by Natalie Sprite
We Need to Talk About Kevin was originally titled From Cradle to Grave. Which sounds more like a death metal song than an award-winning novel.
“If I’d gone with that title,” admits Lionel Shriver, “I wouldn’t be here.”
‘Here’ is the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, where she has come to talk about her latest novel, The Mandibles. ‘Here’ is also success. Shriver is a celebrity and carries herself like one.
Although from where I sit, at the side of the stage, I can see she has one arm held tightly across her own belly. Her legs are crossed at both the knees and ankles. She’s not at ease.
I’m not sure why. She is clearly in charge here. The woman interviewing her is a diehard fan. Nobody here is going to challenge Shriver today.
And maybe this is why she opens up. One of the characters in The Mandibles, she tells us, is based on herself. Nollie (an anagram of Lionel) is a writer who’s been living in Europe. “She’s a one hit wonder. Only one of her books has really taken off. Wonder where I got that idea.” She says this as a dry aside, then adds. “As a person, she’s opinionated, loud and obnoxious…Hmmm.”
There’s a lot of laughter. We are charmed, because today, at least, she’s not at all obnoxious.
The Mandibles is a novel about economics. Which sounds a bit grim. And a lot of reviews complain that the book is heavy with economic theory. That this gets boring. Shriver’s response to this is a shrug of finely tanned shoulders. “I tell ordinary readers to just skip those parts.” I’m struck by the phrase ‘ordinary readers’ and also the idea that we should skip bits of her book. Why put them in at all?
Because reading them will make the experience richer, she believes. And as she talks, it becomes clear that she does have a way of making economics interesting. “Economics is really about belief systems.” Currency, she say, only works because we all agree that this piece of paper isn’t really just a piece of paper. “Currency is like a religion,” she says. It’s all about faith.
She reads an excerpt from the book. She does the voices. She’s not a very good reader and something is lost. But the writing itself is excellent. Even in this short piece there are some great moments. “Visual Arts stopped being about making things a long time ago. It’s all about talking. The talking is what you make.”
And on a darker note, “People who follow the rules are almost always punished.” This is a theme she returns to throughout the interview.
“Economics has nothing to do with fairness… Our entire economic system is prejudiced in favour of people who are foolhardy and risk takers, and punishes people who are responsible and that’s not fair.”
The book is set in 2029. The Mandibles are a wealthy family who overnight, along with the rest of America, lose their money.
In Shriver’s future, the farmers (for a while, anyway) are the most powerful people in the country. “When people really just can’t get the means to feed themselves anymore, it’s people who have food that have the power.”
There is no publishing industry. “Nobody reads books. They write them all the time, but nobody reads them.” She laughs. “We’re almost there, already.”
“When you get down to real matters of survival… The arts, obviously, are completely an indulgence.”
I’m not sure this is true. Even in starvation, the soul needs feeding. At our most desperate moments, we need food, but we do also need music and stories. These can be the things that sustain us when life is desperate.
There is a sense of American middle class entitlement as Shriver speaks that I’m not sure she’s aware of. She talks about the initial breakdown of society in terms of “a lack of politeness”. But the examples she gives are more about class subservience than politeness. “The doorman is less likely to carry your bags… The maître d‘ no longer shows you to the table.”
In some ways, Shriver’s future is not too different a place to now. “It’s meant to feel accessible. It’s meant to feel like your own life… I want you to recognize this near future.”
As the interview goes on, Shriver unfolds and the arm across her belly relaxes. She gets lighter, more open.
The end of the book, she says, is happy. A resurgence of the American Dream.
The idea of America has become so repugnant lately, especially with the advent of Trump, that it’s hard to imagine the American Dream having anything left to offer.
But Shriver has a national’s take on it and talks of “a country of people who are self reliant, who help each other out… who are resourceful and who believe in liberty, and real liberty and the not the kind of liberty you find in the Western world today. I think that our lives are super controlled. And in the kind of reborn United States at the very end of my novel, Americans discover what freedom is again.”
A widely published journalist, Lionel Shriver is the author of the New York Times bestsellers So Much for That (a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award and the Wellcome Trust Book Prize) and The Post-Birthday World (Entertainment Weekly’s 2007 Book of the Year). Winner of the 2005 Orange Prize, the international bestselling novel We Need to Talk About Kevin was adapted for a feature film by Lynne Ramsay in 2011 and starred Tilda Swinton. Lionel Shriver won the BBC National Short Story award in 2014. Her twelfth novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047, is published in 2016. Shriver’s work has been translated into 28 languages.
Natalie Sprite was shortlisted for the Australian Vogel Literary Award for her novel Grace Notes. She is the winner of several literary fellowships and awards. Her work has appeared in anthologies and magazines including Meanjin and Australian Award Winning Writing. She is currently in Indonesia on a 2016 AsiaLink fellowship.
Photos are courtesy of Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.