Comedy of terror

The New Republic, by Lionel Shriver, Harper, RRP$26.99/HarperCollins, RRP£14.99, 400 pages

Lionel Shriver’s new book is an old one. She wrote The New Republic in 1998, long before the success of We Need to Talk About Kevin. As she admits in an author’s note, at that time her sales record was “poisonous” and she couldn’t interest a publisher in it. Subsequently, there was a much larger problem. The New Republic is a serious-comic novel about terrorism, and in the aftermath of 9/11, jauntiness about bombs was not the done thing. So it is only now, thinks Shriver, that both her sales and readers’ sensibilities are robust enough for the book finally to see the light of day.

The lost decade, however, has, if anything, only made her story more apposite. Rather like Chris Morris’s film Four Lions, the novel offers a perspective on terrorism that shows how, if done adroitly, horror and humour are not incompatible. After all, those images released by the Pentagon of a hunched and blanketed Osama bin Laden watching himself on television while his compound reverberated with warring wives and screaming children prove that real life does a peerless line in satirising terrorists too.

Part Scoop, part Our Man in Havana and part Len Deighton thriller, Shriver’s novel is not just about terrorism but also about journalism and the nature of charisma. The story is told through the figure of Edgar Kellogg, a corporate attorney who swaps the certainties of law for the uncertainties of newsprint. His inspiration is the repeatedly flagged byline of a schoolboy friend, the sort of natural leader and shiny specimen who draws adulation as if by right. Edgar, who has long laboured under the stigma of being one of life’s runners-up, decides “he’s had it with being The Fan. He wanted to be The Man”.

Edgar lands an assignment with a journal called The New Republic (any resemblance to the real magazine of that name is presumably entirely intentional) to fly to Barba, a benighted province on the southern tip of Portugal. Barba is seeking independence and has its own terrorist group, SOB, that is busily blowing up airliners and gassing Metro stations.

Edgar’s first job, however, is to find out what has happened to the paper’s previous correspondent, Barrington Saddler, a larger-than-life chancer who has suddenly disappeared. Much to Edgar’s irritation, when he falls in with the resident pack of foreign correspondents, all they can talk about is Saddler, another of life’s first-placers. They may not all have liked him, but he was the party and now it has gone flat. Even the SOB’s outrages seem to have dried up without him. As Edgar moves into Saddler’s luxurious house and starts following up clues, as well as falling for the missing man’s lover, this coincidence seems more and more unlikely.

Shriver’s Barba is a wonderful creation. She has tacked a peninsula on to the bottom of Portugal and made it a place of inbred stupidity, free of culture, charm and even proper architecture. Swept by a permanent sirocco – o vento insano – its only product is the pera peluda, the hairy pear, a malodorous fruit from which is brewed a beer so vile that when Edgar first tasted it his “oral membrane had constricted into a dry pucker, like mouth eczema”. The fruit is also the symbol of the SOB’s political wing, as if al-Qaeda chose to be represented by a kumquat.

This cartoonish place is where Shriver, often in noirish argot, plays out her more serious themes. The mystery of Saddler’s disappearance has all the elements of a gripping thriller procedural: what is the meaning of the floppy disks full of gibberish and a box of latex gloves that Edgar discovers in a locked room? But the real subject is the symbiotic link between journalism and terrorism.

The only reason the newspapers pay any attention to Barba is the SOB’s atrocities and, in return, if they are not reported then they are bloody but essentially empty gestures. Each terrorist spectacular breeds tragedy and fear but, Shriver points out, it breeds excitement too.

It also brings other things in its wake, such as the Barba independence movement’s official mouthpiece, a sort of Latin Gerry Adams but with looks and charm. His practised defence of the tactics of fear and the ills of untrammelled immigration make uncomfortably plausible reading. Above all Shriver plays with the idea that the cat and mouse game of terrorism might, in a very real sense, be just that – a game.

All Shriver’s clever plot shifts and reveals, however, are driven by human weakness: Saddler’s chafing at his own charisma – “the spell cast over the crib” – and Edgar’s resentful recognition that it is a quality he desperately wants but doesn’t have. Terrorism, she suggests subtly, may not be the result of religion or idealism but of simple frailty.

It is a measure of Shriver’s panache that while her philosophical points are an integral ingredient in her blending of caper, thriller and psychological study, they still retain the pungency of a pera peluda.

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