Review: “Movement of the Body Through Space”
“Abominations,” Shriver’s first non-fiction book, is more predictable. Throughout this collection of bespoke essays, speeches, and opinion pieces, she assumes one tone: provocative. Whether she’s talking about Brexit (which she supported), cultural appropriation (“contrived taboo”) or taxation (“the criminalization of making money”), Shriver is always the opposite. And for the most part, she does not seem to care about the consequences of the feathers flying: “Bring in the mockery,” she said sarcastically, “I am welcome to be mocked, so long as I am absolved of anything real—the life-like manifestations of the visions that haunt me.” Although she sometimes pretends to be chilled by the PC’s scolding, for the most part she sells herself as offering comforting opinions that are “insufficiently expressed, unpopular, or downright dangerous”.
In her novels, Shriver’s polemical side tends to come off rather easily. Her 2010 novel, So Much for That, was a hoopla about American healthcare that took off with the power of its characters. However, if left to the facts alone, Shriver is often exasperated, losing target or stabbing straw men too hard. The trend is most evident in a series of pieces on cancel culture, the most famous of which was a 2016 headline in Brisbane, Australia, where she bemoaned cultural appropriation and provoked the crowd by wearing a sombrero. “Ideologies have become so popular lately that they challenge our right to write novels at all,” she warned.
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There and elsewhere in “Abominations,” she grumbles about the “culture police” trying to marginalize authors who write outside their own life experience. She wrote, “Now I’m more concerned about portraying characters of different races, and the accents make me nervous.” As if thinking twice about it might be a bad thing; As if delving into this anxiety and trying to understand it wasn’t the work of a writer. Given that the growing wave of book bans is largely targeting LGBTQ writers, Shriver’s radar for who is the “culture police” and who is at risk for it could be a wrong sign.
She added that our “cruel and censorship era” has led to various initiatives that can only mean that the publisher “no longer considers the company’s raison d’être to acquire and publish good books.” Writing about transgender people sends her either downward thinking – “It seems we are entering an era where everything about ourselves we don’t like is under review” – or childlike cracks around pronouns and LGBTQ+ culture. (“Smacking a three-year-old would result in a more functional shortcut.”)
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But her arguments lack depth. And she warns that liberals should watch what they say, because it irritates those who are tired of being “told what they can and can’t say.” (Rest assured, they are already pissed off—and say what they want anyway.) Removing Confederate monuments in her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, she said with regret, “would result in an untold air loss.” In the article guide, the nondescript atmosphere consists mainly of hot air.
The pressurized and click-chasing nature of the opinion piece may explain the weakness of some of its arguments. The bad news is that Shriver’s affinity for controversy has infected her imagination. In “Movement of the Body Through Space,” she makes a strange complaint that the exercise is bad and fashionable (except for the way Shriver does it). The novel centers on a 60-year-old man who finds time to train for a triathlon because he has been fired from his job by a Nigerian-born woman who has weaponized her gender studies degree to undermine every white man in sight. This lecture as fiction was probably the worst novel of 2020.
However: Shriver followed up this book with the story Should We Stay or Should We Go (2021), a witty and sensitive conjecture about a couple’s diverse responses to aging. There are some well-made bits in “Abominations” – considerations related to her religious upbringing, remembrance of her late brother, a funny entry about self-improvement during the Covid quarantine, and others about the misuse of words like “perform”.
But Shriver doesn’t seem to miss a hollow provocation. In the 2020 speech that appears at the end of the book, she presents an extended feat of the Covid-era catastrophe, a mixture of reasonable concerns about inflation and monetary policy with more curious statements about how China is exploiting America’s anti-racist movement, one way or another. And we’ll be left without iPhones. “I might be panic-obsessed,” she admits. but no problem. Contemporary literary culture is more extensive than Shriver would allow. There is room for the forearms. This is a whole book that proves it.
Mark AthitakesHe is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest. “
Selected articles from a self-destructive evasive career
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