Shriver’s Version Of The Who Sell Out
In Lionel Shriver’s first collection of short fiction she delivers a concept album; the theme, stuff. Never one to flounce, Shriver tells us exactly what we’ll be getting in the title of her book: short stories and two novellas about property. Lionel relishes picking deceptively straight forward, broad themes: obesity via Big Brother, health care via So Much For That, mass violence via We Need to Talk About Kevin, economic collapse via The Mandibles. These are “forest issues,” but Shriver uses her prose to grab the reader by the nose and yank them down to the roots of the tree. She demands that you notice the veins in each leaf. In her short story Vermin, Shriver turns what could be a retelling of the first time home owner’s travails of a newly married couple into a harrowing examination of the dynamics of expectations and lack of communication in the demise of a relationship. Exchange Rate (another short story) starts as a snarky cataloging of an elderly father’s idiosyncrasies centered around a monetary tiff and becomes a tender treatise on the difficulties of aging and a plea for empathy. Some stories, such as Repossession, take on a poltergeisty feel, where the takeover of the possessor’s identity is more literal. Shriver beseeches us to look and to think about our relationship to the things we possess: she wants us to understand that they own us just as much as we own them.
Lionel Shriver is in the top twenty of my personal Best Living Authors List, I’ve been a fan since We Need To Talk About Kevin. I saw the movie first (can we talk about how amazing John C. Reilly was?? And that creepily beautiful young man-Ezra something?) and grabbed the book as soon as the end credits started. Lionel reminds me of a old-timey reporter; she knows she is smart, she doesn’t care if you know it or knows she knows, she’s not scared that she may be initially underestimated; she’s playing a long game. She doesn’t need to pretty up her prose, or her delivery, you’re going to get “just the facts, ma’am” whether you’d like to or not. Shriver has a particular skill in characterization, a way of introducing you to a character unobtrusively. No boring list conveniently delivered by a protagonist’s life-long chum, no navel gazing introductory monologue. Let me show you what I mean with a passage from The Standing Chandelier:
“When people didn’t like you, if this doesn’t seem too obvious, they didn’t like you. That is, the problem wasn’t an identifiable set of habits, beliefs, and traits-say, a propensity for leaning against a counter with a jauntily jutted hip as if you thought you were hot stuff, overuse of the word fabulous, a misguided conviction that refusing to vote is making a political statement, a tendency to mug the more premeditative with a sudden impulse to go camping this very afternoon and to make them feel like spoilsports when they didn’t want to go. No, it was the sum total that rankled, the whole package, the essence from which all these evidences sprang.”
Do you have a rather complete picture of the character being described from just this one short paragraph? I know I do. I can see her in my mind’s eye and I can’t say that I like her very much. This passage also shows Lionel’s skill at mixing high and low verbiage, conversational asides like “say” with fancy words like “propensity.” Lionel is wonderfully gifted and her skills run amok in Property. I’ll close with a blurb that I can always find on the back of her books: “If Jodi Picoult has her finger on the zeitgeist, Shriver has her hands around it’s throat.” No shit, Ron Charles of The Washington Post.
Picoult is like a watered-down version of Shriver. What authors do you think are watered-down versions of others? Comment down below. Share this article so everyone can discover Lionel Shriver.