Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Two views from the Shriver universe...

By Tracy

Lionel Shriver's Game Control was a birthday present for me this year. It's a distressing and difficult novel to read -- not difficult in language or plot, more because she treads (as always) fine lines in what she depicts -- the reader continually winces.

This is (according to her afterword) the book that lost Shriver her American publisher. (It was subsequently taken up in Britain and then saw US publication after the big success of Kevin.)

I can see why. I'm very ambivalent toward her work -- but then Shriver is a master (mistress doesn't sound quite right!) of ambivalence herself. No novel more built from dialogue, in terms of competing voices and viewpoints, and here frustratingly so, because so polarised. You want to scream at the book that ways of seeing don't have to come in those specific, watertight packages (to mix metaphors somewhat).

It's a book I'm forcing myself to continue reading, rather than one I'm drawn into.

As always, Shriver writes with such pervasive irony that you will rarely if ever pin any particular character's view on the author. But I thought this pair of quotes quite telling. It's a "talky" novel, rather than a "happening" one, which gets annoying after a while...

From the character Threadgill, to another character, Piper:

"...for some reason everything we have and everything we make is gradually taken away from us. Your life is a leaky vessel; no matter how much you pour, your cup will never overflow, because there is a hole in it. The universe has a hole in it.  Your lovers die or betray you; your professional successes are diluted by failure or by simply being past; the summer homes where you spent the idyllic holidays of your childhood are bought by strangers and painted a garish green. So you can never stop making; maybe that's the reason for the hole. I don't know where these things go; I don't believe they vanish. I wonder if there isn't a magnificent junkheap in the next dimension of favourite train sets before they were broken and golden afternoons before the last terrible thing was said that parted two friends for ever. Whyever, the hole is there. It will suck from you everything you love." (pp. 168-9)

And a few pages later, from the viewpoint of Eleanor, if not in her direct speech:

"Cynics are spoiled romantics. They are always the ones who had the highest expectations at the start. They were once so naive themselves that they despise naivety more than any other quality. Alchemists, they turn grief to gold. They take quinine in their tonic, Campari with their soda -- bitterness is an acquired taste. Cynics have learned to drink poison and like it. They are resourceful people, though the sad thing is, they know what's happened to them. They remember what they wanted to be when they grew up, and not a single one of them dreamt of becoming a cynic." (pp. 172-3)

Food for thought, if a little trite -- but it's the constant clash of these (among other) viewpoints -- especially those of the two main characters, whom Shriver calls "vengeful misanthrope Calvin Piper and... guilty do-gooder Eleanor Merritt" that drives the novel.

1 comment:

nathanhobby said...

So glad you had time to post on this. Your engagement with Shriver is always very interesting. I was just writing about her today myself, her review of Auster. I guess I'll avoid this novel of hers, or at least leave it to last. I find it hard to know what to do with a book I don't like by a writer I do like - I had to give myself permission to give up on DeLillo (twice - two different novels) in the last month.