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 spoke of the novelist’s right to imagine characters of any ethnic or cultural background, without having to worry that the “culture police” will find such portrayals inauthentic.
Whatever you make of Shriver’s politics, there is, in many of her books, an authenticity problem with minority characters—but not for the reasons she thinks. How credible can a character be if one of the only things we learn about her is her “enthusiasm for Obama” or that she “preferred Django Unchained to Twelve Years a Slave”? One whose “single cornrow” others find “mesmerizing”? Who says things like “Me and Liam, we awake”? And yet, at a time when the novel is being maligned as an irrelevant literary genre, the defense may do well to present Shriver’s body of work as Exhibit A. Her novels have an almost prescient way of conjuring imminent disaster. From a mass shooting at a school in her breakout novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), to obesity and self-image in Big Brother (2013), to a financial meltdown and a border wall that separates the United States from Mexico in The Mandibles (2016), Shriver has become one of the more effective social commentators of our post-truth era, a veritable “Cassandra of American letters,” as Ruth Franklin described her in The New York Times Book Review.
The specificity Shriver sometimes lacks on a small scale—in character development; in what motivates an individual, not a type—is very much alive in her descriptions of large social forces. In the not-too-distant future laid out in The Mandibles, for instance, Hispanics have overtaken Caucasians as the majority population in the United States, so that you now have to “press two for English.” Reality has become so conflated with reality show that Judge Judy has been named a Supreme Court Justice. In this kind of environment, Shriver seemed to forewarn her readers, who knows who might be elected president?
Property, Shriver’s new collection of short stories, is bookended by two novellas, the latter of which, The Subletter, features the ultimate Mooch. It is set in Belfast, where Shriver lived for over a decade and which she evokes with all the passion and ferocity of a spurned lover. Sara, Shriver’s protagonist, is a “professional American”: she writes a column for the Belfast Telegraph called “Yankee Doodles” that is supposed to lend an American sensibility to local news and to offer insight into events in the United States. “Ironically,” Shriver writes, “it was a lukewarm allegiance to Uncle Sam that had facilitated her expatriation in the first place.”
And yet Sara’s adopted city hardly proves better.
Sara had never quite located the backslapping, more-the-merrier animation that was ostensibly so Irish, and definitive of Belfast’s holy grail of “good crack.” Perhaps the renowned boisterousness and loquacity that attracted American tourists to the island was a myth; sure Sara’s sampling of pub life was duller and meaner than cliché would have it.
Even the magnificent Irish hillsides are deceiving: “It rained here all day, every day, and that was why the pastureland gleamed such a seductive green.”
Into this landscape enters Emer, another American woman, new to Belfast and searching for a place to stay. Sara suspects that Emer is a “conflict junkie” or, worse, a nationalist—a person who suffers not only from self-pity but from “triumphalist self-pity.” Still, out of some vague idea that she might soon be leaving for Bangkok, Sara offers Emer her apartment. Except she never ends up going. The apartment becomes, not unlike Northern Ireland itself, a flashpoint between two people. To make matters worse, Emer turns out to be an inconsiderate slob who ravages Sara’s pantry:
Emer was a taker. Everywhere she went she would siphon off a little more than she gave back. The Emers of this world were levied on the whole species, like a tax. She pulled the pickpocketing off partly by being attractive, but also by being arty and passionate. She was dedicating her life to justice, empathy, and lamentation. The least the philistine ruck could do was to take up her logistical slack.
Emer is in Belfast to write a memoir. (Lest you be tempted to roll your eyes and hiss “Millenial!,” the novella takes place in 1998.) This is telling because, in Shriver’s writing, Mooches are inextricably linked to the arts. “Ever notice how these arty bohemian types think we owe them a living?” Jackson asks Shep in So Much for That. “As if we’re all supposed to feel so grateful that they’re creating meaning and beauty for us poor uncultured Neanderthals.” Curiously for a writer who toiled on seven novels in near obscurity before Kevin was published, Shriver seems to have remarkably little patience for striving artists. Or maybe it’s that she demands more from them: not solely an inclination for the craft but also the labor to back it up. While much in her latest collection deals—as its title suggests—with real estate and the notion of ownership, it could just as easily have been titled Work. Mugs have jobs; Mooches don’t. “It was curious how furious it made some people that you didn’t want to ‘make something of yourself,’” she writes, tongue-in-cheek, in The Standing Chandelier, the book’s other novella—a rather saccharine tale of a friendship’s unwinding that turns, as nearly all her stories do, very bitter.
It comes as little surprise to learn that Shriver is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She is an unforgiving writer. Her books are astringent, cautionary; they tend to spiral downward. “We are both hard-working, self-righteous and cheap,” Shriver once wrote of herself and her father (though unlike him, she has abandoned all forms of religion). She has been compared with the likes of Zola and Dreiser—naturalists who were interested in human action as a product of social or biological forces—and yet not enough has been said of her work as a moralist, in the vein of Voltaire, say, or Coetzee.
In her novel Big Brother, the symbolically named narrator, Pandora, receives a fateful visit from her once-admired older brother Edison. Over the years, Edison’s career as a jazz pianist had reached a dead-end and he has taken to couch surfing between friends. Now it’s Pandora’s turn to put him up, but when he is right in front of her at the airport she fails to recognize him: “I peered into the round face, its features stretched as if painted on a balloon.” Edison had become obese—so obese that two flight attendants had to wheel him out in a special wheelchair. With Pandora’s help he then embarks on an extreme liquid diet, which she decides to join. She herself has put on a few superfluous pounds—mostly out of spite for her ascetic husband—and she welcomes the opportunity to shed them. But as their thrill of consumption turns into a mutual race for starvation, neither sibling knows when to stop. Moderation proves elusive: “After all this build-up, food is a big drag,” Pandora tells her brother. “It doesn’t take much time. It’s not interesting. It never was interesting.” Self-abnegation, as per Shriver, lies just on the other side of self-indulgence. The difficult part is restraint.
Some of the stories in Property may likewise be read as parables on the perils of greed or excess, or both. In “Paradise to Perdition,” the protagonist, Barry Mendelssohn, has embezzled millions of dollars and travels to the most expensive resort he can find online—the ominously named Eternal Rest—imagining “a life of ease, elegance, and all-you-can-eat sashimi.” Barry’s escape certainly starts out that way. But it quickly becomes apparent that there are only so many lychee martinis one can down and so many Balinese massages one can endure before the whole thing starts to grate. No matter how abusive the insults Barry hurls at the poor hotel staff, they answer deferentially, using his alias: “Yes, Meester Perez. So sorry, Meester Perez.” Soon Barry realizes that “what he grew truly starved for at Eternal Rest wasn’t a coconut custard that lived up to expectations. It was resistance.” By the end, he is on his way back to Paterson, New Jersey, and looks forward to the “invigoration” of prison. The moral is about as subtle as that of a Mother Goose tale.
Or consider the entertaining story “Domestic Terrorism,” about Harriet, the mother of a thirty-one-year-old community college dropout who refuses to move out of his parents’ home. Her son’s bedroom is downstairs but he prefers to “prowl” his parents’ upper floor, the better to raid the fridge. When he shuffles to their bedroom one night to announce that they are out of paper towels, Harriet casts an unsparing eye on him:
In his usual summer uniform of T-shirt and boxers, his flat feet bare and spreading like melting ice cream on the wooden parquet, Liam continued to stand in the doorway, being. It was his habit. One of the many responsibilities he shirked was keeping up his end of conversation. He seemed to regard the sheer fact of himself as both comment and reply. While never having been talkative, he was possessed of a weighty presence, and this sense of mass was literal only in part. Sure, he got no exercise and was on the heavy side, but becoming outright obese would have required ambition on a scale beyond him. He forever exuded the baffled, slightly dazed, not unpleasantly surprised quality of having just been transported to another universe, and of still being unsure of how things in the seventh dimension were done. Try this, Harriet thought: In the seventh dimension, we use a sponge.
This is well-honed satire: Liam’s self-regard as “both comment and reply”; his maddening habit of “being.” When Harriet and her husband decide, finally, to kick him out, they still cover his rent and scour thrift stores for furniture for him, which they themselves haul up the stairs while he “provided helpful pointers from below.” Guess who the Mugs are and who’s the Mooch? At one point, Liam’s father turns to Harriet: “Do you not…like him?” he asks, incredulous.
The question is apt. In Shriver’s books, children are invariably a source of concern or disappointment. They fall ill; they extort; they turn on you. They think the world owes them something. “That summer the boy had announced that he’d decided to become a screenwriter as if doing Ridley Scott a personal favor” is how Pandora describes her stepson in Big Brother. Kevin Khatchadourian is perhaps the most extreme example of this—a fifteen-year-old who, when We Need to Talk About Kevin opens, had gunned down seven students, a cafeteria worker, and a beloved teacher at his high school, showing no sign of remorse afterward. Eva, Kevin’s mother and the novel’s narrator, is racked with guilt that her lack of maternal attachment to Kevin may have been the source of his sociopathy. Upon first holding him, after his birth,
I felt—absent. I kept scrabbling around in myself for this new indescribable emotion, like stirring a crowded silverware drawer for the potato peeler…. Minutes wore on, Kevin would yowl, rest limply, and jerk irritably from time to time; I felt the first stirrings of what, appallingly, I can only call boredom.
What makes the novel so memorable is the deep empathy we come to feel for Eva and, by extension, even for Kevin. Its strength lies in its insight into the crevasses of the human mind and in its absence of a clear-cut moral trajectory. It shows how powerful Shriver can be when she hews close to her characters, relinquishing her tendency to mock and to sermonize.
I hesitate to draw biographical connections—to point out that Shriver, who is sixty, has no children of her own—except that she herself has made them: “I did use the novel to explore what put me off about the prospect of having kids,” she told an interviewer in 2010 about writing Kevin. “Boredom, for example. Constant interruption. Responsibility (e.g., being blamed if they turned out badly).” Later in the same interview, however, she went on to challenge this whole line of questioning:
I’m starting to get irked by the way the personal motivation behind my work is highly exaggerated. Female fiction writers are often cast as people who can only tell their own stories and only write from personal experience, whereas male fiction writers are often cast as mysterious shamans who can conjure great art from thin air.
The double standard Shriver rightly called out may be stretched even further. A few years ago, a debate broke out in literary circles about “likable” characters and whether likability is a trait we unfairly expect from female authors and their female characters. (The discussion was sparked by Claire Messud’s complicated narrator in her 2013 novel, The Woman Upstairs.) But a more pertinent question in literature has always centered not on likability but on believability. We don’t like Humbert Humbert, but the discomfiting truth is that by the end of Lolita we feel that we know him. Shriver’s finest work, such as Kevin, elicits such intimate unease. Not so with her Mooches—her Liams, her Emers, her Edisons. They smell of cardboard.
By far the best story in her new collection is “Kilifi Creek,” which depicts yet another Mooch but one who is more well-rounded. Liana is a young white American woman touring East Africa. Her main hubris appears to be her youth:
It was a brand of imposition of which young people like Liana thought nothing: showing up on an older couple’s doorstep, the home of friends of friends of friends, playing on a tentative-enough connection that she’d have had difficulty constructing the sequence of referrals.
The doorstep where she shows up is on the Kenyan coast and belongs to the expat Henleys, a well-known photographer and her safari guide husband:
Though Liana imagined herself undemanding, even the easy to please required fresh sheets, which would have to be laundered after her departure, then dried and folded. She would require a towel for swimming, a second for her shower. She would expect dinner, replete with discreet refreshments of her wineglass, strong filtered coffee every morning, and—what cost older people more than a sponger in her early twenties realized—steady conversational energy channeled in her direction for the duration of her stay.
On day four of her six-night stay with the Henleys—“an eyeblink for a twenty-three-year-old, a ‘bloody long time’ for the Brit who had groused to his wife”—Liana goes for a swim in a vast creek surrounded by boulders. She ventures too far, and slams her foot on a rock. “The creek had bitten her,” Shriver writes. “Now fitful, the sidestroke had transformed from luxury to chore.”
“Kilifi Creek” works not because of some moral dichotomy between the parasitic guest and her upstanding hosts but thanks to the truthfulness of the generational divide between them. From a story about a “sponger” it becomes something more: a meditation on time itself. After she finally reaches shore, Liana catalogs the incident in her mind as one in an “offbeat collection” of times she almost died. The story then jumps forward to another life-threatening incident—one from which she isn’t so narrowly spared. It’s a harrowing shift, and yet the description of Liana’s untimely death is deeply stirring: “Above, the evening sky rippled into the infinite ocean that had waited to greet her for fourteen years: largely good years, really.”
This abbreviation of life—condensed to an essence—is reminiscent of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (2011), which lingers on childhood recollections for the first half of the novel only to sum up the narrator’s later years in a single paragraph: he marries, has a child, buys a house, divorces. “Life went by,” Barnes writes simply. In “Kilifi Creek,” there is a similar jarring transition between the minutia of Liana’s near drowning—her hosts draping her in a blanket as she dozes off, wet-haired, on their sofa—and her future. “Predictably, Liana grew into a civilized woman with a regard for the impositions of laundry,” Shriver writes. There is no sentimentality here; no lesson to be gleaned. The Afterlife was never going to pan out, Shriver makes clear. The spiral was always pointing downward.