The strange, extraordinary authority of Lionel Shriver

by Catherine Woulfe / 11 May, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Lionel Shriver property

Lionel Shriver: wordy human mathematics. Photo/Getty Images

Lauded novelist Lionel Shriver impresses with her shorter fiction in Property.

“Human relations had a calculus,” a character in Lionel Shriver’s first novella observes. If so, it’s a branch of mathematics of which the author has a weird, privileged understanding. She writes as though she has access to another dimension, in which all shameful wants and motivations are writ large, grist for her mill. She writes about people – particularly about our relationship to stuff – with a strange, extraordinary authority. And she does it with an air of “So what? Nothing special.” It’s unsettling, like listening to a divorce lawyer talk about break-ups or a hospice carer about death.

The other disconcerting thing about Shriver is words. That beautiful mind has stored up a huge vocabulary, and she clearly relishes bringing out favourites for visitors. On compliance: “It was a creepy word, beloved of authorities everywhere, who treasured its ambience of simpering eagerness to please … if you pictured the word as a thing, it was floppy and flaccid and on the floor.”

It was a pleasure to have to look up “copacetic” and “antebellum” and “recrudesce”. I also had to re-read many paragraphs, so unaccustomed am I to such a high concentration of words I have to think about. Again, that didn’t feel like hard work. It felt like my brain was stretching.

Shriver doesn’t stop at the level of clicking clever words together into clever sentences. She takes the concept of onomatopoeia, for example, and runs with it until whole phrases sound like what they mean. She describes lingering grief as “soft, muffled bufferedness”; after a tennis game, “the humid southern air packed around them like pillows”.

And God, I laughed at her wordplay. “Helen wasn’t about to look a gift house in the mouth.” Yep, we’re all geeks here.

I’ve read a few of Shriver’s 13 novels – most memorably The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 – and they are immersive experiences, hard to get into, then hard to put down, not to be picked up if you’re in the mood to tune out.

So I hope she writes more short stories. There are 10 in Property. Each is brilliant, a quick stand-alone hit of wordy human mathematics, all turning on housing and homes and possessions.

Newcomers should start with Domestic Terrorism, a very funny tale of exasperated parents trying to forcibly empty their nest. In the dark Kilifi Creek, a simple story of a near-drowning, she shows that death is right beside us, right around the corner, maybe even right now. There’s a sweet little love story, The Self-Seeding Sycamore, a shot of horror in Repossession and a bleak, hilarious alternative ending to every heist film ever in Paradise to Perdition.

PROPERTY, by Lionel Shriver (Borough Press $32.99)

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary life
102328 2019-02-17 00:00:00Z Profiles

Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary li…

by Clare de Lore

Northland kaumātua, master carver, navigator and bridge builder Hec Busby was hoping for “no fuss” when he accepted a knighthood.

Read more
Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period drama Colette
102397 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period dr…

by James Robins

The story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a heroine of French literature, focuses on her early struggles.

Read more
Is barbecued meat bad for your health?
102255 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Is barbecued meat bad for your health?

by Jennifer Bowden

Sizzling meat on the barbecue is the sound and smell of summer, but proceed with caution.

Read more
March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more
IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computing
102458 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computin…

by Peter Griffin

The Q System One, as IBM calls it, doesn’t look like any conventional computer and it certainly doesn’t act like one.

Read more
James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth gap
102456 2019-02-15 14:54:45Z Politics

James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth…

by RNZ

The week before a major tax report is released, Green Party co-leader James Shaw has again challenged his government partners to back the tax.

Read more
Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma Chand
102448 2019-02-15 10:28:12Z Crime

Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma…

by Anneke Smith

Arishma Chand was just 24 when she was murdered.

Read more
Top wine picks from Central Otago
102233 2019-02-15 00:00:00Z Wine

Top wine picks from Central Otago

by Michael Cooper

Tucked into small corners, Central Otago vineyards offer nuggets worth digging for. Wine critic Michael Coopers offers his top picks.

Read more