Book review: ‘The New Republic’ by Lionel Shriver

It takes guts to write a satire about terrorism — and Lionel Shriver has guts. She has already published biting novels about the failings of the U.S. healthcare system (“So Much for That”) and a school shooter (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”). Terrorism? Why not?

In “The New Republic,” the problem is in Barba, a Portuguese peninsula with a legitimate yet tiny political movement seeking independence, and an unaffiliated — so they say — terrorist arm that has taken up international violence. The terrorists, Os Soldados Ousaos de Barba, go by the acronym “SOB” — yes, it’s OK to be amused.

Invented by Shriver, Barba is singularly unlovely: It is battered by relentless winds, has hideous architecture and the hairy pear — the native noxious, smelly, staining fruit — serves as the basis of its inedible cuisine. The only lure for immigrants is its proximity to Morocco; that Muslim influx, however, is the core issue for the anti-immigrant, independent-minded local political movement, the Creamies.

Journalists covering the conflict gather in a grim bar called the Barking Rat, or the Rat, for short; that’s where we find Edgar Kellogg (nice name!), a novice reporter on his first assignment. Though new, Kellogg is hardly a cub, however — he’s a 37-year-old former attorney who, fed up with a lifetime of being a sidekick, has decided journalism will be his ticket to stardom.

If you know much about the state of contemporary journalism, this will sound like pure folly. It’s not meant to be; the book, written in 1998, is set at the turn of the millennium, before Sept. 11, before the 2008 economic crisis. Originally, publishers weren’t interested in an amusing book about journalists and terrorism; after 9/11, they didn’t want to touch it. But it wasn’t the Taliban that informed Shriver’s fiction; it was the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which she covered as an American journalist in Belfast.

Kellogg has the idea that being a journalist will be glamorous, partly based on the successful career of his former friend, Toby Falconer. In high school, Kellogg, who was fat and got thin, showed determination, but Falconer was a perfect, handsome and charismatic ideal. “Edgar’s public manner — gruff, tough, wary, and deadpan — was wildly discrepant with his secret weakness for becoming captivated by passing Falconers, and he worried privately that the whole purpose of his crusty exterior was to contain an inside full of goo.” When they meet up after 20 years and Falconer is not what Kellogg had imagined, it doesn’t shake his bitterness at feeling second-rate.

He carries that bitterness to Barba, where he lands smack in the shadow of another larger-than-life character, Barrington Saddler. He’s assigned to be a stringer while Saddler, who has gone missing, was a star reporter. Saddler has been to all the world’s hot spots, always at the right times. He looms so large in the minds of the reporters that they sit around the Rat trying not to mention him — going less than 10 minutes at a time.

Kellogg falls in with the expat reporters. There is Win Pyre, a longtime Reuters correspondent; Martha Hulbert, a mild Washington Post reporter; ambitious Roland Ordway from the Guardian; Trudy Sisson, a dilettante freelance photographer; the New York Times’ Alexis Collier, authoritative and arrogant; and Henry Durham, whose family was a victim of the SOB, who is occasionally writing for a British paper. Their casual banter, collegiality and nominal rivalry ground the book in the daily grind of journalism.

It may be Durham’s wife, Nicola Tremaine, who is the most insightful of the bunch; she is also a beauty who captures Kellogg’s attention. And it figures since she captured Saddler’s before him — with greater success, of course. The much-missed Saddler had a personality as big as his person. More than 6 feet tall and broad, he was not handsome, really — his description uncannily evokes Stephen Fry — yet was universally attractive and adored. He is the stuff of legend, and Kellogg, who is lodged at Saddler’s place, driving Saddler’s car and drinking Saddler’s excellent liquor, is once again keenly aware that he does not measure up.

Saddler’s disappearance is not considered ominous, more a quirk of personality, or luck. He seems to always be where the action is, and since his departure, the SOB attacks have gone dormant. Kellogg gamely sets out to write about the place and its politics, meeting with the smooth-talking head of the political party, telling the story of Barba’s immigrant tensions. Yet with Saddler’s things all around, he stumbles onto a connection between Saddler and the SOB, and gets drawn in as a new offensive begins. His fellow journalists mutter, not so subtly, that he must have inherited Saddler’s underground contact list. He and Nicola get teasingly closer. He is becoming the man at the center of things.

Shriver is an incisive social satirist with a clear grip on the ironies of our contemporary age. The man who leads the political arm, the Creamies, gains international acceptance because of the violence perpetrated by the SOB, which he swears he has no connection to. Resemblances to the IRA and Sinn Fein, or Hamas and the PLO, are not coincidental. And Saddler, who is, despite his charm, a scoundrel, had to leave Russia after being caught inventing a colorful source.

Yet after delivering a complete and understandable international conflict from thin air, and bolstering it with a few strong plot moves, the book lacks for surprises. “Didn’t really go anywhere, did it?” asks the elusive Saddler, whose presence is so huge in Kellogg’s mind that he conjures him as an apparition. Kellogg talks to Saddler, Nicola talks to Kellogg, the journalists talk to each other at the Rat. There is a lot of talking. So much happens in dialogue, including exposition and overly frank discussions of intimate feelings, that the book at times feels more like a television show than a novel.

Shriver’s take on journalism and international politics is wry, insightful and just over the top enough to be fun. Yet it is a little bit baggy; it feels very much like a book written in an author’s becoming, when she was still operating in the shadows. Now, after winning the Orange Prize for “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and having Tilda Swinton star in the film adaptation, she is herself at the center of things.