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.


Why the vicar of Grantchester is James Norton's most complex character yet
91260 2018-05-22 00:00:00Z Television

Why the vicar of Grantchester is James Norton's mo…

by Fiona Rae

Actor James Norton has played a painter, a prince and a murderer, but none has been so conflicted as Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers in Grantchester.

Read more
The seven big threats to KiwiBuild
91218 2018-05-22 00:00:00Z Property

The seven big threats to KiwiBuild

by Nikki Mandow

KiwiBuild aims to provide 100,000 homes over the next decade. But can it deliver? Some in construction regard the target as hopelessly over-ambitious.

Read more
Win the Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
91256 2018-05-21 16:48:31Z Win

Win the Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Po…

by The Listener

To celebrate the arrival of Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive to Sky Arts, the Listener is giving away copies of his complete tales and poems.

Read more
Get the best of both worlds at 1947 eatery
91249 2018-05-21 16:27:35Z Auckland Eats

Get the best of both worlds at 1947 eatery

by Kate Milliken

Metro Top 50 restaurant 1947 eatery is all about the traditions of Indian cuisine in a sleek, modern setting.

Read more
A Garage Project party, a film about Coco's Cantina and other Auckland food news
91214 2018-05-21 14:22:42Z Auckland Eats

A Garage Project party, a film about Coco's Cantin…

by Kate Richards

What’s happening and what’s coming up in Auckland food.

Read more
Siri, what the hell is happening in Westworld?
91196 2018-05-21 10:38:46Z Television

Siri, what the hell is happening in Westworld?

by Greg Dixon

The revolting robots of Westworld’s first series are back with a vengeance in the second outing – and it's all quite confusing.

Read more
Government cans plans for mega-prison at Waikeria
91188 2018-05-21 08:50:48Z Social issues

Government cans plans for mega-prison at Waikeria

by Craig McCulloch

Plans to build a new mega-prison at Waikeria have been scrapped, but the government has yet to decide what to do instead.

Read more
Auckland Council stalled release of reports
91183 2018-05-21 07:20:04Z Auckland Issues

Auckland Council stalled release of reports

by Todd Niall

The release of the $935k consultants' report on a downtown stadium was the third time RNZ had to resort to the Ombudsman to extract public information

Read more