You could never accuse Lionel Shriver of being too cheerful. Forgive me if I seem a little flat right now but I’ve just finished her latest novel, ‘So much for that’, and can’t help but feel rather depressed. Not quite as depressed as I would if I lived in America, mind you. So bleakly is the ‘land of opportunity’ depicted in this novel, you would almost suppose it was a clever ploy by some militant US anti-immigration group to deter the influx of migrants heading for their shores. Set your course for the third world instead, it seems to urge you. You’ll be much happier there.
This is a book I did not expect to like. I knew it had garnered a lot of praise in the US, yet every time I heard it mentioned, it always seemed to be accompanied by variations of the phrase ‘an exploration of the American healthcare system.’ To me this sounds dry, turgid and bureaucratic in the extreme – not the stuff of high drama. But I was mistaken. This book has all the elements of high drama, and packs a huge emotional punch. It is a heartbreaking novel, a novel completely steeped in suffering – so much in fact, that I was initially taken aback at the frequency of it. ‘You expect me to believe that this man’s wife and his best friend’s daughter are both terminally ill?’ I at first scoffed incredulously. I did believe it though, after a few pages. Shriver is that good a writer.
The protagonist of the novel, Shep Knacker, is what his friend, Jackson, would call a ‘mug.’ He is a quiet, unassuming man who has always played by the rules, working hard to fund the lifestyles of his parasitic family and dutifully paying his taxes to a government his friend insists has never done anything for him. Only the vision of the ‘Afterlife’ sustains him, his plan to one day retire to Africa and live a simple unpretentious life free from bureaucracy, and financial pressure. He has finally bought tickets to Pemba, a small island off the coast of Tanzania, and is preparing to tell his wife, Glynis, that he is going, with or without her. But then she announces that she has mesothelioma, an incurable form of cancer, and needs his health insurance. In a matter of months, Shep sees his carefully-accrued savings dwindle to almost nothing.
Dying in America is presented as humiliating, painful and undignified in this novel. So is living. In the dehumanising landscape depicted by Shriver, everything is ultimately reduced to fiscal terms. Love has a kind of mechanical quality, almost interchangeable with duty. All characters experience a lack of control over their own destinies, and most are infuriatingly aware of their own impotence. This reaches its apotheosis in Jackson, whose incessant ranting about the tyranny of the system ultimately betrays his powerlessness to improve his lot in any way. His risible attempts to do so lead to consequences so grotesque and blackly humorous you find yourself laughing and recoiling in horror at the same time – Shriver was definitely channelling Beckett, Burroughs and Stephen King when she came up with this particular subplot. Without giving too much away, it is almost as if Jackson is eventually punished – as if his actions constitute a blasphemous affront in a world where many people (many, many people) have suffering thrust upon them, yet he brings it on himself by using modern medicine for frivolous and purely selfish purposes.
There are not too many nice characters in this book – indeed, some of them, such as Shep’s sister Beryl, are hilariously awful. Those characters that are nice are likely to be used as sacrificial lambs by Shriver, who it is very clear, is not the kind of woman who goes around smiling at babies in prams. Shriver is an author interested in ideas and this is very much a book about ideas. It engages with a number of questions with far-reaching implications – how much one is life worth, being of course the one that first suggests itself, and the one that most media discussion seems to have focused on. It also asks what the best way to live is, and whether there is any point in playing by the rules. The answer to the latter is somewhat disenchanting.
Many readers will feel that this book has a happy ending – or as happy an ending as an author like Shriver is ever likely to provide. However, I couldn’t see it as anything other than a placebo, to use the medical terminology favoured by the book. The final chapter has a hallucinatory quality – there is something unconvincing and fairytale-like about it – and I think there is meant to be. The implications verge on the nihilistic: the ‘Afterlife’, ‘opting out’, ‘taking off’ – all of these recurring phrases in the novel only highlight the fact that there aren’t really too many options for any of the characters. I left the book with the conviction that Pemba – the ‘heavenly’ escape – represented death in a kind of happy code (it was no accident that one character obliquely refers to his own suicide as an ‘island respite’.) Thus, the name Shep – which I initially thought was a reference to ‘sheep’ – came to assume Messianic overtones of ‘shepherd’ as he herded the other characters to this illusory island. …But perhaps I’m taking this too much to heart and just need to go and sit in the sun for a while.
Oh well, long live America, as they say – but thank God I’m Australian.