Monday, July 18, 2011

Lionel Shriver's So Much for That

I thought that Lionel Shriver's So Much for That might make a hat-trick, with these other two titles, of books I couldn't finish.  The rants of one particular character -- against office and government bureaucracies, against taxes, against regulations, against social dependencies on state infrastructures -- become tedious beyond the making of any point. While this character is clearly being mocked, he has initially been one with whom the reader feels considerable sympathy, and both author and narrator (and certainly the protagonist) are at least partially aligned with some of his views. So many pages in the novel's first half (perhaps most of the second quarter, some of the third) are pedantic -- I wanted to scrream "I get it, I get it"! The US Medicare system is absolutely inadequate and unfeeling; bureaucrats are heartless; Medicine works too hard to "fix" the body at the expense of the patient's humanity; our society's rat race leaves no time to care for -- and learn from -- the sick and the disabled and the dying. Pedantic, proselytizing, and, perhaps even worse for me, most characters veered dangerously close to caricature through the first third to half of the novel, and while caricatures are useful in making a point, they rarely endear a reader to themselves.

But I persevered on the basis of Shriver's chilling We Have to Talk about Kevin. Someone so willing to write honestly about such a difficult topic, so able to bring a powerful lens to bear on issues we prefer to keep out of sight deserved a bit more trust. Just as I'd allotted her another 20-50 pages before I put the book down for good, she won me over. I still think an editor could have been more demanding, freer with the scalpel, but I would recommend this book for the possibilities it allows us to imagine. What if, when those we love are dying, we face their death together rather than insisting past their furthest weakness that they're getting better. What might we find out by embracing, rather than strenuously avoiding, death -- and even disability and illness-- as part of life? By the end of So Much, Shriver has made a compelling case. I hesitate to say more for fear of introducing a spoiler (and 'cause I'm so far behind, as usual, on logging my reading). But if you've read the book, I'd love to get a discussion going. . . .

8 comments:

  1. I haven't read it. I read Kevin and could not get it out of my head; then I read The Post Birthday World (I think that's the correct title) and absolutely hated it, so I can't bring myself to read any more Shriver ... I would probably give up before getting to the satisfying part!

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  2. Interesting. Kevin's the only one I've read, and if not for that, I wouldn't have persevered. Perhaps the editor allowed latitude on the same basis! This was one of those Buy1Get1 that those Brit shops are so good at and that all was suck me in at Heathrow. Don't know that I'd pick her up again, but this one def. redeemed itself.

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  3. I read We Need to talk... and thought it was brilliant. Then, I read The Post-Birthday world and thought it was intersting but sometimes boring. I absolutely hated the one about tennis and I have this one on my shelves (in English because, although I'm French, it has not been published here). And I think it might be the last Shriver I will buy.

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  4. Valérie: Thanks for stopping to comment. I have only read Kevin and this book, as I mentioned above. Because of the poor editing here, the over-abundance of what seems like proselytizing to me, I would probably not read another Shriver. If you do end up reading this, I'll be curious to hear what you think of it.

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  5. "What if, when those we love are dying, we face their death together rather than insisting past their furthest weakness that they're getting better. What might we find out by embracing, rather than strenuously avoiding, death -- and even disability and illness-- as part of life?"

    This is my mantra.

    Did you happen to see Atul Gawande's article "Letting Go" in the New Yorker?

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/02/100802fa_fact_gawande

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  6. I tested that link and it didn't work, must have gotten chopped. Here's a bitly version:

    http://nyr.kr/oII2cP

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  7. Oh dear. This is why I rarely provide links in comments. That bitly link didn't work either.

    The article "Letting Go" by Atul Gawande was published August 2, 2010 in the Annals of Medicine section of the New Yorker. If you google that reference the link pops up.

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  8. Susan: Yes! Exactly why I found the book worth persevering with. She really brings home some important points about our unrealistic ideas about medicine and death. I'll be sure to look for that article -- thanks for persevering to link me to it.

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