June 5 (Bloomberg) -- “Barba” is Portuguese for “beard.” If you look at Portugal as a west-gazing face, with Lisbon at the nostril, you can see where the Barban Peninsula, in the south, got its name.
Actually, if you look at a real map, you’ll see the face but no beard, because Barba doesn’t exist. Lionel Shriver invented it for her novel “The New Republic,” and she doesn’t make it sound like anyplace you would ever want to visit:
“During a Barban Wind Watch, cars had been known to roll like tumbleweed.”
“Barbans had subscribed wholesale to the aesthetic tradition of the suburban bank.”
“In Barba, corn oil was a sauce.”
Shriver is a novelist who likes bitter, gummy subjects. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” was narrated by the mother of a Columbine-style killer; “So Much for That” dealt with how expensive it is to die of cancer.
“The New Republic” is about the toxic symbiosis of terrorism and journalism. As Shriver explains in an opening note, when she completed it in 1998, she couldn’t find a publisher. At the time, her novels weren’t selling and Americans didn’t care about terrorism.
Both things changed, but the book’s jaded political satire clearly belongs to another era. The Barban terrorists are a fiction, invented by Barrington Saddler, a feckless reporter who’s stuck in the Portuguese backwater and needs something to write about. The rest of the press corps laps it up.
But as Shriver says, “Be careful what you make up.” Barban independence has only minority backing until Barbans begin to think someone is taking the trouble to blow things up on their behalf.
The book’s nasty protagonist, a novice reporter named Edgar Kellogg, is a former fat kid -- now a trim runner -- who’s never gotten over high school. I don’t think I’ve met a character I more disliked spending time with, and seen through his eyes, everyone else is just as repulsive.
With one exception: The novel’s sole beautiful woman is also its single nice person, and Edgar’s devotion to her is pure corn. The other women in the book are described in such appalling locker-room terms that a male writer would be assailed for it.
“Loathing,” Shriver declares, “was an addictive emotion.” I would guess she’s speaking from the heart: She is a relentlessly mean writer with a fixation on ugliness. (“Sweat drizzling from his upper lip stung his tongue with such distilled acridity that he might have been licking a urinal.”)
She’s verbose, too -- she never slows down enough to edit her characters, who are so talky they could be arguing the morals of terrorism in a Shaw play. And forget nuance. Her prose is like a fist hitting a table.
Yet she bulldogs through on some witch’s brew of adrenalin, intelligence and bile. I could go on finding fault with Shriver’s plotting, her world view, her style, her taste; by the time I finished, she’d probably have another disturbing book in the stores.
This one I found so upsetting that I read it in short snatches -- I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. She had me. She’s a woman who was born to write.
“The New Republic” is published by Harper in the U.S. and HarperCollins in the U.K. (373 pages, $26.99, 14.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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