Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lionel Shriver's "The Bleeding Heart": Book Review

Can you like a novel about unlikeable characters? A "conflict junkie" meets a "professional victim" in Belfast, 1988. She's from Philadelphia, 32, veteran of many relationships and many jobs across the Third World and First, where she wanders after a year in Berlin, another in Manila, a third...? He's 43, a sour bomb-disposal specialist/ lapsed Catholic who hates his turf and all who squabble over "the North." Out of her own years there, American Lionel (born Margaret, ex-pat, long living in Belfast but now London-resident) Shriver dissects, at admittedly obsessive and wearying length befitting Estrin Lancaster's own tussle with Farrell O'Phelan, where personal wounds bleed into political stabs. Her sparring partner in and out of bed "hadn't a notion what to do with a woman once he'd got her besides break up," she muses. (246)

Estrin and her creator trap themselves into a stereotypical IRA-type thriller while they despise the reduction. Farrell late on looks at iconic Cave Hill and speaks for Shriver: "Too many writers had scribbled about these hillsides-- an unremarkable, wind-beaten land, exhausted by metaphor, every poet's bloody mother." (404)

Published in 1992 as "Ordinary Decent Criminals" in Britain, this name change from its 1990 U.S. printing (its own title equally well-chosen as a clichéd truth) tellingly illustrates how the jokes never get understood out of NI, as Farrell mopes in one of his many mopes. (For those needing the punchlines explained, "A Glossary of Troublesome Terms" appends Shriver's attempt at an Ambrose Bierce-type "Devil's Dictionary" in its mordant take on the Six Counties/ Ulster/ the North/ Northern Ireland.) Farrell's feral mood rarely changes: gloom permeates this unsparing depiction of a world where, at least back then, an aside that if Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley ever shared power, it'd be on another planet rings true.

When Estrin meets a fellow Yank, a grad student from Iowa bent on a thesis, she smirks: "No doubt he had Irish ancestors, and arrived with the usual prepared Republican sympathies, the whole tatty anti-imperialist Tinkertoy mock-up she got enough at the Green Door and could not abide in Americans--." (168) Still, she was taken in by the locals in West Belfast, and she relents, a bit, in turn. What proves unrelenting is the struggle to live normally in a war zone, full of "arrested adolescence" among its factions.

The impasse between Republicans and Unionists, Nationalists and Loyalists, grinds on twenty years into "the Troubles." Estrin mocks the visiting academics and peaceniks who treat her adopted city as a theme park of violence, but she knows as perhaps her creator that her stay there need never be permanent, that she can leave any time. "Perhaps the very definition of adulthood is a fascination with the middle parts of games." (56) Estrin muses how at how she cannot leave the place even as she remains rootless, childless, and bent on staying free of commitment's the theme of this novel, for both Estrin and her sometime lover Farrell.

Meanwhile, a subplot with Angus MacBride and his lover, poet Roisin St. Clair, she of the likes of the out-of-print "Bare Limbs on Basalt," complicates matters. He's a Protestant politician angling for a Nobel Peace Prize while somehow involved with Republican terror squads. "Someone should tip off the Catholics:" he thinks, "taking the blame never absolved anyone, or solved a woe." (136)

He does add gruffness to this often tetchy tale, but I wasn't convinced much by this storyline. Despite Angus's climactic role, despite a welcome lapse into humor when he surveys his paramour's almost-bare larder, these episodes helped drag this 426-page narrative far longer than necessary to delineate, say, Estrin's three-week sweets binge/ hunger strike over fifty-odd pages. I got the point, but Shriver lingers over the symbolic turned physical agonies endured willingly by so many who martyr themselves, in and out of prison.

The characters share their author's frustration with this convoluted fracas. "Farrell looked pained, for he liked to tell his stories systematically. Conversations with Estrin didn't work that way." (84) The plot thickens but does not always cohere. I doubt if the climactic scene would, in terms of diplomatic blowback, have been pulled off so neatly, and while the decision of a key character to shape up so he "economized on his character" and may turn out to do some good is heartening, the build-up to this in the last hundred pages often stayed limp and dull.

Still, Shriver shows in this early work signs of the success come her way for the more recent Orange Prize winning "We Need to Talk about Kevin," along with "So Much for That," and "The Post-Birthday World." As this is not my usual genre, I found her acerbic take on sexuality particularly engrossing, if far from titillating. Farrell inspired by his own grueling bouts with Estrin compares their couplings to those of his battered, spongey, bleary, sodden homeland, where "it took more and more stimulation for either partner to feel anything at all." (187)

Shriver seeks to shake off the label, as does Estrin, of feminine sensitivity, yet both author and protagonist cannot turn off their compassion despite their intelligent, wry, and bitter tirades against the maudlin mentality of the natives. They convey what very very few novels from "the Troubles" have: how women feel. Lots of vendettas, but no abortion. "Since in Northern Ireland you could blow eleven Prods in Enniskillen to kingdom come but you couldn't scrape a tadpole from between your legs." (358) On the next page, Estrin confides in the young barman about her predicament, and he immediately wonders if they're to be married. "Oh, Malcolm. All these guns and you people still live in Pooh Corner." (Posted to Amazon US 5-5-10)


Layne said...

After twenty years of marriage I think I can count the number of books that I’ve recommended and you’ve actually read on one hand. I’m glad you appreciate Lionel’s unflinchingness which, even in her lesser works like this one, elevates her novels far above what you typically disparage as chick lit. Maybe you’ll get around to Marilynne Robinson eventually in the next quarter century. Nevertheless, your condescension to read one of my favorite novelists makes me feel significant and your analysis greatly enriches my experience of having read it.

Fionnchú said...

"Not my usual genre"-- I tried vainly for diplomacy, not condescension. Her comment that "she was the only writer not in Gerry Adams's pocket" does not seem true, but she is in the minority if she calls herself "pro-unionist." I wonder why she stuck it out in Belfast so long, and why she lives in London?

I may get around to "Kevin" & "Birthday" sometime. Maybe when I am sunbathing at the beach. Seriously, thanks for goading me. Also, I read "Housekeeping." Or I saw the movie. Or both.