The strange, extraordinary authority of Lionel Shriver

by Catherine Woulfe / 11 May, 2018

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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.

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