public responsibility. Throughout the novel, Shriver is fascinated by our possible choices in the face of death and overwhelming injustice, by how we can and can’t control our lives in situations where all action seems quixotic.
Shriver’s characters are always capable of surprising each other, and this is central to her rich sense of human relationships. She expertly captures the give-and-take between friends, and the ways our friends both annoy and beguile us. Shep changes Jackson and Jackson changes Shep, but the changes are intricate and unpredictable, and they fill the novel with an invigorating energy. You come away feeling that you’ve learned to see your own friendships more clearly and appreciatively.
A similar complexity is at work among all the characters, particularly Shep and Glynis. Early on, Glynis is a monument to rage, refusing the role of loveable victim. When Shep ponders Glynis’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, we can see the efficiency of Shriver’s writing style, which is flexible enough to accommodate many different voices and situations yet still retains a distinctive sharp bounce, like a good topspin serve:
She loved watching destruction—the big bountiful houses of the sort she and her husband had never bought for themselves filled with acrid, oily water to the second floor. The stranded black matriarchs waving fruitlessly on rooftops for rescue that would never come, who now knew they were alone in the world and no one cared. Well, he could sense Glynis responding coolly, welcome to the club. Other people’s suffering did not disquiet her. Glynis did nothing but suffer, and if others suffered too that was only fair. She seemed gratified by the prospect that one whole city would not survive her… In a fell swoop of self-liberation, Glynis had relinquished her empathy for other people, defiantly reflecting back the very apathy about her own fate that she increasingly perceived in would-be well-wishers.
Shriver’s bold approach to the novel’s structure delays a series of revelations for us about Glynis, and about what the disease has done to her mentally and emotionally. For the first 300 pages of this 450 page book, we go back-and-forth solely between Shep’s perspective and Jackson’s. When we finally enter Glynis’s mind, the experience is heartbreaking and chilling, and clears the way for the book’s simultaneously tragic and jubilant climax. In all of her novels, Shriver works towards honest feeling the hard way—by pushing into places we’re afraid to go and making them not ugly but essential, an enrichment to our lives. She might just be the best we’ve got.