Now we need to talk about ter­ror­ism, by which we mean

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Liam Dav­i­son

FOUR­TEEN years ago, Lionel Shriver’s lat­est novel failed to find a pub­lisher. That was be­fore the phe­nom­e­non of We Need to Talk about Kevin and the best­selling The Post-birth­day World.

At the time, a light-hearted, satir­i­cal take on ter­ror­ism and the cult of per­son­al­ity was deemed to be of lit­tle in­ter­est to Amer­i­can readers. Ter­ror­ism was some­body else’s prob­lem. Ob­vi­ously, things have changed. Shriver be­lieves enough time has passed since the Septem­ber 11 re­as­sign­ment of Amer­ica’s con­scious­ness for readers to re­find their sense of hu­mour. Whether it’s that or Shriver’s re­mark­able sales record, it ap­pears The New Repub­lic has found its time.

If, like me, you were gripped by the darkly com­pelling Kevin, there’s no im­me­di­ate rea­son to be­lieve you will also en­joy The New Repub­lic. On first glance, this en­gag­ingly fluffy satir­i­cal romp is a dif­fer­ent beast al­to­gether. The char­ac­ters are al­most com­i­cal, twodi­men­sional ve­hi­cles for ideas. The con­ven­tions of genre fic­tion shape the nar­ra­tive. The tone is de­light­fully light and play­ful. If it weren’t for its sub­ject in­volv­ing ter­ror­ists blow­ing up planes, it’s the type of book you might pick up at an air­port.

Yet on closer read­ing, the work is not that much of a de­par­ture for Shriver. Her ap­proach to fic­tion has con­sis­tently been to start with a rel­a­tively sim­ple premise to ex­plore top­i­cal ideas. Whether it be high school shoot­ings, over­pop­u­la­tion or the US health­care sys­tem, the story is in ser­vice to the ideas. Some­times, the char­ac­ters rise be­yond their sta­tion to emerge as mul­ti­di­men­sional en­ti­ties whose mo­tives drive the nar­ra­tive, but her work is not es­sen­tially char­ac­ter-driven.

The New Repub­lic is touted as a novel about ter­ror­ism, but its real sub­ject is jour­nal­ism and me­dia ethics. Shriver pref­aces the novel with a quote from me­dia baron Con­rad Black be- moan­ing the reck­less­ness of jour­nal­ists who tend to be ‘‘ ig­no­rant, lazy, opin­ion­ated, in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­hon­est and in­ad­e­quately su­per­vised’’. Given that Shriver’s own jour­nal­ism ap­pears in places such as The Guardian, The New York Times and The Wall Street Jour­nal, it’s a view with which you might ex­pect her to take is­sue. With­out be­ing stri­dently polem­i­cal, the novel tar­gets the ex­tra­or­di­nary power wielded by the me­dia and the po­ten­tial for abuse of jour­nal­is­tic re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Edgar Kel­logg, an un­ful­filled sec­ond-string solic­i­tor, aban­dons a safe ca­reer and wan­ing re­la­tion­ship to pur­sue his dream of jour­nal­ism and em­u­late his prep school hero, To­bias Fal­coner, who files from trou­ble spots around the world. He lands a job with The Na­tional Record and is as­signed on re­tainer to the hy­po­thet­i­cal Barba to re­port on the mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance of his pre­de­ces­sor, the inim­itable English­man Bar­ring­ton Sad­dler.

Barba is a god­for­saken Por­tuguese back­wa­ter that juts into the North At­lantic like a ragged, wind-strewn beard cling­ing to the chin of the Ibe­rian Penin­sula. Poverty-stricken and des­per­ately bleak (the cap­i­tal, Cinziero, is Por­tuguese for ash­tray), Barba is equally fa­mous for its wretched beer, brewed from the ubiq­ui­tous hairy pear, and its de­spised para­mil­i­tary sep­a­ratist move­ment SOB, which is held re­spon­si­ble for a se­ries of dev­as­tat­ing ter­ror­ist in­ci­dents abroad.

Kel­logg quickly re­alises the charis­matic Sad­dler is less man than no­tion among the rag­tag team of for­eign cor­re­spon­dents cov­er­ing Barba. The dis­ap­pear­ance of Sadler, as elu­sive as the SOB, could be tied equally to money, women or pol­i­tics. He is like a glit­ter­ing mir­ror ball, court­ing trou­ble wher­ever he goes and re­flect­ing flashes of his com­pan­ions, ‘‘ or more bit­terly, flashes of what they were not’’. Kel­logg’s sus­pi­cions about Sad­dler grow with his ever-ex­pand­ing rep­u­ta­tion, yet he can’t help but fall un­der his thrall.

If the me­dia feeds on ac­tion, it also feeds the cult of per­son­al­ity. Sad­dler plays the game as deftly as the street-smart To­mas Ver­dade, head of the Bar­ban Demo­cratic Party, who knows the po­lit­i­cal value of keep­ing the me­dia and the SOB in tow but at arm’s length.

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