The novel is also a study of a marriage, one that tests its strains. How can you be a couple when you are being pulled apart by one person’s obsession, another’s rejection of it? The narrative interest lies here. Just as in both classic and popular novels the central question was: who should the heroine marry? now it is “can this marriage hold? Does she even want it repaired?” This novel isn’t as ambitious or comprehensive as The Mandibles, the best of Shriver’s that I’ve read, or as painful, while still being comic, as her prize-winning We Need To Talk About Kevin, but it’s a fine and enjoyable piece of work.
From the Orange Prize-winning author of We Need to Talk About Kevin is a humorous look at our obsession with exercise. After an early retirement announcement, Remington, 64, tells his wife Serenata, 60, that he is going to run a marathon - just as she, a lifelong runner, faces surgery. With laugh-out-loud and sad moments, it's a pinpoint-sharp novel.
These poignant insights about ageing are delivered inside a novel that goes down like a sour pill. Shriver’s bitterness is reminiscent of VS Naipaul’s, but his great subjects were postcolonial revolution and the agonies of decolonisation. The stakes of Shriver’s drive-by declinist aphorisms are rather less world-historical than she makes them out to be: “no one trusted you to read anything anymore. Online, text was ceding to the podcast. Civilizationally, we were regressing to oral history around a campfire.” It’s an odd thought to give a character who makes her living from audiobooks. The Motion of the Body Through Space is an obstacle course of a book, but Shriver’s rage against the dying of various lights makes for a diverting spectacle, if not always a coherent novel.
The awkward characters, the heavyhanded opining make the book hard to love. There are moments when you can’t believe it has been published, such as when we meet Remington’s boss at the Department of Transport, a “lazy” black woman with “full breasts, powerful hips and high cheekbones. Her bearing was statuesque . . . her mass magnificently distributed.” Oh, and she “changed Buchanan Street to Robert Mugabe Terrace”. Of course she did. But just as you’re about to ask for your money back, Shriver, as always, does something cute at the last minute.
Shriver’s essential bugbear is that, taken to extremes, the concept of cultural appropriation prohibits the act of fiction writing itself: “If writers have to restrict their imagination to personal experience,” she has stated, “the only option left is memoir.” The grand irony of course is that The Motion of the Body Through Space is a novel drawn from the first-hand experience of a writer who monitors her frequency of star jumps and has been on the receiving end of a pasting for her views on diversity. Certainly it’s problematic - but few authors can be as entertainingly problematic as Shriver.
It might have acquired greater focus as a short story, and Shriver’s decision to rail against the politicisation of literature by creating in Lucinda a character whose purpose is explicitly political feels like an own goal. But you’ve got to admire her for wrestling to the floor subjects many authors wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.
There are no two ways about this: Lucinda is a racist caricature. But the novel is full of staged arguments and false binaries. No one is willing to compromise with anyone. And comparing fitness freaks to Nazis and jihadists feels desperate.
By the end, Shriver writes that Serenata “was not obliged to give a flying fig about climate change, species extinction, or nuclear proliferation... Serenata had earned her ennui”. But has she? How? From an author who once told one paper that her daily regimen was “130 press-ups... 200 side crunches, 500 sit-ups and 3,000 star jumps”, this is an extremely lazy book.
At heart the novel is an essentially uncontroversial entreaty to avoid lazy thinking wrapped up in the story of a later-life couple rubbing along, in spite of their itchy (and blistered) feet. But instead of being zingy and scabrous, Shriver’s satire is so broad and so exaggerated that its impact is deadened. In the end, you’re left wondering why Shriver even went to the bother of reverse-engineering the scenario to make her point: it’s not as if she’s forced to resort to fiction for want of a public platform.
In a way, the book is about how we all deal with decline and death. The writing is sardonic and elegant, although there are rather too many repetitive arguments between the central couple. Like many of Shriver’s protagonists, Serenata is disdainful, unbending and refreshingly hard to like. Surprisingly, there’s a happy ending. Or at least, as happy an ending as this mordantly confrontational writer is ever likely to allow herself.