A reporter heads to Portugal to cover a civil war.
We've all encountered them on occasion: those charismatic figures whose presence focuses a room; the ones everyone else talks about, wonders about, wants to be. The protagonist of Lionel Shriver's "The New Republic" is the other guy: the one who follows and adores and emulates -- and resents. Taking a page out of Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," Shriver builds her novel around the quintessential secondary character, who suffers for it, in life but also in the book. The character, Edgar Kellogg, is not particularly pleasant, let alone engaging, which, as long as the book preserves its own character as political satire verging on farce, works just fine. It's when we're asked to care about Edgar that things get a bit iffy.
For the story, Shriver has created a new country at the end of the Iberian Peninsula -- Barba, the "beard" of Portugal. And she has created what we for a long time believe to be a terrorist organization determined to win Barba's independence from Portugal. These are Os Soldados de Barba (SOB), the daring soldiers of Barba, whose political arm, O Crème de Barbear (yes, shaving cream -- they want to shave the beard off Portugal; think Sinn Fein), seeks to benefit from SOB's terrorist acts while disavowing their methods.
What's remarkable is how effectively Shriver turns this absurdity into a fictional reality -- how she seems to make it matter. Edgar, a newly minted journalist, goes off to report in (and on) Barba, replacing the cynosure to end all cynosures, a missing journalist named Barrington Saddler, around whose brilliance all of Barba's press corps seems to have revolved. And though Edgar is supposedly taking Saddler's place (inhabiting not just his job, but his house and friendships), he is nonetheless forever in this star's orbit.
The book, as might be evident, is wacky. It is also often wildly funny, keenly nuanced about politics, both personal and national, and deeply cynical about journalistic practice. As a satirical object lesson in the wages of political fervor, the story is painfully brilliant. As a peculiar sort of bildungsroman, not so much.
And, finally, there is the novel's publishing history, which features in the publicity materials and in an author's note. Shriver completed this book in 1998, before "We Need to Talk About Kevin" made her eminently publishable. Why this matters, I don't know. To highlight the author's early attention to the terrorism that would only fully engage American after 9/11? To excuse what might have become offensive in the interim? As with any social satire, there's plenty here that's timely; but ultimately what is good about this book is good, regardless of the arbitrary nature of the publishing industry.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.