Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World

In short: a great novel. Go out and buy it at once.

For a fine explication by the writer herself, see this Powell's interview.

For a longer, more thoughtful, public-discourse-destroying analysis, keep reading.

In Birthday, Shriver employs what seems like a writer's trick to devastating effect. Irina Galina McGovern, daughter of a Russian mother and American father, is happily living in London with her partner, Lawrence Trainer. Irina is a children's book illustrator, Lawrence, a terrorism expert at a think tank. Their near-decade long partnership--somehow, they have never gotten around to marrying--is stable, soild, settled. If Lawrence is emtionally limited, he is also immensely supportive, helping Irina with her career, chiding her about smoking, encouraging her frugal lifestyle. Their domesticity is mostly pleasant, their flat homey, Irina's lovingly prepared meals delicious and wholesome.

Enter Ramsay Acton, famous snooker player, known for his dashing good looks and inability to win the Grand Prix. He and Irina meet through Jude Hartford, Ramsay's wife and Irina's collaborator on a children's book project. When the foursome meet for dinner, all manner of sparks fly. Soon afterward, Jude breaks with both Ramsay and Irina. At Lawrence's urging--he is an avid snooker fan--the couple cultivates a friendship with the lonely Ramsay. Irina begins battling her ferocious attaction to Ramsay; when the two meet for Ramsay's birthday dinner alone (Lawrence is away on a business trip), the book forks into two narratives. There is "good" Irina, playing it safe, staying with Lawrence, watching Ramsay a bit wistfully from afar. Then there is "bad" Irina, acting rashly on her attraction, leaving steady Lawrence and their quiet life for a crash course in sexual gluttony.

Life with Ramsay is tulmultuous, a whirl of endless snooker tournaments, eating, drinking, and sex. Lots of sex. Ramsay, by his own admission, is not an educated man. The politics that obsess Lawrence are little more than meaningless to him; his lifework is snooker and Irina. He is jealous, socially unreliable, and drinks to excess. When Irina feebly attempts to reassert herself by staying off the endless snooker tour to work, Ramsay throws amazing scenes. Yet Irina is powerless in her consuming sexual attraction to this one man. Their fights only lead to more intense sexual encounters.

In her other life, with Lawrence, Irina is diligent, productive, and driven to sneaking cigarettes on the sly. If she is sexually frustrated, she buries it, for Lawrence is so many other things. Brilliant, handsome in his way, Lawrence can be something of a bully; his favorite epithet is moron.

One of the great pleasures of Birthday is its capaciousness. At 517 pages, Shriver can both burrow into her characters and slide in a great deal of commentary about Americans both home and abroad, Irish politics and the deadly ignorance accompaying them, and the niggling what-ifs most of us harbor.

Shriver has a perfect ear for language. Irina, daughter of a Russian dancer, is fluent; Russian winds its way through the book, a reminder of the good wife and dutiful daughter she is expected to be. Irina is also occasionally prey to Britishisms invading her speech. Lawrence derides her use of words like "gobsmacked" or the verb "to rubbish." While Irina weakly defends her right to incorporate what she endlessly hears around her, Ramsay uses the antithesis of American English. Spannered, gobsmacked, ducky, pet, oi, shite, bird. Here he is, at dinner with Irina and Lawrence, holding forth on snooker balls:

"'Plastic,' said Ramsey, spewing smoke. 'It's thanks to snooker that plastic were invented. Changed the face of the world, this game did. Though some would say'--he clicked a nail against the Perspex salt cellar--'not for the better...Them ivory balls was so bleeding dear that the sport were desperate for a substitute, and put out a reward, right?'" (215)

Shriver's ear for Americans abroad is no more forgiving, with our shouting, long vowels, and honking mispronunciations of ancient names. Nor does she spare us a long windup to 9/11: Lawrence, from his vantage point at London's prestigious Blue Sky think tank, saw the disastrous day from long off. Shriver's handling of this most-dfficult-to-write-about event is admirable. She does not allow two Americans living in Europe to assume ownership of the catastrophe; the careful noting throughout of African, Irish, and earlier American (the first World Trade Center attack, Oaklahoma City) political woes points up 9/11's place in a long series of international crises many Americans tried to ignore. And though 9/11 could serve as a neat pivot point, Shriver doesn't linger unecessarily. Irina, like the rest of us, is swept inexorably forward.

The novel's close is masterful, suprising, and beautifully wrought. I won't spoil it here. Go read this book, and revel in its excellence.

Lionel Shriver: The Post-Birthday World. New York: Harper Collins. 2007.


Anonymous bdr said...

One of the perks of my job is I can walk across the quad and up into the stacks and ZING! the book is in my hands. I'll let you know what I think.

May 30, 2007 6:41 AM  

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