So Much For That, Lionel Shriver (2010)

Lionel Shriver’s new novel is getting mixed reviews. It will inevitably be compared unfavourably with her most successful novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, a comparison she’ll be living down for the rest of her life.

I finished it on Saturday, and think it’s a flawed, overly long and harrowing read, but also compelling and insightful. The main character is Shep Knacker, who sold off his business ten years ago with the intention of moving to a third world country and living cheaply off the proceeds for the rest of his life. Right when he decides to make an ultimatum to his wife Glynis – come with me or I’ll go by myself – she reveals she has mesothelioma. Shep is a good man, and abandons his hope of his ‘Afterlife’ to care for his wife. Her treatment absorbs all his money, even with the health insurance provided by the job he hates.

Until its rather dissonant, almost comic ending, it is an unrelentingly bleak novel, the sort of story to make you wonder what the point of life is. Not only is the treatment futile and awful, but the supporting characters are Shep’s best friend Jackson and his wife Helen with their daughter who has a rare degenerative disease which makes her life a constant miserable trial. Shriver constantly indulges Jackson’s rants about the state of America. They become repetitive and spin the novel out a long way, and they’re also a little annoying – he is not as articulate as Shriver writing in her own voice in her very interesting newspaper columns and doesn’t hold as nuanced opinions. Yet it is also a book filled with insights into money, work, marriage and conduct of life.

In Lionel’s apparent act of revenge against her Presbyterian theologian father, Shep’s Presbyterian minister father loses his faith in God at the end of his life. I hate to think what Donald Shriver thinks of that. Or maybe he and Lionel can laugh about it. (I doubt it.) It stung me reading that; imagine losing one’s faith in the face of death? It would make a lot of your life feel wasted, particularly in his – or my – case.

There are too many secondary characters who are too nasty or too selfish – Shep’s boss, his sister, ‘s family. Subtley is really important in dealing with such heavy subjects, and this novel has very little subtlety. But it does have a compulsive narrative – I wanted to know what was going to happen and I cared about the characters, even and especially as the book enveloped me in the dread-filled fog of death.