Previously titled–Too Damn Good I’m Making An Ass Out of Myself in Even Trying to Talk About It: The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Nice.
The 517 pages that comprise The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver are—to borrow a technical term—pure awesomesauce. The thing is, I really can’t tell you why. And the thing-er thing is, when it comes to this novel, you really can’t take anybody’s word for it, least of all mine.
About two hundred pages into the chunker, I realized that there was no way I could make a coherent review of it. Shriver’s novel is one of those annoying little masterpieces that soak itself in your marrow and gaily traipse around, that to even attempt talking about it would implicate you. It’s a disgustingly truthful piece of literature—talking about it would mean revealing truths about yourself—but if it doesn’t “work” for you, that’s fine, you’re all clear. As a story that teases us into taking sides, the book itself relies on such a particular little tremor inside people—that tremor’s in everyone, I’d like to think, it’s just more devastating for some than for others.
Anyone who’s ever been in a nice, settled relationship and has ever contemplated the little faults in an otherwise “nice and settled” tandem. Anyone who’s ever found herself looking at a familiar man—who is not the “right” man—with a sudden, acute desire to lean in for a kiss. Anyone who’s ever wondered about those junctures, and the paths alongside the one you’re on, so very close, but not quite. For the love of God, if you like your life the way it is, if you don’t want to bother with all those vague what-ifs, do not read this book. Because, damn it, it latches on and it niggles.
It’s a book of parallelisms, parallel worlds—it explores the what-might’ve-beens, and the why-nots, and most importantly, the oh-god-that-really-hurts. The book hinges on a single kiss. Irina McGovern, a children’s book illustrator all-but-married to her partner of nearly a decade, Lawrence Trainer, finds herself dying to kiss Ramsey Acton, a snooker icon. [Shriver is a novelist fully in control of her prose, that a single-sentence paragraph that says, “If Ramsey didn’t kiss her, she was going to die”—which really would have seemed trite in its melodrama—works, and it works the way something solid thrown between your eyes works. In the pages before that startling statement, we witness Irina coming alive, coming alive in such a way that we know she had no idea that she even needed to come alive.]
After the first chapter—after the set-up, after witnessing the “normal” texture of Irina’s life—the reader, with Irina, is hurtled into two different worlds, with two very different men. The second to the eleventh chapter is an exploration of those two lives.
Again, it’s a disgustingly truthful novel. You’d think we’d be rewarded. But no. In both lives, Irina gets heartache and crushing disappointment along with all those happy, glowing times. Irina deals with it, the way we all have to. There’s no such thing as “the right story,” there’s no such thing as “this was what my life should’ve been like”—Shriver makes sure you go It’s TEAM LAWRENCE one moment, and TEAM RAMSEY the next, and then she’ll body-slam your expectations to dust. A third into the novel, I gave up trying to take sides. I gave up the almost-unconscious pep-talks to Irina, the Dude I Got Your Back kind.
There’s been some flutter in some reviews over at Facebook about Irina McGovern’s character. She’s too passive, a lot of them say, that a majority of the novel happens to her. She’s spineless in one thread, a man-junkie in the other, and then switch sides, and even more chaos. That she focuses on loving too much, or not loving at all, and rinse, repeat. That she’s not likable, that she’s A SHAMELESS HUSSY BB.
Irina is the point where a lot of reader opinions divide—you either like her or she annoys and frustrates you so much that you don’t. And if you like her—and here I will proceed to implicate everyone who does—it’s because you thought what she’s thinking, you’ve felt what she’s feeling, you wonder about the same things when you look at a spice rack or a mustard stain on a coat lapel, or the thin, long fingers of the wrong man.
Irina plays on empathy, on whether the reader recognizes herself in her, on whether that reader will resist or not. If anything, that’s what you hate about her.
As I’ve mentioned, Shriver has complete control of her prose. At times it’s distraught and overwrought, others it’s as passive-aggressive as the most volatile housewife. Oh, there’s a lot of talk about politics (Lawrence Trainer is a bigshot at a London think-tank), and there’s just so much snooker. I admit that I came away from the novel not knowing a whit about the game—I started off wanting to understand what snooker was, how it worked, and then midway I just gave up. Funnily enough, Irina has pretty much the same temperament. Still, I would like to commend Lionel Shriver for such rigorous research (I’ll give her that). Thing is, the way some people might be averse to the whole what-if angle, I’m not a fan of politics, and snooker is something I don’t even know how to pronounce? Lucre? Looker?
If you’ve stayed on this page for so long, witnessing so much painful scrambling and rambling for me, you might be inclined to ask, But doesn’t it get so tedious, all those parallelisms? All those repetitions?
No. Kudos to the author for not resorting to laziness—although pretty much parallel trajectories, whatever repetition there is, it’s skillfully rendered. It’s in a different context, and the reader is granted these nuances, and the knowledge of what happened in the other life all the more highlights each relationship. And it’s not a compare-and-contrast “gimmick”—there are no exact opposites, no lazy let’s-just-turn-that-entire-chapter-around.
See, let me tell you know that you come away from the novel not knowing which life is the “right” one. Because, you know, that’s really not the point.
Chapter 12 is a stroke of genius—it could apply to Ramsey Thread, or Lawrence Thread, and whatever consolation the reader has after going through all that turmoil is that feel of eerie calmness, the kind one feels after, well, going through such an upending course of events. The last bit of dialogue, which signals the end of the novel, will, I assure you, make you go, Oh shit(e). In a dread-ing kind of way. It’s not really open-ended, it’s not that it didn’t resolve anything. It’s not cookie-cutter, that’s what it is. Shriver doesn’t console us that everything won’t get better, we could all get a drink after all this nonsense. Shriver’s told us, after five hundred and seventeen pages, that, Dude, this is what it is; there’s really nothing much we can do about it. And doesn’t that just piss you off?