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Lionel Shriver's satire heaps disdain on media

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Based on her latest novel, no one could ever accuse Lionel Shriver of having too high an opinion of her journalist colleagues.

The London-based American author of the critically acclaimed We Need to Talk About Kevin (now a movie starring Tilda Swinton) is also a journalist who has written for such esteemed publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and The New York Times. But she shows nothing but disdain and even disgust for the Fourth Estate in The New Republic, while acknowledging the enormous power it wields.

The novel's bias is made clear on its epigraph from former Canadian media baron Conrad Black:

"My experiences with journalists authorize me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised ... They have huge power, and many of them are extremely reckless."

Reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's classic novel Scoop, but lacking its hallmark irony and sharp humour, The New Republic will no doubt add to her reputation as a writer willing to tackle difficult, controversial and unsettling subjects.

The novel, which she reportedly wrote and shelved almost a decade ago, is set in the fictional Portuguese province of Barba (and yes it does deliberately and immediately conjure up the term Barbarians), "the most far-flung, poorest, dullest, corner of the Continent," which recently has become a hotbed of discontent reminiscent of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. (Shriver spent 12 years in Belfast, arriving in 1987 shortly after the Remembrance Day bombings.)

In Barba, there's a political party seeking independence and calling for major restrictions on the number of immigrants from North Africa. There's also a sympathetic terrorist group -- no connection to the political party, of course -- known by the appropriate acronym SOB.

The novel opens with insecure but arrogant lawyer-turned-journalist Edgar Kellogg, a "former fat boy now seeking love," being sent to Barba by his new employer, a second-rate newspaper called The New Republic (which bears no intended relation to the real U.S. magazine by that name). His mission is to track down and find out what happened to the man he is replacing, the larger than life Barrington Saddler (the Bear), while continuing to report on the area's political strife.

Kellogg immediately realizes he cannot hope to fill Barrington's shoes; the other journalists treat the memory of the Bear like that of a mythical deity who made their lives as journalists worthwhile, even those who despised him.

"Truth is, I kinda miss hating the guy," ventures one cynical scribe.

Reinforcing just how good times were before Barrington's sudden and unexplained departure three months earlier is that since then, SOB has not been involved in terrorist activity of any sort, much to the chagrin of the remaining journalists.

"You'll soon clue that your new profession is dull as ditch water unless someone gets hurt," one of his fellow foreign correspondent advises Kellogg.

But Kellogg's new profession soon becomes quite interesting as he becomes immersed in local issues and violence reappears in the form of riots and more terrorist attacks, eventually forcing him and others to re-evaluate the role they play in the dispute. Are they observers or participants?

As the media's (at times deliberate, but mostly unintended) complicity in the terrorist attacks increases and the body count rises, Kellogg is forced to re-evaluate the role he has played and the responsibility he bears for the lives that have been damaged.

An engrossing and extremely well-written satire, The New Republic raises the question: If a terrorist act takes place and no media report it, did it really happen? Or perhaps more important: Would it have happened?

A former journalist, Heidi Graham is media relations director for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

The New Republic

By Lionel Shriver

HarperCollins, 373 pages, $23

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 J9

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