Lionel Shriver’s Terror Index

Published March 26, 2012

Terrorism is an inescapable part of our modern world. In Lionel Shriver’s novel The New Republic (Harper Collins), Shriver explores the ways in which the wicked and violent can be darkly humorous, absurd, and sometimes even stylish. Protagonist Edgar Kellogg has always been an outsider looking for an in, and he thinks he finds it when he quits his job as a highly paid New York corporate lawyer to become a lowly freelance journalist. Kellogg’s quest for newsworthy adventure and a memorable byline brings him to Barba, a desolate Portuguese backwater out of which the terrorist cell, the “SOB,” purportedly operates. The last Barba news correspondant—a dashing, lavish man the town cannot seem to forget—went missing mysteriously. Replacing the reporter, Edgar struggles with making his own mark while searching for the heart of the terrorist cell. Barba, along with its dusty streets and horrible local cuisine, holds a secret that will shape Edgar’s life.

Previously rejected by publishers, The New Republic is brilliant, hilarious, and perversely enticing, presenting a world of slippery morals and shady characters. Shriver demonstrates with this triumphant edition that being ahead of your time does ultimately pay off. Shriver spoke to us long distance from London about what makes terrorism timely, mockery as a weapon, spotlights, grim celebrity, and why it’s better to be a fan than the man.

ROYAL YOUNG: What made you go back to this story?

LIONEL SHRIVER: I would have published it when I wrote it [in 1998] if there was any interest in the United States. There wasn’t. The issue itself did not have any kind of resonance is US politics at the time, which I found a little peculiar, because it wasn’t as if the US had been a stranger to terrorism on its own territory.

YOUNG: Right, there was the first Twin Towers attack.

SHRIVER: In the early 1990s, and then there was the Oklahoma bombing, which was huge. But somehow, as a more abstract issue, it did not really lodge itself into the public consciousness. Then there was 9/11. As a New Yorker, you must appreciate how touchy the issue became.

YOUNG: Yes, it changed everything. I remember it very well.

SHRIVER: So a novel that treated the issue of terrorism with a light touch, would have been looked upon as grotesque. I really had to put it on ice.

YOUNG: How important do you feel it is to disarm terrorism through humor?

SHRIVER: I think in some ways, it’s the only way to go about it. One of my problems with terrorism is that it’s self-evidently bad. The main thing that makes it complicated is the fact that it works. When you go at it with a moral hammer, it’s really, really bad. It’s so bad you wouldn’t believe it because you don’t accomplish anything. I think the one thing terrorists themselves are vulnerable to is mockery. It’s an excellent weapon.

YOUNG: Do you feel like we’ve entered a world where terrorists are so media-savvy that what they want more than whatever political end goals they may claim is a level of celebrity?

SHRIVER: Yes, there is definitely an element of that. There is a reverse regard; if you hate and fear an organization, you’re still producing the emotions that they want, you’re still producing an intensity of attention, you’re focused. That is more important than whether it’s admiration or antipathy.

YOUNG: There’s a sense of spotlight.

SHRIVER: And that’s the sense in which it works fantastically well. Educated Westerners now know there is a difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. We’re far more educated about the Middle East than we used to be, and that’s because of terrorism. It now seems like our business. We didn’t give a shit before. We’re also now concerned with the way we treat Muslims as minorities in our own country.

YOUNG: Is terrorism stylish?

SHRIVER: It’s certainly faddish. In that sense, some of the issues I wrote about in We Need To Talk About Kevin and The New Republic intersect, because school shooters are dealing from the same emotional place. They are looking to be recognized.

YOUNG: And also school shooters now seem to be very media-savvy and in a way living for the coverage of their actions.

SHRIVER: Yes, even kids who kill themselves or plan to kill themselves are still being motivated by imagining all this amazing coverage they’re going to get of their derring-do and their terrible troubles. By and large, we deliver exactly what they want.

YOUNG: I was recently watching a documentary about an American family, it doesn’t matter who or why. One of them married a Russian, who was uncomfortable in front of the camera, and the documentary filmmaker commented that she didn’t relish the experience and consider media coverage her birthright, as most Americans do.

SHRIVER: I say that’s very American, but it’s no longer restricted to Americans. They say bin Laden and his friends watched the coverage of 9/11 with enormous glee. It’s not just us anymore, and I’m not sure you can completely blame the US for exporting that culture. It’s certainly prevalent in the UK.

YOUNG: Do you think it’s then just a human need?

SHRIVER: I would say there is a fundamental human need to be recognized and noticed. Now, when we deliver that, we can deliver it on a massive scale.

YOUNG: Where do you think the urge to distinguish ourselves comes from, and can it be dangerous?

SHRIVER: It clearly can be dangerous. The irony is, the same motivation drives people to find cures for cancer and win the Nobel Peace Prize, but the trouble is achieving that kind of traditional fame is a lot harder than achieving notoriety. Notoriety is cheap. It’s just easier to get noticed by doing something bad.

YOUNG: What qualities become icons?

SHRIVER: It’s difficult to pinpoint what those qualities are. What interests me about the magnetic personality is that it has nothing to do with morality. We are not attracted to people because they are virtuous. In fact, there’s something a little creepy about people who are too good. There is a big draw to people who are successful at breaking the rules. That means we end up admiring a lot of people that we think we shouldn’t.

YOUNG: Do you think that’s because on some level we trust them more?

SHRIVER: We envy them more. There’s this feeling that there are certain people who are above the rules that we end up following, either because of duty or more often fearfulness.

YOUNG: I think not only is it envy of getting away with something, but it’s envy of getting away with something with a certain panache and grace. Making it look effortless.

SHRIVER: Yes. A certain sense of style.

YOUNG: How and why does style require sacrifice?

SHRIVER: You can’t be stylish and petty at the same time.

YOUNG: So you’re saying style demands a certain grandiosity?

SHRIVER: Yes. Grandiosity or at least grandeur, grace, as you said. At least seeming successfully not to care about the little shit.

YOUNG: What is the difference between being a fan and being the man?

SHRIVER: The book makes the argument that maybe being the fan is better.

YOUNG: How so?

SHRIVER: When you are the man, you may be someone everyone admires and wants to be, but who do you want to be? It’s a state of arrival which is intrinsically unsatisfying. It is without desire. Desire is one of the burning experiences of human life.

THE NEW REPUBLIC IS OUT TODAY.