Journalists, you guys. Does it naturally draw the sanctimonious or do you just have to be that way to apply for the job? And is any profession more self regarding? If I have to read another defence of journalistic free speech/vitriol against regulation/hagiography of the Reporter, praising the nobility of taking photos of lady celebrities’ vaginas I will… not be remotely surprised. Like shoegaze was known in the early 1990s, journalism is the scene that celebrates itself. Except, you know, shoegaze was actually worth listening to. So it is wonderful that Lionel Shriver’s book, written in 1998 and full of this smug, self important type has been released now. If I needed another reason to be a fan of hers after So Much For That (my favourite book of 2010, and in our shop for only $19.99! Though the trade off for that is a TERRIBLE cover). It follows misanthropic former lawyer Edgar Kellogg, who all his life has longed to be a larger-than-life character, someone popular on whom every conversation would hang, someone that inspires awe, instead of merely a follower. Ironically it is his following of his old high school idol Toby Falconer which leads him to journalism as a method of becoming this person. Kellogg is posted to Barba, a backwater, desolate province of Portugal which is nonetheless home to a violent terrorist group, the Soldados Ousados de Barba or SOB (lol good one Shrives). Mysteriously, attacks claimed by the SOBs (still funny) have dried up, just as Kellogg’s predecessor Barrington Sadler (just the type of person who Kellogg wants to be) has disappeared. What follows is a rollicking romp (yup) which, while definitely humorous in tone, has a lot of questions to ask about terrorism, journalism, ethics, and, to lamely quote the blurb, “What makes charismatic people so magnetic, while the rest of us inspire a shrug? Whats their secret? And in the end, who has the better life – the admired, or the admirer?”. As usual, Shriver’s writing is crackling and full of attitude (I hate myself for saying that but it’s true), and she vividly brings Barba to life in such a way that you never question it’s awfulness. The characters too are highly entertaining, characters, especially the collective of fellow journalists and Edgar’s mental image of Barrington, with whom he converses often. An important theme in the book is how we perceive things: Edgar is a master of ‘inversion’, or how the same fact can be presented in two diametrically opposed ways, which allows him to see the positive side of the thoroughly un-positive things he is doing, and his slide into immorality, like the metaphorical train wreck, is engaging in a horrible way, and even though you know what’s going to happen it’s still it remains eminently readable. Also, unlike a train wreck it’s hugely fun.
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver