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