Hard-headed and surprisingly right wing, Lionel Shriver does not fit the conventional image of a novelist. Her latest work is a subtle examination of the difficulties of decision-making.by William Skidelsky / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
The post-birthday world, by Lionel Shriver
From time to time, all of us experience the sensation of our lives forking. A love affair comes to an end, or doesn’t quite. A life-changing job is accepted, or decided against. For a while afterwards, our days are ghosted by the other life that we might have led. Would it have been better than the one we have? (In our minds, inevitably, the answer is yes.) But the feeling doesn’t last. Our parallel self veers away, and our days resume their old course. Ultimately, this is for the best. If we carried another world in our heads for long, we’d probably go mad.
Lionel Shriver’s new novel, The Post-Birthday World—the follow-up to her hugely successful We Need to Talk About Kevin—opens with one such moment of forking. Irina and Lawrence, an American couple in their early forties, have been living in London for seven years. She is a children’s book illustrator; he works for a think tank. A few years ago, the couple became friends with a famous snooker player, Ramsey Acton. Every year, they meet for dinner on Ramsey’s birthday. But this year Lawrence is scheduled to be at a nation-building conference in Sarajevo. Being the trusting type, he encourages Irina to see Ramsey anyway. After dinner at a swanky restaurant, Ramsey invites Irina back to his house, where they smoke a joint. Through the fug of her intoxication, Irina gazes at Ramsey—who is taking the opportunity to get in some late-night snooker practice—and realises that he is “devastatingly” attractive. As she deliberates whether to kiss him, she senses she is standing at “the most consequential crossroads of her life.”
At this point, the world of the novel divides, Sliding Doors-style, in two; alternate chapters relate different stories. In one, Irina does indeed kiss Ramsey. She then leaves Lawrence, marries Ramsey, and becomes the archetypal snooker wife, dutifully trailing her husband around the country. She discovers that the snooker world isn’t terribly intellectually stimulating: in place of the swanky think tank bashes she used to attend with Lawrence, she gets to hang out with John Parrott’s wife. On the other hand, there are compensations—chiefly, explosive sex. Ramsey, it emerges, is good with his cue in more ways than one.
In the other story, Irina forsakes erotic rapture for stolid domesticity. She returns to her life with Lawrence, and never tells him how close she came to throwing it away. But though she tries to quash her feelings for Ramsey, she can’t do so completely. They emerge in odd ways: her children’s book illustrations become inappropriately suggestive; she goes on long walks that take her close to Ramsey’s house.
In plotting these alternative futures for Irina, Shriver appears at first to be dramatising a familiar conflict: between adventure and loyalty, passion and duty. But she’s actually doing something subtler. In the secular world of the novel, it is questionable how much meaning a concept like “duty” has. Irina and Lawrence aren’t even married. To what extent does she owe him anything? Irina’s dilemma is not that she has to choose between self-sacrifice and self-fulfilment; it is that she has to weigh different, often mutually exclusive, types of self-fulfilment (erotic, professional, social, financial), and to adjudicate between them. In deciding between Ramsey and Lawrence, she is resolving what she wants from life.
But if Shriver accepts that the modern emphasis on “having it all” makes such dilemmas inevitable, she is also saying that they are impossible to solve. Not just trivially, because no man is perfect; but also more profoundly, because no life we lead will ever make us wholly fulfilled. The novel’s structure means that Irina’s two futures are laid out before us like specimens in a laboratory. So we should, in theory, be able to determine which is better. Except that we can’t—because Shriver ensures that neither is. In both narratives, Irina’s life goes wrong in unexpected ways, and by the end of the novel it is no easier to say whether she should have kissed Ramsey than it was at the start. Shriver is pointing out that every decision has its costs; things rarely turn out as we think they will. So perhaps we should stop agonising and just get on with our lives.
In mid-May, I visited Shriver at her flat in Borough, south London. Just turned 50, she is a small, surprisingly slight woman, although she is anything but frail: her frame is wiry and muscular, her appearance tomboyish and she greets you with an intense stare. Originally from North Carolina, she moved to England 20 years ago, although she has spent some of the time since in Northern Ireland. She changed her name to Lionel at 15 because, she has said, she found her birth name—Margaret Ann—”prissy.”
When the interview took place, several reviews of The Post-Birthday World had already appeared. It soon became obvious that Shriver was furious. Reviewers had largely ignored the novel’s subtle examination of decision-making and morality, and had instead focused on questions of verisimilitude. They asked whether it was plausible that a children’s book illustrator and a policy wonk would be friends with a snooker player. They pointed out that Shriver’s grasp of snooker is not totally secure (she makes various small mistakes, such as having a session last 16 frames instead of the usual eight: tut tut). Above all, they mocked Shriver’s attempt, in the figure of Ramsey, to master English demotic.
It is true that Ramsey’s speech is a strange concoction of “colourful” expressions seemingly plucked at random from the Dictionary of British Vernacular. But Shriver was unapologetic. Most of the reviewers, she pointed out, had described Ramsey as “cockney,” when in fact he’s from south London. “They’ve lifted the idea that he’s cockney because that is trite, and the only kind of working-class locution an American would be aware of. There’s this weird rigidity about what a so-called cockney can say. My experience is that if you are someone who travels a certain amount, especially in the British Isles, you pick up expressions from all over the place. Why can’t he speak idiosyncratically? This whole combing through the book for any little errors—I’m sorry, I find it petty and territorial.”
Shriver’s anger is understandable, because she is not a realist writer. Her book is clearly not meant to be a “true” portrayal of Britain’s class system, snooker, or of anything else. One should not expect to find pitch-perfect dialogue in her work. Her strengths are her emotional literacy and her bold ideas. In what Shriver describes as the reviewers’ refusal to “give over to the book,” there is, perhaps, an antipathy to Shriver herself. She does not fit the conventional image of a novelist. She is eccentric, but in a genuinely individual way (the English like their eccentrics to conform to type). Nor are her political views the usual ones. She calls herself “a classic conservative” (“I believe in small government”), describes the fox hunting ban as “liberalism run amok,” is concerned by declining fertility rates in Europe and America and says there has been “too much” immigration. “It starts making people feel invaded and angry, and then they are told they can’t even express that.” Shriver’s hard-headedness and willingness to say controversial things are refreshing; Britain needs more writers like her. When I asked if she saw herself staying in the country, she replied that she has no plans to leave, but then added, half-jokingly, “Although after the last ten days I’m not so sure.” Let’s hope the carping critics don’t drive her back to America.