The New Republic

By Lionel Shriver

Harper. 373 pp. $26.99

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As a prefatory note from the author makes clear, Lionel Shriver's new novel, The New Republic, is not so much a new novel as a 14-year-old novel whose publication time has come.

Originally completed in 1998, it suffered from both Shriver's poor sales record (as she reports - I am not carping here) and then, perhaps more important, from being a farcical take on international terrorism. Publishers were not amused, or anyway thought no one else would be.

But now Shriver, who will discuss her book in an appearance Tuesday night at the Free Library of Philadelphia, is a best-selling author. And, as a culture, we have built scars thick enough for the likes of The Daily Show and the Onion to center humor around events that a decade ago would have seemed completely out of bounds. We have even developed a comic phrase for measuring whether those scars have formed: Too soon? In this case, the publishers have decided it is not too soon.

I am front-loading this background because the fact that it's front-loaded into the novel itself might lead one to believe this is a book that pokes fun at the loss of human life or leads the reader on a giddy romp through the tragedies of terrorism, neither of which is true.

In fact, The New Republic, using a very particular sort of dark humor, more traditional in British literature than in American, does a quite thorough job elucidating not only the horrors of wholesale murder but the fact that along with being horrific, such acts are often motivated not so much by high-minded political passions as by maniacal versions of the petty, ego-driven obsessions best exemplified in your average middle school cafeteria.

Edgar Kellogg, the novel's more-or-less hero, is a man in his 30s who, after suffering the miseries of being an obese boy, has become by most standards attractive enough and successful enough. Yet, for all his conscious life he has longed to be one of the golden ones, the naturally charismatic, the adored. He even has a particular golden one in mind: his old schoolmate turned journalist, Toby Falconer.

"A Falconer was the kind of kid about whom other people couldn't stop talking. He managed to be the center of attention when he wasn't even there. He always got the girls, but more to the point he always got the girl."

In an attempt to become Falconer, or Falconerish, anyway, Edgar throws over his corporate-lawyer job in New York to try his hand at journalism, landing himself in Barba, a backwater country appended (literally, by Shriver, who made the place up) to Portugal. Barba is in a fight (of sorts) for its independence, led by the homegrown terrorist group known as Os Soldados de Barba - or, more commonly, the SOB's. Edgar's job in Barba is to fill in for Barrington Saddler, a mysteriously missing reporter who turns out to have the charismatic popularity of a young Toby Falconer but blown up to proportions suited to the world stage. So compelling, so dominant a figure is he that before Edgar can so much as utter a word to his new journalist colleagues in Barba, they despise him simply for not being their beloved, absent Barrington.

The plot of The New Republic twists and turns around questions of where Barrington Sadler has gone and what his absence has to do with the concurrent absence of any claims of terrorism by the SOB's, and Shriver does a deft job keeping things moving along. The developments are occasionally a bit predictable and at other times strain even credulity adjusted for farce, but are also - believe it or not - fun enough to be compelling. And woven throughout that unlikely fun are some appropriately untidy questions about the moral bases of all wars, whatever means may be employed.

But the reason The New Republic shines - and shine it does - has less to do with ticking bombs than with Shriver's understanding of what makes people tick. She is uncannily perceptive and she is unsparing, which should not be confused with being ungenerous. Without Shriver's vigorous capacity for compassion, The New Republic would be a clever satire delivered in polished prose. In fact, it is a surprisingly tender novel disguised as a clever satire delivered in polished prose.

Shriver's characters are so flawed that to call them flawed is to flatter them, but just when she might get really nasty about their shortcomings and go for the easy laugh, she grows, instead, quietly compassionate. Her characters may behave in ridiculous ways, but they are never the subject of ridicule - except at times by themselves. Our sort-of hero Edgar spares himself nothing as he recalls "the staggering expanse of fat" that was his teenage body, but the unkindness is his and not the author's, and the reader's sympathies run entirely with the man who so vividly remembers the boy he was. It is a heartbreaking moment of exposure.

The question will doubtless persist: Is the world ready for a satirical look at international terrorism? (Too soon?) My response: If woven throughout the book are as many instances of genuine humanity as Shriver has given The New Republic, as many occasions for feeling empathy toward those we might otherwise ridicule, even hate, then it cannot come soon enough for us all.