I have never read any Lionel Shriver books before, so about a month ago I took the opportunity to have a crack at The New Republic, a book she wrote about a decade ago but which is only now being published. I guess the fact that I have started this blog post about three or four times in the last few weeks says something about my level of enthusiasm for the book, especially since I only ever get about two lines in before abandoning it for drinking tea, cleaning the bath, or mentally arranging furniture in my non-existent two-bedroom Melbourne apartment with the lovely floor to ceiling windows*.
Now all this might sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book. I did enjoy it, but not enough to rave enthusiastically about it. It was a very clever book in many ways; perceptive, full of puns and black humour. Nevertheless, I felt that it lacked soul. It was Ikea, which is fine, but I generally prefer Chippendale if given the choice. Above all, it confirmed my suspicions about Shriver as an authour who writes “Bookclub Books”.
What on earth do I mean when I say Bookclub Books? Well, I have noticed over the years that there are certain types of book that get chosen over and over again for people to read in their local bookclubs. They appear at first glance to be diverse but on closer inspection are all stultifyingly identical. They are about an Issue. This is good for bookclubs because the issue can be Discussed at the meeting. There is a real dearth of layers and subtleties and sub-plots and quirks and good style; there is just a bit of a story and The Issue. These books are often marketed to look like literary fiction, and I very judgementally become less inclined to read them the more popular they become. They pose as “good books” but in reality sit between chick lit and literature. (Please don’t think I am saying chick lit is bad and literature is good because I genuinely think there is a place for all genres of fiction.) Indeed, some of these so-called bookclub books are rich and wonderful stories and I have loved many of them; I suppose my issue is with the posing; the pretence that something is “literature”** just because it is about a disabled child or a sticky moral dilemma or a woman with dementia. I am bothered by what I see as too much earnestness and hyperbole, and not enough honesty. If we could all just agree that they are passingly ok but not brilliant I would be a lot happier.
In summary: The New Republic is a great choice for a bookclub read, as long as you are in the sort of club that mostly uses the meeting as a chance to catch up on gossip. If you try to talk about the book for the whole meeting you will run out of things to talk about after ten minutes. Nobody will mind having read the book in preparation for the meeting, it’s rather a good story and quite funny, it just isn’t very deep.
*It is in Kew, or possibly Brunswick, and has polished floorboards and a balcony. The rent is also amazingly cheap!
** Whatever the hell “literature” means anyway; we’ll save that discussion for another blog post