A Mug’s Game

Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Lionel Shriver, Paris, March 2017

In Lionel Shriver’s world, there are “Mugs” and there are “Mooches.” Mooches live off the generosity of Mugs, who work, pay taxes, build up insurance deductibles, and generally follow the rules. In our warped society, Shriver’s books argue time and again, Mugs are suckers and Mooches are winners. It’s a division she laid out in the starkest terms in her tenth and perhaps most devastating novel, So Much for That (2010), which served, albeit in novelistic form, as a timely indictment of the American health care system.

All his life, Shep Knacker had been a Mug. Forty-eight years old, he had single-handedly provided for his wife, Glynis, and their two children, paid exorbitant rent on their house in Westchester, and made out the occasional “loan”—never repaid—to his self-financing filmmaker sister. “It struck him,” Shriver writes, “how people who acted above money—arty types like his sister or his Old-Testament father—were the same folks who never earned any to speak of.” Meanwhile, Shep had been penny-pinching for his idea of “the Afterlife”: early retirement on a remote African island where his savings would support the family blissfully ever after. But on the night Shep finally buys one-way plane tickets and announces his plan to Glynis, she remains eerily quiet. “I’m afraid I will need your health insurance,” she finally tells him. It’s good-bye, Afterlife. Hello, mesothelioma.

Soon, Glynis is withering before his eyes. So is their savings account, which dwindles from $731,778 to $3,492 in a single year, precipitated by a health insurance company “from hell” and an out-of-network specialist foisted on them by a doctor who infers, infuriatingly, that, “given the stakes,” money “is no object.” To drive the point home with a sledgehammer, Shriver presents us with another Mug, Shep’s best friend, Jackson, whose teenage daughter suffers from a rare degenerative condition that requires constant medical intervention. If it wasn’t clear just how emasculated these Mugs are, Jackson undergoes a penile enlargement operation—horribly botched.

Jackson has long known what Shep is only now beginning to find out: that insurers count on people like him to fork out whatever it takes to care for their loved ones, that “sneakily, little by little, the Mooches had hijacked a system that hadn’t started out half as bad into a situation that would have mortified the founding fathers.” It is hard not to read the soliloquy-prone Jackson as a mouthpiece for his author, who doesn’t shy away from injecting politics into her work and public life. In 2016, Shriver caused controversy when she wore a sombrero while giving a speech in which she assailed the aversion to “cultural appropriation” in literature. “This latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice,” she said. In that speech, Shriver…

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