Lionel Shriver taunts the ‘culture police’ and more in her new book

Veteran novelists usually have a particular, predictable asset — a knack for characterization, clever plotting, a distinctive style. Lionel Shriver, though, is oddly unpredictable — and that’s what keeps her interesting. She seems to actively resist satisfying expectations.

Her fiction has moved from the provocative “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2003), about the mother of a school shooter, to the more intimate “Big Brother” (2013), about a woman caring for her morbidly obese sibling, to the wildly high-concept near-future dystopia “The Mandibles” (2016). Her 2020 novel, “The Motion of a Body Through Space” is a satire about the fitness industry.

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“Abominations,” Shriver’s first book of nonfiction, is more predictable. Throughout this collection of written-to-order essays, speeches and op-eds, she assumes single tone: provocateur. Whether she’s talking about Brexit (which she supported), cultural appropriation (“a contrived taboo”) or taxes (“the criminalization of making money”), Shriver is ever the contrarian. And for the most part, she doesn’t seem to care that about the consequences of ruffling feathers: “Bring on the ridicule,” she taunts, “I’d welcome being laughed at, so long as I’m spared any real-life manifestations of the visions that haunt me.” Though she occasionally postures as being chilled by PC scolds, she mostly sells herself as comfortably delivering opinions that are “underexpressed, unpopular, or downright dangerous.”

In her fiction, Shriver’s polemicist side tends to go down fairly easy. Her 2010 novel “So Much for That” was a jeremiad about American health care that cruised on the strength of its characters. Left to facts alone, though, Shriver is often exasperating , missing the target or vigorously stabbing at straw men. That tendency is most pronounced in a series of pieces on cancel culture, the most infamous of which was a 2016 address in Brisbane, Australia, where she bemoaned cultural appropriation and trolled the crowd by donning a sombrero. “Ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all,” she warned.

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There and elsewhere in “Abominations,” she grumbles about a “culture police” that’s trying to sideline authors who write outside their lived experience. “I am now much more anxious about depicting characters of different races, and accents make me nervous,” she writes. As if thinking twice about that might be a bad thing; as if navigating into that anxiety and trying to make sense of it weren’t a writer’s job. Given that the growing wave of book bans largely targets LGBTQ writers, it may be that Shriver’s radar for who represents the “culture police” and who’s endangered by it is a tick faulty.

Our “dour and censorious age,” she continues, has led to diversity initiatives that can only mean that a publisher “no longer regards the company’s raison d’etre as the acquisition and dissemination of good books.” Writing about transgender people either sends her down slippery-slope thinking — “We seem to be entering an era in which everything about ourselves that we don’t like is subject to revision” — or infantile cracks about pronouns and LGBTQ+ culture. (“A three-year-old bashing the keyboard would produce a more functional shorthand.”)

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But her arguments lack depth. Liberals should watch what they say, she cautions, because it riles Trumpers tired of “being told what they can and cannot say.” (Rest assured, they’re riled already — and saying what they want anyhow. ) The removal of Confederate monuments in her hometown of Raleigh, NC, she laments, “would result in an ineffable atmospheric loss.” On the evidence of the essay, the ineffable atmosphere is chiefly composed of hot air.

The compressed, click-chasing nature of the op-ed might explain the flimsiness in some of her arguments. The bad news is that Shriver’s affinity for the polemic has infected her fiction. In “The Motion of a Body Through Space,” she expressed a weird grievance that exercise is bad and faddish (except the way Shriver does it). The novel focuses on a 60-something man who finds the time to train for a triathlon because he’s been pushed out of his job by a young Nigerian-born woman who’s weaponized her gender-studies degree to undermine every White man in sight. This lecture-as-fiction may have been the worst novel of 2020.

And yet: Shriver followed up that book with “Should We Stay or Should We Go” (2021), a witty and sensitive speculative tale about a couple’s varied responses to old age. There are some similarly well-made pieces in “Abominations” — considerations of her religious upbringing, remembrances of her late brother, a funny riff on self-improvement during covid quarantine, another on the evolving misuse of words like “performative.”

But Shriver can’t seem to miss an opportunity for hollow provocation. In a 2020 speech that appears toward the end of the book, she delivers an extended feat of covid-era catastrophizing, a mélange of reasonable concerns about inflation and monetary policy with more curious statements about how China will exploit America’s anti-racist movement, somehow, and we’ll be left without iPhones. “I may be an alarmist crank,” she concedes. But that’s okay. Contemporary literary culture is roomier than Shriver lets on. There is space for cranks. Here’s an entire book proving it.

Mark Athitakisis a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”

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