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April 8, 2010

So Much For All That by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver breaks all the rules– her best-known novel (and, perhaps, best full-stop) We Need to Talk About Kevin was epistolary, for godsakes. Her last novel The Post-Birthday World is as close to a choose-your-own-adventure for adults as you’re going to get. Her sinfully smart newspaper columns are always out to piss somebody off, and her other novels that I’ve read are uncomfortable, the end-results of fixations. She even dares to be a woman called Lionel.

So it’s no surprise that her latest book, So Much for All That, appears to have a lot wrong with it at first glance. That it’s an “issues” novel, about a topic as timely as the American health care system, and their health insurance system in particular. That, like all Shriver novels, it’s populated by wretched characters who treat one another badly. That one character’s chief occupation is ranting about government control, and taxation, and “mooches and mugs” and these diatribes go on for pages, seemingly only furthering the novel’s political agenda. That nothing much actually happens in the novel, but rather the characters just talk about things that happened, so that expository dialogue is where the action is. That Lionel Shriver characters don’t talk like people– no one is that wry, particularly for multiple dense paragraphs, and nobody actually talks in paragraphs either.

So it will probably surprise you when I report that the book is wonderful. That nobody talks like Lionel Shriver characters, but I wish they did, and eavesdropping onto their conversations for 400 pages still wasn’t enough. That the whole book is conversation rather than action, but that conversation is so vibrant, so pointed and sporting, and brilliant. So Much For That is a satire, the old-fashioned kind. It goes up against the American system and Shriver offers 400 pages of smackdown with more than enough force to sustain itself. It’s a book with a job to do, but the narrative never falters. The plot is gripping, the prose is crafted, the story is sad, but (most essentially) it’s also hilarious.

Shep Knacker has been planning for The Afterlife, but for one here on this earth. For years, he’s been squirreling money away to finance early retirement and the rest of his life in some exotic place where the American dollar goes far. He’d sold his handyman business in the late ’90s and made a tidy sum which has been earning interest ever since, and though it’s a farfetched plan in theory, its achievable in practice. Due to Shep’s conventional streak, his inability to shirk responsibility, however, nobody actually thinks he’s going to follow through.

He’s just about to show them for once and for all, though, the airline tickets bought and he’s made the announcement to his wife (from whom he’s been distant lately) that he’s doing it, he’s taking off for Pemba Island to live out his (still innumerable) days drinking out of coconuts. He’s going, he tells Glynis, with her, or without her. “I do wish you wouldn’t,” she tells him. “…I’m afraid I will need your health insurance.”

What follows is a year in the life of the sick, as Glynis begins treatment for an aggressive form of cancer (and Shep’s bank account for The Afterlife begins its steady depletion). Shriver pulls no punches in her portrayal of disease, and the details of Glynis’ ravaged body are absolutely horrifying. Unceasingly horrifying too, and I’ve never read such a portrayal of sickness. Though the portrayal is multiplied by three– Shep’s best friend Jackson’s daughter has been suffering with a rare debilitating disease since infancy, Shep’s father is elderly and beginning to decline, and then Jackson gets himself into a spot of trouble when elective cosmetic surgery on his penis gets botched. (Critics have questioned this final plot line; I actually kind of loved it, and it delivered the appropriate lightness I required to counter all the rest.)

Lionel Shriver’s books are always, however unconventionally, about family and relationships, and in this novel she shows how disease is a family affair. Moreover, how serious disease becomes the only family affair, and everything else is an extension of it. Her portrayal of Shep and Glynis’s marriage and how the cancer changes it (and the ways in which it doesn’t change it) are hearteningly rendered– Shriver writes a sex scene between them that is the most pointful, perfect and uncliched sex I have ever read in any book. Like every character in this book, Glynis is alternately hateful and sympathetic, a nasty piece of work who you’ve no doubt why Shep fell in love with. She pulls no punches either– sick of false sympathy, of friends who don’t bother (or are just scared to), unwilling to offer redemption to those who come seeking it from her. She is real, striking, scary and wonderful.

The book is bleak. I wouldn’t have considered stopping reading, but it’s a lot of misery to get through, but Shriver makes it all worthwhile with the most wonderful ending I could have imagined. Where there is justice, and goodness, and everybody gets what they deserve, and I’ve never known Lionel Shriver to be such an optimist (or a dreamer).

So it’s too bad this ending is the most storied part about the whole tale, but that’s the world’s fault, and not Lionel Shriver’s.

One thought on “So Much For All That by Lionel Shriver”

  1. Oh gosh, am I EVER excited to read this book. Hopefully my copy will be here in the next day or so. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her so far, and can’t wait to dive into this story.

    Terrific review!

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