The New Republic is Lionel Shriver's reasonably successful send up and examination of the twin themes of terrorism and the cult of personality. Her prose sparkles, her jokes animate, and her satire punches. The unveiling, however, seems to drag on much further than there was need and the ending just does not work.
In a recent discussion, Shriver detailed the genesis of this old, new novel. It was 1998, after six mostly unread novels and before her blockbuster, We Need to Talk About Kevin, that she completed this novel. She could not find a publisher because she had a terrible sales record, which, according to her, is roughly akin to a terrible criminal record in the publishing business. For a second reason, terrorism was not on the American radar; it was a problem in foreign countries. The first World Trade Center Bombing and Oklahoma City were "one-offs," not the sort of thing that was likely to happen here with regularity we all believed. She gave up the effort after to dozens of rejections.
Kevin solved the first problem then 9/11 came along. Even today, many find it insensitive to talk about terrorism with any attempt at humor. Shriver noted a New York Times review that she called the most "outrageous and vicious review I've ever received." But, as Shriver clearly indicated in her talk, "It is one thing to write with a light touch; another to make light of something." "Retaining our sense of humor about everything is imperative…our way to take control of our lives."
The New Republic does examine terrorism with her tongue in cheek. Having lived twelve years in Belfast and reporting on the "troubles," she fully understands the issue. Edgar E. Kellogg is the brains of the book in two aligned themes. The first applies to terrorism and asks the ultimate question: "What would happen if they gave a war and no one came?" In this case, Edgar invents a terrorist organization, the Os Soldados Ousados de Barba, The Daring Soldiers of Barba, known as the SOB. Even the country is a fiction as Shriver appended a peninsula to the south of Portugal and set her story there. Kellogg, who has quit his job as a corporate attorney and been hired on as a super stringer for a newspaper, is sent to Barba. Like the other journalists, he begins to invent stories because, in truth, there really was no news. They became their own sources of information. Any story created by one was repeated by the next, until like that child's game of "rumor," the sheer volume of repeated fabrications lent these "facts" so much weight they became true and reported around the world.
Shriver also examine the cult of personality through Kellogg and his interactions with others. Ostracized as a fat schoolboy, he always wanted to be like someone. He was (and is) the proverbial moth drawn to a flame. An old school hero helps him get the newspaper job and he is dispatched to Barba to replace the famous Barrington Saddler, a mysterious journalist of great repute and indisputable anonymity. Is it any wonder that his initials are BS? No one seems to know where he is, but Kellogg wants to know. He wants to equal Saddler's reportorial skills so he has imaginary conversations with Saddler about the situation. It is these conversations that work least in an otherwise fine novel. In many ways, however, Kellogg finally becomes someone and escapes the shadows in which he has lived his entire life. His "creative factoids had infected copy all over the world" and he understood how hackers appreciated the infamy gained from credit for the viruses they planted into computers.
Shriver emphasized that she had done little to change the book in the nearly 14 years since its initial completion other than "tighten it a little." "I was way ahead of the curve on this one," she said. Many of those paragraphs that seem so prescient were already that way and it would have "been wrong to change them." For example, Kellogg's account of his experience going through airport security while flying from Portugal to Barba presages the bureaucratic bungling so often associated with our modern TSA.
There is much to enjoy and admire in The New Republic. The writing is clear and beautifully expressed though a bit of judicious editing could have avoided the occasional descriptions at cross purposes. The satiric humor shines through. The central characters are finely drawn in the main, even Barrington who does not appear until the end. The examinations of terrorism and the cult of personality are equally exact. It is a novel worth reading.