Book reviews: Lionel Shriver pokes a stick at the ticking of "diversity boxes"
by Lionel Shriver (Borough Press, $35)
Reviewed by Kiran Dass
Known for her defiant criticism of identity politics and a rejection of what she dismissively describes as "woke culture", Lionel Shriver's 15th and semi-autobiographical novel The Motion of the Body Through Space isn't just about what it appears to be on the surface.
A satirical novel about self-conviction and self-confidence, it primarily deals with the cultish obsession and endurance aspect of exercise, while looking at the psychological and physiological effects of ageing bodies and an ageing marriage. Shriver also uses it as a kind of platform for some of her noxious views. She pokes a stick at the ticking of "diversity boxes" and tries to elicit sympathy for the "fragility" of the straight white male in modern America.
Improbably named Upstate New York couple Serenata Terpsichore and Remington Alabaster are in their early 60s and have been together for 32 years. A fitness freak, snippy Serenata views exercise as essential "biological housework", so is crushed when she must give up her obsessive and punishing exercise regime when her knees pack it in. Then the laconic Remington, a life-long couch potato who has never shown any interest in exercise, suddenly announces he is going to run a marathon. This is met with unalloyed hostility from Serenata, who resents her husband for training without her. Her bitterness accelerates with the introduction of lithe, lycra-clad personal trainer Bambi Buffer.
A voice artist, Serenata wonders why her work narrating audiobooks is drying up. A friend helpfully points out that it's because her appropriation of the accents of characters from marginalised communities is problematic. This makes Serenata bristle. Civil engineer Remington has been clawing his way up the ranks at the New York State Department of Transport. Tired of being told how privileged he is as a white male, his masculinity is threatened when he is overlooked for promotion as head of department in favour of an "unqualified and lazy" young African American woman.
This is a fairly light and easy read. There's much rapid-fire marital sparring here and tension as Serenata and Remington navigate a divergence of interests. The witty Serenata gets in some great cutting lines. Shriver acerbically examines the social dimensions and neurosis attached to the competitive cult of exercise, and sensitively captures the disappointments of ageing and the limitations that come with it.
Not even a hot mess
Sex and Vanity
by Kevin Kwan (Hutchinson, $37)
reviewed by Renee Liang
Just like his best-selling novel Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan's newest, Sex and Vanity, starts with a parade of incredibly toned, insanely rich wedding attendees in an exotic location (this time Capri). Unfortunately, Kwan never drags himself away from detailing the (fictitious, possibly not) lives of the rich and vacuous.
Billed as his homage to A Room with a View – or more precisely, the Merchant Ivory film adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel – his characters lack the complexity of the original. Instead, Kwan parades his knowledge of New York snobbery, complete with lists of which schools his characters attended and what designers they're wearing. In case you doubted his insider status, he also provides copious footnotes. Here's how he introduces his heroine, Lucie Tang Churchill: "Lucie at least looked dressier in her calf-length Stella McCartney dress, and she had the advantages of her improbably photogenic features and youth."Advertisement Advertise with NZME.
His character depictions rarely go deeper than the clotheshorse treatment. Kwan can't seem to write female characters well, showing the older ones with undisguised contempt (gossipy, bad dress sense) and the younger ones as objects of the male gaze.
This bored me. I never believed the forbidden romance at the heart of the book because I couldn't see Lucie. By the end I had worked out that she was kind and a gifted artist but I had no idea why everyone wanted her. Kwan's clumsy attempts at distilling mixed-ethnicity Lucie's internalised racism as the cause of her romantic misjudgements never quite landed for me. It was only with his leaden explanation at the conclusion (per Hollywood formulas) that the penny dropped.
The most interesting parts for me are where Kwan starts giving vent to his own frustrations growing up Asian in America. The patronising names ("little China doll') and unconscious racism pop out – almost as if Kwan has constructed those scenes to vent. It is satisfying when they are called out, by Kwan if not by the characters themselves. But frustratingly, there is no deeper exploration of Chinese-American roots, only cliched scenes of bonding over Asian cooking.
Kwan's attempts at male characters are also mediocre. Lucie's romantic match, George Zao, is an Asian Ken doll, equally at home performing a piano concerto in a cave or catching a wave in Coogee, flashing his chiselled abs. He also does pro bono work as an environmental architect, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry and art, a 100 per cent success rate in saving lives with CPR and (yawn) is impossibly rich. Oh, and he's a good kisser.
Despite the title and the repetitive reminders of how hot his characters are, there are precisely two sexual acts in 342 pages – that's if you count the one told entirely in cliched movie metaphors, in what must surely be a contender for this year's Bad Sex in Fiction awards. This novel should more accurately be titled Ennui and Vanity. Take a hot bath instead.