Category Archives: Shriver Lionel

Should We Stay or Should We Go?: Lionel Shriver

“With all those numbers on the news every night, who’s going to notice if two more elderly Britons snuff it?”

The title of Lionel Shriver’s novel, Should We Stay or Should We Go? could refer to suicide or Brexit: both are issues in the novel through the main characters, Kay and Cyril Wilkinson. It’s 1991. Kay, an NHS nurse, is 51 when her 94-year-old father, who had dementia, finally dies. Now that her father is dead, Kay says she feels “absolutely nothing” as he’s spent years “dying by degrees.” Kay’s mother, 18 years her husband’s junior is now 76 years old “having squandered a decade and a half on toilet duty, cursed and vilified for her efforts.” The long illness of Kay’s father brings the subject of Cyril’s parents to the fore, and then the post funeral discussion segues to Kay and Cyril making a decision:

We should really keep the means to a quick exit at the ready on principle.

They don’t want to be like Kay’s father and so reject his example of the “whirlpool of endless need.” So, calculating their life expectancy, they make a pact to commit joint suicide on Kay’s 80th birthday in 2020. It sounds like a great idea at the time and so far away. …

The first part of the novel covers the pact and its fallout. This is followed by alternate outcomes of the pact in Sliding Doors fashion. Some outcomes were miserable–others make giant leaps with imagination–such as one alternative involving cryogenics and another dystopian future in which Britain experiences a “sudden deluge of migration.”

The pact and its outcome could have made a good short story or even a good novel; aging is a vast topic in itself, but the alternate scenarios didn’t work for this reader–although I seem to be in the minority here. Also, while the premise is interesting, its execution stresses issues with characters slotted into those issues like chess pieces. For example, early on Kay and Cyril have a long discussion (post her dad’s funeral) re aging, carers, financial concerns etc.

“True, the means-testing is pretty brutal-”

“The savings threshold above which the council won’t wipe your bum is a measly twenty grand-which is far more cash than Mum has left after all those carers, but she still wouldn’t qualify for benefits because she has the house. If you’ve stashed nothing away, or next to nothing? The council picks up the whole tab. How do you like that, Mister Socialist. You slave away your whole life like my father, carrying your financial weight and supporting your family, and then when you collapse the state says you’re on your own. Do nothing, earn nothing, and save nothing-make absolutely no provision for yourself-and the state takes care of you for free, soup to nuts. Talk about moral hazard! Obviously, anyone who does anything, earns anything, and saves anything is a berk!”

This discussion goes on for some time. It’s more like a talk radio rant than a post-funeral discussion between husband and wife.

Brexit, immigration, and Covid are thrown into the mix, so that the issues are broadened, while I (boringly perhaps) would have preferred a narrowing. Put the characters under a microscope instead of turning a telescope on them. Of far more interest, as the date for joint suicide approaches, is Cyril’s persistent belligerent bullying of Kay into suicide, so much so that she resorts to hiding that she has high blood pressure from her husband. And then as a GP, his attitude to the aging “bed blockers” is positively Harold Frederick Shipman in its nastiness. What a nasty old git Cyril is, a misery who begrudges life beyond 80. While he has a definite point (the pitfalls of life extension, the financial burden of end-of-life care, the use of heroic means to prolong life etc) Cyril’s insistence in carrying through with the pact in spite of his and his wife’s good health screams of something else. What elderly person would want a Dr. like Cyril? Anyway for this reader, there were too many issues flying through the plot.

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The Motion of the Body Through Space: Lionel Shriver

“I’d prefer not to think of our marriage as an endurance sport.”

Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space examines how a decades-long marriage changes when a husband turns to endurance sport. 64-year-old Remington Alabaster and his 60-year-old wife Serenata made the economy move to Hudson, upstate New York after Remington’s humiliating dismissal from his job as an engineer at Albany’s York City’s Department of Transportation. With a diminished pension, and without a steady paycheck, the Alabasters are forced to economize. Serenata does voice-over work, so money is still coming in, but they also have two financially insolvent children: the perennially unemployed, laid-back Deacon and the annoying, born-again Valeria. The Alabasters have a good marriage; they are intellectual equals, good friends, but when Serenata, always an avid exerciser, finds that her knees now control her physical ability, Remington, a man who has never exercised a day in his life, suddenly becomes interested in running. The novel examines aging, adjusting to retirement, society’s approach to physical fitness, and the complex power plays within marriage.

The motion of the body through space

Remington and Serenata had a good marriage, or at least so it seemed. The first inkling of a problem emerges when Remington announces that he’s “decided to run a marathon,” (and that’s just the beginning.) Shocked into disbelief, Serenata “had the sense, rare in her marriage, that she should watch what she said.” Serenata, who has just been forced by her bad knees to give up running, feels that Remington’s decision “coincides with a certain incapacity.” His “timing was cruel.” Serenata reacts badly; he calls her a bitch. The exchange is adversarial, and a line is drawn in the sand.

And it gets worse. He’s all togged up ready to go running:

Yet his getup was annoying by any measure: leggings, silky green shorts with undershorts of bright purple, and a shiny green shirt with purple netting for aeration–a set, its price tag dangling at the back of his neck. His wrist gleamed with a new sports watch. On a younger man the red bandanna around his forehead might have seemed rakish, but on Remington at sixty-four it looked like a costuming choice that cinemagoers were to read at a glance: this guy is a nut. In case the bandanna wasn’t enough, add the air-traffic-control orange shoes, with trim of more purple.

He only bent to clutch an ankle with both hands when she walked in. He’d been waiting for her.

So, fine, she watched.

I’ve read a lot of books about marriage problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that shows a disintegrating marriage through the lens of extreme exercise. Self-contained Serenata, who has always had a private, healthy respect for keeping in shape, cannot understand Remington’s “idiotically self-important” need to drive himself into a competitive event, and she’s horrified by Remington’s desire for praise. She doesn’t understand her husband’s obsession, and when the bank account begins draining thanks to high end equipment (a $10,000 bike) and a 1200 a month retainer for a pushy, obnoxious trainer named Bambi, Serenata discovers that she’s shoved to the sidelines. Her role is to scurry around, to cook and serve meals for the Tri training team and to cheer at the finishing lines. The situation, Remington with his new Tri-Club friends, and Bambi (Serenata should have kicked her in the rear right before shoving her out the front door and damn the consequences,) opens “a fissure between them that at their age shouldn’t have been possible.”

Remington and Serenata drift farther and farther apart, and suddenly they are not companions anymore. Of course, this is all stoked by Bambi who sneers at Serenata’s health issues, claiming that “exercise doesn’t wear you out,” and “limits are all in your head.” Bambi, and the club members believe that if you cannot do achieve a physical fitness goal, then you are a failure–a mental weakling. To Bambi, it’s mind over matter. And of course, this leaves Serenata in the Losers’ Corner.

At your age, Sera, you might consider an e-bike,” Bambi suggested. “I recommend plug-in models to older clients all the time. Keeps them on the road, even with, you know–bum joints.”

“Yes, I’ve considered one of those,” Serenata said, “But it seems more cost efficient to go straight to the mobility scooter.” 

Serenata has experience of sports injury and she is concerned that Remington is being pushed beyond his abilities. Unfortunately, Remington, who has “always been more suggestible” is infatuated with Bambi and anything Serenata says clashes with Bambi’s mantras. Yet while Serenata tries dishing out advice to Remington about avoiding injury, she, dreading and delaying knee surgery, doesn’t apply that same advice to her own situation. 

There are some marvellous scenes at the Marathons. These marathons attract all sorts, including “fat,out-of-shape bucket-list box-tickers” who, according to one woman, “cheapen what completing this distance means.” As the race takes shape, there’s a “distinctive subsection of the over-the-hill contestants  [who] began to exert a queasy fascination. All men in their seventies and eighties, they were lean to the point of desiccation, with limbs like beef jerky.”

The book may sound amusing, and, with its emphasis on extreme sports and fitness mania it could certainly have been written that way. While there are amusing scenes thanks to Serenata’s tart tongue, Shriver takes a dead-eyed look at the disintegration of the Alabasters’ marriage: Serenata’s spiraling rejection of Remington’s goals and Remington’s folly, neglect and emotional abandonment of his devoted wife. This is a richly textured book which examines how social media sharpens competitive training, the human desire for attention and praise, and what happens when one marriage partner goes off the rails. The novel asks: at what point does exercise become ‘unhealthy?’ Couch potatoes would remain that way unless challenged, but at what point does challenge become insane? The marathons here include all types: the young and vigorous and the aged “wizened immortals” with many of the spectators making snide comments.  Is the participation of the elderly, who cannot compete with those decades younger, heroic or misguided? I didn’t quite get the utterly charmless characters of Lucinda (Remington’s former boss ) or Bambi. They seemed caricatures rather than fully fleshed beings, and the book is marred as a result. Finally Serenata, for all her unemotional, rational approach to life, takes far too much shit (which is not a knock at the book). She needs to kick some rear ends. Starting with Valeria and Remington. 

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