There’s no doubt that Lionel Shriver can write.
I enjoyed her clever wit and acerbic humor in The Post Birthday World. I was riveted to the painfully dramatic and timely saga of We Need to Talk About Kevin.
But while I appreciated Shriver’s writerly talent in The New Republic – a part parody, part social satire featuring an attorney who re-creates himself as an investigative journalist – I wasn’t completely sold on the premise or plot of this novel.
The novel takes on mythic proportions when Edgar Kellogg, a disgruntled corporate attorney with a larger than life chip on his shoulder, tosses in his lucrative law career and agrees to a suspect foreign assignment in which he will replace the enigmatic but hugely popular journalist Barrington Saddler who has mysteriously disappeared. Edgar finds himself in a (fictional) Portugese backwater, awash with other journalists trying to make a name for themselves, but mostly living the high life and seeking excitement wherever they can find it. He gets quickly caught up in the spirit of the adventure as he investigates the turn of events surrounding Saddler’s disappearance and how it’s related to the terrorist activities of the so-called Sons of Barba.
The New Republic was written in 1998 (but published in 2012), and so the satiric, almost playful portrait of a terrorist culture seems almost unseemly in light of 21st century events. Shriver’s coverage of current events, i.e., the topic of school shootings in We Need to Talk About Kevin, was highly personal but thoughtfully and carefully scripted. What interested me most in The New Republic was Edgar Kellogg himself. Ostracized as a child because of his weight, Edgar’s one goal has been social popularity.
Edgar had verified in childhood what the New Testament only hints at…Edgar’s personal Apocrypha: that people will exonerate sadists, braggarts, liars, and even slack-jawed morons before they’ll pardon eyesores. If you’re attractive, people need a reason to dislike you; if you’re ugly, people need a reason to like you. They don’t usually find one. In his tubby school days, Edgar had learned the hard way that every vulgar slob on the block was an aesthete.
So, Edgar has attached himself to popular people throughout his life, becoming the perennial sidekick for the “rich and famous” among the cliques that threaten to ignore him. And he’s madder than hell about that. But now, finally slim but still smarting from years of rejection, Edgar has the opportunity to literally replace the “absentee paragon,” Barrington Saddler, about whom “no one from New York to Cinziero can stop talking for more than ten minutes using a stopwatch.” As he channels Saddler’s persona, he is forced to reevaluate his desires for promotion from sidekick to leader.
And how does that work out for him? What’s better – to be the admired or the admirer?
Shriver takes the reader on a long and meandering path before Edgar comes to this final conclusion.
Edgar considered his life long position of second-in-command. Sure, constitutionally Edgar was a sidekick. But there was nothing disgraceful about lieutenancy should your captain be splendid. … As Edgar reviewed the short list of his idols…he concluded that in every case he himself may have got the better end of the deal. It was probably more interesting to adore than be adored, more transporting, more engrossing, and in any event much less creepy. What the hell, given a choice, Edgar might rather revere a hero than be one.
The New Republic is an interesting look at two very large personalities and invites the reader to consider what it is that make people popular. It’s exploration of international terrorism was less successful for this reader, but some with a more political bent might find it of keener interest.
Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read this book.
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