Sunday 8 May 2016

On Lionel Shriver and Margot Ledbetter

Lionel Shriver, responding to Rosanna Greenstreet's questionnaire in the Guardian yesterday:

What keeps you awake at night?

My own bad prose.

In common with many readers I first became aware of  Shriver with the publication of her eighth book, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003). This was a huge global success - everybody read it and the naggingly memorable title has entered the language (and how many book titles do that?)

In the current issue of Literary Review (May 2016), Jude Cook praises Shriver's latest novel The Mandibles, set in the year 2047 when the American economy has flatlined. 

Cook says:

The Mandibles is that fabled thing, the laugh-out-loud read. As socially engaged writers from Dickens to Bellow have known, the comic novel is the proper place to be serious. The sorry tale of a planet losing its struggle with greed and finite resources is leavened by Shriver's inimitable vinegary wit: 'The one thing New York City was bound never to run out of was homeless people".

Now inimitable vinegary wit is clearly a Good Thing, but the sample provided doesn't strike me as either inimitable, or vinegary (even if vinegar can pass muster as a leavening agent). It certainly isn't witty in the 'what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed' sense. It's a humdrum observation clumsily expressed and we need to look elsewhere for gold standard zingers. Cook provides some:

Skype is now 'FleXface', while YouTube is waggishly dubbed 'Inner-Tube' And Avery, mother of Goog and Bing, comes to regret naming her boys after defunct search engines. Elsewhere there are scabrous swipes at publishing: fiction is 'a free for all, everybody writing it and nobody reading it - and absolutely nobody buying it."

Could even the most accomplished stand-up comic work a room with such thin and inconsequential stuff? Elsewhere (and quoted admiringly by the reviewer) a father tells his daughter: 'Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present'. This has been a commonplace critical view since the days of H. G. Wells - all science fiction, or speculative fiction, all utopian and dystopian fiction (or whatever you want to call it) is about the priorities and anxieties at the time of writing, in one way or another.

'The relish and precision with which Shriver describes the Mandibles' fall from grace cannot be overstated' adds Cook. I'm not being curmudgeonly when I say that all the examples of Shriver's accomplishment cited by Cook in her review leave me unconvinced. Is there a term for this kind of sceptical resistance when faced with enthusiastic, well-informed endorsement? I'd like to offer one: Ledbetterism.

Margot Ledbetter, played by Penelope Keith, was the posh neighbour of Tom and Barbara Good in the BBC situation comedy The Good Life. Some of you may remember it: Richard Briers (Tom) and Felicity Kendall (Barbara) had opted out of the rat race and were intent on becoming self-sufficient in bourgeoise Surbiton. A flimsy enough premise to be sure, although the best sit-coms tend to have that in common - three priests stuck on a remote island; scrap metal merchants stuck in a room; a manic hotel manager).

Where was I? Oh yes - one of the running gags was that Margot was glacially aloof and condescending when dealing with the ramshackle Goods. Whenever Tom and Barbara and Jerry (Margot's affable husband played superbly by Paul Eddington) were chortling together she would be utterly perplexed and say, with genuine concern: "What's funny? Why is everyone laughing?"  When it comes to Lionel Shriver I need to think about Margot.

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