Shriver, Lionel 1957-
SHRIVER, Lionel 1957-
PERSONAL: Born May 18, 1957, in Gastonia, NC; daughter of Donald W. (an ethicist and seminary president) and Peggy (an administrator; maiden name, Leu) Shriver. Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1978, M.F.A., 1982.
CAREER: Radio and print journalist; English and writing instructor at various colleges.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Aer Lingus travel award, 1993; Northern Ireland Arts Council literature grants, 1993 and 1996; Sheldon & Stewart Solicitors "Anonymous Donor" grant, 1995; Orange Prize for Fiction, 2005, for We Need to Talk about Kevin.
The Female of the Species, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1987.
(And illustrator) Checker and the Derailleurs, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.
The Bleeding Heart, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990, published as Ordinary Decent Criminals, HarperCollins (London, England), 1992.
Game Control, Faber & Faber (London, England), 1994.
A Perfectly Good Family, Faber & Faber (London, England), 1996.
Double Fault, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1997.
We Need to Talk about Kevin, Counterpoint (New York, NY), 2003.
Also contributor to Wall Street Journal, Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, Tennis, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Fortnight.
SIDELIGHTS: Lionel Shriver's first three novels, The Female of the Species, Checker and the Derailleurs, and The Bleeding Heart, have generated high praise for their energy, imagination, wit, and originality, but are particularly noted for their uncompromisingly lucid, if not at times cynical, perception of human interaction. With a singular emphasis on the charismatic personality, Shriver, who once studied under the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead at Columbia University, shows a "keen eye for the archetypal characters common to human tribes everywhere," according to People contributor Kim Hubbard. Through her focus on charisma and its accompanying power structures, Shriver exposes what she sees as some of the primitive social dynamics—domination and subordination in academic hierarchy, the "groupie" syndrome in modern music, and thrill-seeking masochism in political activism—that comprise modern civilization. Indeed, Shriver applies her unflinching perspective to her own craft in which, she says, persuasiveness is often taken for truth. "Fiction writers are fakers—it's a trade secret," Shriver said in Interview magazine. "The whole idea of novels, in fact, is a conceit, however seductive—as if anyone knows what it's like to be other people. And one of the dangers of all text is that 'truth,' awkwardly put, can seem like a lie, but the dubious assertion will carry because it sounds right." Each of her novels investigates a world in which the powerful but often irrational forces of persuasion rule.
The Female of the Species is the story of highly regarded fifty-nine-year-old anthropologist Gray Kaiser, who is, in her own words, "very tall, and very strong and very brilliant," as quoted from the novel in Ralph Novak's People review. Kaiser rose to fame in the 1940s, when she studied a long-lost tribe in Kenya that was under the influence of American pilot Charles Corgie. Corgie, having convinced the tribe that he was a god, briefly shared his power with Kaiser. After a fiasco leading to Corgie's death, however, Kaiser fled back to a more comfortably deified position in the academic world. She returns to Kenya many years later with her longtime platonic living partner and devotee, Errol McEchern, and a young graduate student, Raphael, who is, coincidentally, identical to Corgie in looks and character. In the romantic triangle that arises, the formerly predominant Kaiser subjugates herself to the twenty-five-year-old Raphael, revealing some tortured aspects of human relations.
Critical reaction to The Female of the Species was mixed. Chicago Tribune Books contributor Celia Hilliard found the novel "convincing, both as a power struggle and a love triangle," but contended that Shriver is "heavy-handed." "Every encounter these characters share is in some way brutal, confused, and painful," she complained. Paul Kincaid, in his Times Literary Supplement review, suggested that although the novel "sparkles with ideas," Shriver's literary inexperience deters her from answering the provoking questions her work raises. But many critics praised The Female of the Species for its accurate, if bleak, representation of life. Novak, calling the work a "terrific first novel," remarked that though disturbing, "it all too often seems all too true."
The world of rock music and a more upbeat protagonist lighten the tone of Shriver's second novel, Checker and the Derailleurs. Checker Secretti is a nineteen-year-old drummer in a New York bar band. He possesses such a strong natural charm that people follow him simply to share his joy in life. Checker's magnetism, free of the need and manipulation connected with charisma in The Female of the Species, is nevertheless a significant social force that almost magically organizes his followers into harmonious roles around him. In fact, some critics suggested that Checker's appeal beguiles not only the other characters but readers as well. The mysteries that surround Checker's romance with Syria Pyramus, his periodic disappearances, and, most importantly, his unflagging cheerfulness, "keep readers guessing to the end," according to Hubbard. The novel has "adolescent energy and raw appeal," New York Times Book Review contributor Margot Mifflin raved. The critic added that "with psychological depth and wry humor" Shriver succeeded in "pulling off a novel that not only works, but rocks."
Shriver's third novel, The Bleeding Heart, set in 1988 Northern Ireland, explores the social dynamics of a country perennially at war. The main character, Estrin Lancaster, is a thirty-two-year-old American woman who has spent the last ten years moving from one politically distressed area to another. Living in a bombed-out house on the border between warring Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast, she becomes romantically involved with Farrell O'Phelan, a political activist, bomb disposer, and, in the words of Michael Upchurch in his Washington Post Book World review, "the most troubled, charismatic character in the place." Even in the danger and self-sacrifice of political rebellion, Shriver portrays power as a function of "dubious assertion" rather than heroism. Although Farrell is working tirelessly to unify Catholics and Protestants, he is manipulative, cynical, and masochistic. Like Estrin, he is unwilling or unable to make a commitment and is addicted to the social violence that is a part of everyday existence in Belfast—an atmosphere depicted by Shriver, according to Upchurch, as "partylike." Through the turbulent love affair between Estrin and Farrell in this violent background, the novel explores some frightening manifestations of life in a state of constant crisis.
Shriver's cynicism and an unexpected twist in plot at the end of The Bleeding Heart both unnerved and impressed critics. Upchurch observed that "the bracing, acid wit and rich hyperbole are constant and a little terrifying. Who can be this cynical about horrors?" The critic consequently answered: "Shriver can—and for a purpose." Reviewers agreed that Shriver's relentlessly penetrating outlook is gripping and effective in The Bleeding Heart, whether or not the reader is comfortable with the picture it paints of human nature. Upchurch hailed this "shrewdly caustic and unexpectedly moving novel" as "challenging, disturbing fiction," which "quivers with enticing energy, seduces you with its nervy amoral appeal."
Game Control, Shriver's fourth novel, is "a sardonic, sexy, salutary novel about, of all things, population control," according to Jonathan Stevenson in the New Scientist. The book "mixes dark comedy, intellectual sparring, doomsday thrills and psychological scrutiny in a bold and bracing cocktail," remarked New Statesman and Society critic Boyd Tonkin. Even though it is set in Africa, Giles Foden rewarded Game Control in the Times Literary Supplement for "neither trad[ing] on the continent as 'exotica' nor piously making literary capital out of human misery." Stevenson commented that the book "indulges neither the props of the techno-thriller nor the emotional exploitation of the genre suspense yarn," arguing that "Shriver's characters and their aura of feigned sacrifice while living in the Third World simply strike too true a chord." Faulting the novel's characters, Guardian contributor Sylvia Brownrigg criticized the novel: "The three [main characters] are not so much people as opportunities for argument. . . . A novel needs an emotional centre, however, not just a line of argument. . . . Shriver . . . is capable of enlivening her stories with slices of vivid prose or surprising description. Ultimately, though, the main characters remain bloodless." Some critics, including Brownrigg, Tonkin, and Stevenson, positively remarked on the appearance of Shriver's intelligence and the true-to-life aspects woven into her story. "Playing with genres," said Foden, "Shriver encourages the reader to consider serious matters, without serving up tedious ethical fiction, making us aware of shifting issues by shifting our perspective on the action itself."
Shriver's fifth and sixth novels, A Perfectly Good Family and Double Fault, received many positive reviews from critics. A Perfectly Good Family explores the reactions and feelings of three adults with negative memories of their childhood after their mother's death. "Shriver evinces a far sharper sense of irony than, say, Anne Tyler," remarked Jonathan Stevenson in a Scotsman review, "but much greater subtlety than, say, Jane Smiley." In the New Statesman and Society a reviewer described A Perfectly Good Family as "typically clever and astringent." However, "the plot moves between detached scenes, and sometimes feels slow," stated Sarah Rigby in the Times Literary Supplement. She continued, "The characters are believable, but they conform to extreme models." Rigby noted that even though the novel is "inconsistent, Lionel Shriver is clearly a competent writer, and one of her most unambiguous successes is her portrayal of feeling—of the odd, inconstant emotions and the sense of distorted guilt that accompany bereavement."
Double Fault, called an "earnest narrative" and a "didactic novel" in Publishers Weekly, and "an eye-opening and authentic look at the cutthroat world of pro tennis" in Booklist, is centered on two professional tennis players, their marriage, and the negative effect of ambitions, competition, and work within the same occupation. "An interesting idea," wrote Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, but "undone by an artless novel." Yardley elaborated that Shriver "writes well, but she is insufficiently confident of her characters, her plot and her storytelling powers. Her narrative is littered with gratuitous analysis that merely serves to get in the story's way, and toward the end she reaches the novelist's avenue of last resort: She brings a psychologist onto the scene." In contrast, a Publishers Weekly critic believed that Shriver is successful with Double Fault's theme, and "all too well" presents "a cautionary tale about the fatal mix of love and ambition." In the New York Times Book Review Michael Mewshaw also lauded Double Fault, noting that "Shriver shows in a masterstroke why character is fate and how sport reveals it." Library Journal contributor Nancy Pearl concluded: "Shriver is a talented enough writer to win over some readers, but many will lose patience with Willy," the story's main female character.
In the late 1990s a series of school killings across the United States frightened students and parents. At that time Shriver was thinking about becoming a mother and the shootings both gave her pause and sparked the idea for her epistolary novel We Need to Talk about Kevin. "The idea of writing a book in which my son or the narrator's son became one of those killers was an interesting exercise for me in sorting out what I was afraid of, and why I had put off childbearing as long as I had," Shriver said on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday. In the first part of the book, Shriver reflects on the ambivalence that many women feel about childbearing and in particular her own experiences as the daughter of a mother who admonished her that having children would ruin her life. Shriver used the Internet to research the topic, reading essays and interviews about teenage killers, and told the story through letters from Eva, the mother of teenage killer Kevin, to the divorced father of Kevin. In the first half of the book the letter writer reflects on Kevin's childhood, during which the boy consistently showed signs of being a monster, while in the latter she writes of present-day concerns.
Dealing with such a current topic, We Need to Talk about Kevin garnered many reviews, some of which varied diametrically. Several critics took Shriver to task about stylistic matters, such as what they felt was the weak characterization of the husband, and what New York Times critic Matthew Flamm called "Shriver's tendency to overwrite." Noting that "the plot drags," Susan Balee suggested in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Shriver "cut much of the first half of the book in order to make a tauter novel." "Despite its early flaws and slow start, the book drives home its chilling point in the final pages," wrote Patti Hartigan in the Boston Globe. Among the work's enthusiasts was a Publishers Weekly contributor, who dubbed the work "a harrowing, psychologically astute, sometimes even darkly humorous novel," and Library Journal critic Karen Fauls-Traynor, who praised its "compelling writing" and "never stale" plot.
Feminist readers made much of the author's ambivalence about motherhood, some viewing it as satire or criticism of the supposedly natural maternal instinct women should feel. For example, Guardian reviewer Rachel Cusk reported that We Need to Talk about Kevin, which "can almost be read as a blackly comic fable in which modern feminist fears are made flesh," has "unexpectedly become an underground feminist hit." As such, Cusk concluded, "Shriver's satire on child-centred families captained by adult buffoons whose intellectual, not to mention erotic, life is in pieces, could not be more timely." As for Shriver's consideration of possible motherhood for herself, she told Cusk that writing the novel made her realize something: "My reservations about having children were stolid in my character and not a passing thing I needed to get over."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Belfast Telegraph, March 16, 1996, review of A Perfectly Good Family.
Booklist, August, 1997, Emily Melton, review of Double Fault, p. 1881; May 1, 2003, Deborah Donovan, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin pp. 1582-1583.
Boston Globe, July 15, 2003, Patti Hartigan, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin, p. C6.
Glamour, June, 1988, Laura Mathews, review of Checker and the Derailleurs, p. 180.
Guardian (Manchester, England), May 3, 1994, Sylvia Brownrigg, review of Game Control, section 2, p. 13; March 29, 1996, review of A Perfectly Good Family; October 4, 2003, Rachel Cusk, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin, p. 44; November 15, 2003, Sarah A. Smith, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin, p. 26.
Independent, May 5, 1996, review of A Perfectly Good Family.
Interview, July, 1987, "Lionel Shriver," p. 209.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1997, review of Double Fault, p. 907; March 1, 2003, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin, pp. 342-343.
Library Journal, February 15, 1987, Ann H. Fisher, review of The Female of the Species, p. 163; May 15, 1988, Ethan Bumas, review of Checker and the Derailleurs, p. 94; September 1, 1990, Ann H. Fisher, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 258; July, 1997, Nancy Pearl, review of Double Fault, p. 128; May 1, 2003, Karen Fauls-Traynor, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin, p 157.
New Scientist, April 30, 1994, Jonathan Stevenson, review of Game Control, p. 43.
New Statesman and Society, April 29, 1994, Boyd Tonkin, review of Game Control; March 15, 1996, review of A Perfectly Good Family.
New York, March 30, 1987, Rhoda Koenig and Celia McGee, review of The Female of the Species, p. 98.
New York Newsday, August 24, 1997, review of Double Fault.
New York Post, July 27, 1997, review of Double Fault,.
New York Times, August 3, 2003, Matthew Flamm, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin, section 7, p. 16.
New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1987, Katherine Bouton, review of The Female of the Species; July 24, 1988, Margot Mifflin, review of Checker and the Derailleurs; September 14, 1997, Michael Mewshaw, review of Double Fault, p. 19; August 3, 2003, Matthew Flamm, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin, p. 16.
People, April 27, 1987, Ralph Novak, review of The Female of the Species, p. 10; July 4, 1988, Kim Hubbard, review of Checker and the Derailleurs, p. 25; August 29, 1988, review of The Female of the Species, p. 33; July 21, 1989, review of Checker and the Derailluers, p. 56; November 12, 1990, Michael Neill, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 32.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 19, 1997, review of Double Fault; July 30, 2003, Susan Balee, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin.
Publishers Weekly, February 13, 1987, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Female of the Species, p. 82; April 22, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of Checker and the Derailleurs, p. 64; July 20, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Bleeding Heart, p. 52; June 30, 1997, review of Double Fault, p. 65; March 24, 2003, review of We Need to Talk about Kevin, p. 55.
Scotsman, June 22, 1996, Jonathan Stevenson, review of A Perfectly Good Family, p. 22.
Spectator, August 8, 1992, Brian Inglis, review of Ordinary Decent Criminals, p. 24.
Tennis, October, 1997, review of Double Fault, p. 82.
Times Literary Supplement, March 18, 1988, Paul Kincaid, review of The Female of the Species, p. 302; June 12, 1992, Keith Jeffery, review of Ordinary Descent Criminals, p. 20; April 15, 1994, Giles Foden, review of Game Control, p. 23; April 19, 1996, Sarah Rigby, review of A Perfectly Good Family, p. 24.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 19, 1987, Celia Hilliard, review of The Female of the Species.
Washington Post, August 6, 1997, Jonathan Yardley, review of A Perfectly Good Family, p. C4.
Washington Post Book World, November 20, 1990, Michael Upchurch, review of The Bleeding Heart.
Identity Theory,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (July 24, 2003), Robert Birnbaum, "Author of We Need to Talk about Kevin Talks with Robert Birnbaum."
Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, "Interview: Lionel Shriver," July 13, 2003.*