If you're the kind of reader who takes pleasure in virtuoso narration as such, you'll like this. I admired the darting motions of clever prose and the third-person narrator's microscopic lucidity about his kinsmen's varied mental worlds. But the central relationships and conflicts hardly justify so much artfulness.The dominant theme is privileged sons' resentment of each other and of their novelist father, a theme in which petulance and self-pity play smudge over larger and more interesting emotions. A glittering structure with a weak core.
Lionel Shriver tends to zigzag across a line between tabloid appeal and knowing satire. She dashes on journalistic coarseness like sriracha sauce. She's usually on the edge of overdoing it. Not always; In her heartfelt recent novel Big Brother, which balances empathy against anger in considering obesity, a deeper part of her imagination rose to the surface. It was moving to find this part of her mind anything but coarse .
The new novel So Much for That, however, gives uninterrupted play to laughing scorn. You'll think of hard-edge satirists like Tom Wolfe and Martin Amis. So Much for That is a deep-black comedy about two couples, both being eaten alive by America's medical-financial machinery, but responding according to divergent passions and instincts. There's a secondary liebestod theme , love-and-death within marriage. It is worked against its grain so it won't look like cheap glitter amid the gathering blackness. But it kind of does anyway.
Being the sort of guy who likes vinegar and picante, I got some pleasure out of this book. But some things about it are pointlessly extreme. Some characters are ranters. Instead of stilling them with a jab of satire, the author sends us long passages of unedited blowviation. Editing, please. Greatness in satire is rage under perfect control.
Jane Smiley's many big, meaty novels each have a very definite topic: Vikings, farming, horses, real estate, sex, campus life. Here, the topic is motherhood. If you're a recent mom or grandmother and very interested in maternal talk, you might like it. For a reader with different orientations, it's frustrating. Every time something interesting gets started -- a son becomes a sniper in the WWII army, a daughter marries a Chicago Communist -- more babies plop into the plot and you get booted back to the nursery for many, many repetitive pages. Well, one might answer, why shouldn't moms have their say? OK, no beef about that. But I see this as a special-interest novel. Perhaps the two coming volumes of Smiley's Iowan epic will be less sluggish.
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