In this ferocious novel Lionel Shriver takes ironic aim at the failings of American society; once again, she scores a direct hit. Yet beneath its acid surface there lurks a hint of sympathy. Its main characters are not detestable; in fact they are even, some of the time, endearing. For Shriver is not gratuitously mean. Unmitigated nastiness in literature never amounts to anything good. Ferocity, on the other hand…
Of course Shriver has earned a reputation as a take-no-prisoners satirist, and she is apt to turn her attention, in novels and in essays, upon anything that looks like posturing and recent fashions in ostensibly advanced ideology and identity politics. In the new novel we are not surprised that characters should now and then speak of “cultural appropriation” and get worked up about the danger entailed in adopting the speech patterns of “marginalized communities.” The tendency of great numbers of people in the culture to see everyone around them in terms of an “us versus them” blueprint is a feature of contemporary life that Shriver relentlessly underscores. But then Shriver is also more than willing to take aim at the caustic misanthropy of a character who is otherwise more complicated than she might seem. Shriver has always been more than good at telling a compelling story, and if her work occasionally feels didactic, she is always a pleasure to read, not at all averse to providing, in the best sense, entertainment.
In the new book, Serenata and Remington are a 60 and 64 year old couple as the novel gets underway. She’s still employed voicing video games and audio books. He has been forced into early retirement for a reason that constitutes one of the novel’s central motifs (but will not be revealed here). Serenata and Remington form a close couple. Their two thirty-something children had drifted away but have since returned. The daughter has become involved with evangelical proselytizing, the son is something of a drug dealer. But a closer look reveals that Serenata and Remington are sufficient unto themselves: their marriage has been based on ironic conversation, biting repartee and open laughter. That is, until at age 64 Remington gets it into his head to run a marathon. He has never raced in his life and is not athletic. Serenata has always been the athlete. She has always gotten around by bicycle whether in New York or anywhere else. She’s always set aside a stretch of time each day to work on her abs, to go running or swimming. But just when her knees have given out and she has to face the prospect of joint replacements that will force her to give up her physical activities, her husband takes up running.
From this point of departure, Lionel Shriver hits on almost everything that makes up today’s United States: the cult of the body; the daily counting of one’s steps; the racialist, “thing-phobic” conflicts in the workplace; the new converts with their beatific smiles and outrageously enthusiastic tone. The Body in Motion through Space
is a hurricane-strength roasting. With devastating humor, Lionel Shriver sweeps away everything in her wake: the latest certainties, trends and social injunctions, and it’s absolutely irresistible.
Through Serenata’s eyes and her ironic judgments the text pursues a range of denunciatory purposes. Serenata has considered herself independent minded, and she remains persuaded that she invented everything now fashionable, especially when it comes to athletic training, for her own strictly personal use. Competition doesn’t interest her at all. For Remington, on the other hand, going beyond his personal limitations has become not just a challenge but a requirement, first a marathon then the triathlon. Add to this that his athletic trainer, the young, shapely Bambi, has taken Remington in hand and won’t let go. Serenata’s home is invaded several times a week by the members of the “Tri” team, as they call it, after their practice sessions.
Lionel Shriver puts this sexagenarian couple under the magnifying glass, their happy marriage now shaken by the husband’s new frenzy for sports. They are shielded from her relentless bing! bang! boom! that lets pass absolutely none of the failings of the members of Remington’s training group. This hilarious bloodbath is based for the most part in dialogue and even in the transcription of recorded conversations. Remington often seems naïve, motivated by something he doesn’t quite understand while Serenata seems more lucid. What a formidable couple they make, really! Without a doubt, how to age together in retirement is the question this fierce and irresistible novel asks. It ends quite sweetly, calmly, peacefully, and its unexpected epilogue is magnificent. The Motion of the Body through Space
treats with riotous humor subjects that are highly sensitive, and not just when it comes to sports. Chapter 6, entirely devoted to the why and how of Remington’s forced early retirement, deals head on with very contemporary social controversies, as in this passage which parodies the hearing in which Remington is the accused:
CURTIS: Now before we get going, I’d just like to acknowledge to this committee that I’m a little embarrassed to have been designated the chairman—chair, sorry—because I am painfully aware of representing the white patriarchy. At least I identify as bi, and so I have some sensitivity to the problems confronted by marginalized communities by dint of my frequenting of the LGBTQIA space. Still, as far as I’m concerned we’re all three on the same level here. If anything, as a privileged white male, I have way less right to speak, and I’m humbled by your comparatively more extreme encounters with imbalances of social power.
We already knew that Lionel Shriver’s talent is based on a vision of extraordinary acuity. Her novels are cruel and salutary fables. By saving the Remington-Serenata couple from impending disaster she pulls off an invigorating snub and reminds us that her talent is also based in her faculty for empathy. Yes, Shriver is ferocious but not mean, and she’s furiously talented. Her new novel is a headlong rush and a cleansing.
(Translated by John Anzalone)