Chris Belden’s satiric novel Shriver is set at a writer’s conference at a small mid-western liberal arts college and takes aim at academic pretentiousness. Shriver, who lives alone in an apartment with his cat, Mr Bojangles, receives an invitation to appear as one of the main speakers of a literary conference, all expenses paid. What’s the problem you ask? Well Shriver isn’t an author–the only thing that Shriver has ever written are letters to his favourite newscaster, but thinking this is some sort of joke, Shriver agrees to attend and finds himself flying to the conference.
Peculiar things begin to happen to Shriver the minute he leaves his apartment. He doesn’t recognize the lobby in his own apartment building, and then when he’s actually on the plane, he grasps that the invitation is not a practical joke. A very real writer named Shriver exists. The real Shriver is a recluse who disappeared from public life upon the publication of his only book twenty years before. Looking at a blurry photo on the book jacket of the real Shriver’s book, Goat Time, Shriver, the imposter, realizes that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Shriver. Goat Time is a book that everyone in academia seems to have started but never finished, and although the book’s meaning seems murky at best, for some reason, it has an established, much-coveted place in that ever-prestigious literary canon.
Once at the conference, titled Reality/Illusion, strangely enough, Shriver manages to fool academics, readers and adoring fans alike. Everyone expects enigmatic comments from Shriver, and since the imposter Shriver doesn’t have a clue as to what anyone is going on about, his murky comments only serve to endorse his reputation as a canny cultural observer. Plus then there’s the short story he penned, “The Watermark,” (inspired by the watermark on his ceiling) which convinces Shriver’s rapt audience of his complete genius. Shriver argues that academia embraces, worships and perpetuates the careers of those already crowned by gatekeepers in an emperor’s-new-clothes fashion.
While one of Shriver‘s themes, the authenticity and merit of literary academia is subtle, the execution is not, and that includes the names of some of the characters: Delta Malarkey-Jones, a morbidly obese author whose titles include: Harem Girl: My Life as a Sex Slave, boozy professor Watzczesnam (pronounced Whatsisname), Lena Brazir (“a busty redhead,”) Gonquin Smithee (whose bio “broadcast the information that she had been sexually abused by her father,”) and the radical Zebra Amphetamine. The author takes some risks when he skewers these characters, but he succeeds and shows how in the world of academia, epic experience somehow is equated with talent:
Ms Smithee was now reading from her epic poem Menstrual Show:
” ‘You have finally killed me, I thought
when you pulled out your blood-drenched sword
but then disgust spread across your face like a shadow
and I knew it was I who had somehow done wrong.'”
Shriver wondered if perhaps he should compliment her vivid imagery but worried that this was not original enough for a writer as sophisticated as the real Shriver seemed to be. He rehearsed to himself various comments–“I particularly enjoyed your comparison of semen to wood glue,” or “How did you come up with some many striking rape metaphors?” –as Gonquin Smithee brought her performance to a well-received climax.
“‘Remember this,'” she read. ” ‘ Though I cannot murder you
though I cannot yank the ragged fingernails from your hands
though I dare not take a razor to your dangling scrotum
my words will tear you limb from limb
and thousands of readers
will applaud that some sort of justice has been served.'”
The novel’s tone is gentle (in spite of the above quote,) quirky, and overall the tone is reminiscent of Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. The plot thickens when one of the conference attendees goes missing, Shriver becomes aware that he has a stalker, and then a man who claims to be the real Shriver appears.
A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required from the reader to swallow that anyone would accept, and then attend, a conference, knowing that the invitation is meant for someone else–a published author, no less. Once you get over that hump, then the mis-adventures of Shriver assume a pleasant, humorous tone, but satire seems difficult to maintain at a consistent level. The novel wobbles around the halfway point, loses momentum and turns farcical. I have a fondness for books with an academic setting, but I prefer biting satire, not farce.