The man not taken
Lionel Shriver poses a 'what if' for readers
During a recent call to best-selling author Lionel Shriver's London home, she reflects on the questions her new novel raises about the serious stuff of life: romantic love, the road not taken and, well, snooker. (The English pronunciation sounds like "snu-ker"; the American one rhymes with "looker." ) Though relatively unknown in the States, snooker takes up more space on TV than any other sport in Britain, up to 12 hours at a stretch, according to Shriver. It also plays a big part in The Post-Birthday World, Shriver's brilliant, inventive new novel. She says of the billiards-like game, "The rules are pretty simple, but the execution is complicated. The skills required are fantastic, and it's a subtle game." Shriver could very well be describing her own novel.
"This book is all execution," says the author. The plot doesn't take any dramatic twists or turns, the storyline and subject matter aren't terribly complex—as Shriver says, "I'm not trying to surprise you." Instead, she brings her matchless skills to the table in a character-driven novel that explores the different shades of love.
Those who know Shriver's work will find a definite departure from her last novel. The controversial We Need to Talk About Kevin hit bestseller lists and won the prestigious Orange Prize for fiction in 2005. In that weighty novel, a mother attempts to come to terms with the fact that her son has gone on a Columbine-like rampage. The Post-Birthday World is lighter fare, though no less thought-provoking or significant.
"I wanted to do something nicer," says Shriver. While We Need to Talk About Kevin polarized readers, Post-Birthday will (pleasantly) resonate with them. Irina McGovern is a modestly successful children's book illustrator and expatriate living in London with her longtime partner Lawrence, a think-tank researcher and fellow American. Everything changes for Irina one fateful night when she and a dashing snooker player, Ramsey Acton, share a kiss or not over his snooker table. The two tales spin out from this encounter as Shriver follows parallel versions of Irina's life with each of the two very different men.
Shriver says, "I'm hopeful that one of the things that will make this book work for readers is that while Ramsey and Lawrence are supposed to be distinctive literary characters, they also stand for archetypes that have often popped up in a reader's life. . . . It's not just a woman's issue, but I'll speak in the female. Most women have had the experience of being in a relationship with both a Ramsey and a Lawrence. One is steady, safe, companionable, the best-friend model, while the other is rocky, passionate, unstable, frightening and exhilarating." Shriver suggests that there exist many kinds of love, one not better than another. "We use this very broad term, but the truth is that the feelings that you have for individual people are like tiny one-of-a-kind works of art," she muses.
"I was especially interested in exploring the kind of strange embarrassment that creeps in even between people who are supposed to be intimate."
Shriver writes flawlessly about the physical connection between Irina and Ramsey. Of the often steamy scenes, she says "when writing about sex you can so embarrass yourself if it doesn't work." Let's just say, it works. It really works. She is equally insightful when writing about emotional intimacy.
"I was especially interested in exploring the kind of strange embarrassment that creeps in even between people who are supposed to be intimate." One of her favorite lines from those scenes is when Lawrence refuses to tell Irina his fantasies: "Tragically Lawrence cared more about being respected than being known." Shriver believes that sometimes you can't have both. She says that she tried to keep the sides of the book balanced and notes that there is a high price to pay for each of her two male characters. "What is harder," she asks, "losing someone through betrayal or illness? Is it worse to betray or to be betrayed?" Shriver chooses to let the answers remain ambiguous. "I don't want to lecture my reader or draw too many conclusions for the reader," she says.
The Post-Birthday World is a book to reflect upon, preferably over a glass of wine, or a whole bottle—if you're Ramsey. "In which instance was Irina better or worse off? Very hard to say. Up to you. I enjoy that. . . . In a way, it creates a burden on the reader, I suppose, but a welcome one," Shriver says. At one point in the book, Irina explains to Ramsey the theme of the children's book she's illustrating and writing. "The idea is that you don't have only one destiny . . . as if everything hinges on one decision. But whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides. You're dealing with a set of trade-offs. There are varying advantages and disadvantages to each competing future. But I didn't want to have one bad future and one good. In both, everything is all right, really. Everything is all right."
Born in Gastonia, North Carolina, Shriver fled the South like her heels were on fire. She says that she had that feeling that "you weren't where the action was . . . especially if you were ambitious." It was years later when visiting that she discovered that it was "a nice place to live . . . agreeable people . . . more cosmopolitan and sophisticated and that you could finally find sun-dried tomatoes there, not just fried green ones." Now in her late 40s, she's lived all over the world, in Northern Ireland for more than 10 years, and currently she and her husband, jazz musician Jeff Williams, divide their time between London and New York. Where does she feel most at home? It's comforting to know that even someone as fiercely intelligent as Shriver occasionally indulges in schmaltz. She says that recently watching the silly post-apocalyptic movie The Day After Tomorrow, in which New York is the target of a number of cataclysmic events, made her realize that if she has any emotional pull to a certain place, it's New York.
Shriver says her hope for The Post-Birthday World is that it will be "inviting, accessible and entertaining to readers." It is all those things and more. A caveat: For those who like their novels neatly tied up with the proverbial bow, well, they're not going to get that kind of present. With this book, however, Shriver has given readers a gift, one to be turned over in the hands and appreciated, held up to the light and admired and, most importantly, enjoyed.
Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock.