Thursday, July 19, 2012

Extra, extra, ambition trumps revolution

Book: The New Republic

Author: Lionel Shriver

Published: 2012 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 369

Let's talk about motivation. Specifically, what motivates a lawyer to chuck it and become a journalist?

According to Lionel Shriver, it's a lifelong yearning to get out of perpetual second place. It's an urge to get in the middle of things, to be the person everyone else goes to and values for once. It's a way to be a front-runner instead of part of the pack. Edgar's been trying to pull into first place since high school, and when he gets a foreign correspondent spot on a national newspaper, he finally feels vindicated.

Of course, he only got that spot because of a good word from the golden boy high school friend Edgar's always trying to outrun. And he only gets the job because the revered, literally larger than life journalist who started the stringer has disappeared. Edgar's hired to find him and maybe write a little about what's going on around there while he's at it in the middle of a revolution.

When he gets there, he eventually, through many, many struggles with himself and the absent journalist's legacy, discovers the old guy's secret and starts using it for his own gain. Edgar has enough morals sketched out to plausibly battle his personal ambition (SO MUCH ambition, guys) to do the right thing. Which he does, eventually, but not before exploiting the old guy's ways until he accidentally kills someone.

This is one of Shriver's more balanced story lines; unusual with quasi-metaphysical touches and characters impossible to mistake for "normal," but still thoroughly imaginable. When the group of foreign correspondents get together at their watering hole and argue about the true nature of terrorism, their dialogue gets a little lecture-y (oh gee, I wonder what Shriver feels about the efficiency of terrorists blowing up their own homeland...), but that doesn't come close to taking up significant space.

The whole thing is deep and nuanced and saved from sinking in its own gravitas by its wicked sense of humor. I feel like that could describe all of Shriver's fiction.

And it's worth noting that she wrote this in about 1998, but her publisher is just now putting it out. All of the newspaper business is a throwback to the days of influential physical print.

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