Monday, April 18, 2011

So Much For That


Patchwork, Kodakotype by Pants


A few weeks ago, I wrote a withering review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom in which I quoted Lionel Shriver's assessment of its instant, gushing and quite undeserved Great-American-Novel status. She says,

"Great American Novel" = "doorstop of a book, usually pretentious, written by a man."

I then promised to read some Lionel Shriver and have just ploughed through So Much For That. I'm not convinced that Shriver is in a position to aim rotten tomatoes. No stranger to the doorstop genre herself, Shriver has delivered a whopping 433-page diatribe on the inequities of the American 'health-care' system that falls short of coherent and is often a rather-too-obvious rehash of all the usual clich├ęs about modern American life. It is part-novel,part-op-ed piece and part-extended-blog; and does none of them well.

Handyman Shep Knacker has a dream to escape to something he calls the 'Afterlife'. Some years earlier, he'd sold his handyman business for a million dollars to a lazy-slob employee, a man he'd come close to firing on a number of occasions. The taxman gobbled up a quarter of it and the rest went into 'can't-lose mutual funds'. He set his family up in a rental home and he and wife Glynis made regular forays to off-the-tourist-map locations in search of their Afterlife retreat. But paradise after paradise has been eliminated for falling short of ultimate perfection in some small detail. So they sit in their Westchester rental and Shep stays on as an employee for the firm he used to own, in a limbo between past and future lives.

At the beginning of So Much For That, Shep has decided the Afterlife's time has come. "A 'month-or-two' had now stretched into over eight years." The 'can't-lose' fund into which he'd sunk his nest-egg capital has finally recouped its original value after years in the fiscal doldrums. Without consulting his family, he has bought three tickets to Pemba, one of the Zanzibar Archipelago islands. The third ticket is for son Zach, whose hunkering down in his room in the manner of a Japanese hikikomori, has lately been the cause of concern. Shep is going, whether or not the rest of the family is in. Very democratic. In fact he's even burned his bridge at work, directing a "so long, 'asshole", to the 'callow, loud-mouthed, ignorant twit' who had been paying his salary.

"... I'm afraid I will need your health insurance", Glynis announces coolly after Shep has dropped his Pemba bombshell. Glynis, it seems, has a trumping bombshell of her own. She has been diagnosed with deadly mesothelioma. Moving swiftly on, we cut to the home of Shep's best friend Jackson and his wife Carol who are dealing with an ongoing health situation of their own. Their eldest daughter Flicka (don't ask), has a rare congenital condition called familial disautonomia. Consequently, both Jackson and Carol are trapped in jobs they consider somewhat beneath them by their need for employer-funded health plans. Jackson works with Shep at 'Handy Randy', in a job whose protected generous salary and benefits were negotiated by Shep when he sold the business.

So, that's the set-up, all established in the first couple of chapters. Would you be surprised if I told you that nothing much happens for the next three hundred pages? I know I was, and not in a pleasant way. Along the road, Shep acquires an added burden or two. His self-righteous documentary-making leech of a sister tries unsuccessfully to tap him for money to buy a Manhattan apartment but he ends up subsidising her utility bills, and his ex-clergyman father takes an uninsured fall and lands in a gold-plated recuperation facility on Shep's dwindling dime. But the substantial 'middle' of So Much For That is, I'm sorry to say, wasted on rant that is long on scattergun rage and short on reason. Then suddenly, at page 303, and with no warning, the story wakes up and makes a frantic dash for the finish.

*Spoiler Alert*

I am going to reveal the endgame here because I'm beginning to wonder if there can ever again be such a thing as a Great American Novel, and I'd like to explore that a bit. This is not a new book, (published 2008). However, if you would like to read it and don't want to know how it concludes, stop reading now.

Shep's $731,778.56 savings disappear on medical treatment not covered by health insurance. He gets fired anyway for taking too much 'personal time' so ends up with no coverage. The net result is that Glynis's life is extended, in pain, for approximately three months. Jackson, inexplicably, decides to have expensive penile enhancement surgery. He opens several new credit card accounts for this. Unsurprisingly, it's not covered by his health insurance. Neither are the two unsuccessful restorative surgeries he requires when it goes horribly wrong. He makes a token effort to pay down the credit cards by stealing his employer's customers. The debts mount. The day Shep gets fired, Jackson calmly goes home, lops off his recalcitrant dick with a meat cleaver and shoots himself. Glynis sues the art supply company she believes is responsible for the mesothelioma and, in what must be the most expedient court case in US history, wins a settlement of $1.2m. She lies during the deposition. She knew the products, which incidentally she had stolen from art school, had been recalled but used them anyway. The money goes straight into a Swiss bank account. Shep takes everyone to Pemba - his dying wife, Jackson's grieving widow, sick kid and other kid, his own hikikomori kid and his ailing dad, whom he springs from the care home. The sick ones die off in short order leaving Shep and the widow Carol to live out their days in tropical bliss.

One of my main criticisms of Freedom is that it has no moral core. It contains not one character with sufficient decency or clarity of purpose to credibly explore the central question of any novel - how is one to live? I'm not against flawed and reticent humans, but there needs to be a belief in something other than oneself and one's inalienable right to get one's own way to hold my interest. So Much For That suffers from the same fault. It is ostensibly a book about the ridiculous health-care conundrum in the world's wealthiest country. One can essentially be 'ruined', in a quaint Dickensian sense, by the simple act of getting sick. Sounds like a great premise for a novel because that is just plain wrong. But, inexplicably, the author does not nail that.

Shriver has been resident in the UK for many years and has first-hand experience of a health-care service that is by no means perfect but is the diametric opposite philosophically of the American 'system'. In Britain, health care is free at the point of service. If you're sick, you get treated without having to pay. If you need drugs, the prescription is subsidised so it costs only a few pounds. It is not 'free', but 'prepaid'. Every working Briton pays into a universal fund that pays for people who get sick and need to be helped. If you want private health insurance, you pay for it in addition to National Insurance contributions. In the US, individuals pay into their own fund that only benefits them and their family. If they never get sick, or only get illnesses not covered by their insurance, private enterprise gets richer. Britons have the comfort of knowing that if they don't get sick, their contributions have directly benefited those who weren't so lucky. For reasons that are a total mystery to me, the American obsession with self-reliance appears to completely cancel out the human instinct to care for others when it comes to illness and disadvantage. Perhaps this partly accounts for the moral murkiness of this book.

The way that Shriver has chosen to handle the absurdity of people being financially ruined by illness is baffling to me. Over 433 pages, she could have conducted a comprehensive discourse on the moral conflict inherent in a market-forces-led approach to life and death. Instead, she chooses a clumsy device that trivialises her subject. The arguments are filtered through the prism of Jackson's angry rants directed at a non-critical audience of one or two, and usually triggered by the title of a book he will never write, like,

SOAKED: How We Wet, Weak-kneed Wusses Are Taken to the Cleaners and Why We Probably Deserve It.

and

How We Gullible Goodie-Goodies Are Brain-washed into Shit-Eating Compliance (or) You Have No Idea How Much You Could Get Away With if You Only Had Balls.

Jackson divides the world into 'mugs and mooches'. The law-abiding citizens are 'mugs' who carry the load for 'mooches'. Injustice is not seen as the absence of universal fairness, but the bum deal of ending up as a giver rather than a taker. Shep and Jackson both perceive altruism as a mug's game. This would have been a much better book if they'd disagreed on that point. But no. Shep achieves the transformation from mug to mooch in the end by simply abandoning the accumulated complexities of his life, leaving his car at the airport and splitting with his ill-gotten legal settlement. He encourages Carol to dodge Jackson's whopping credit-card debts by doing the same. It's arguable that neither Shep nor Jackson were ever good people. Both behave dishonourably towards their employer and think this is justifiable because, by their assessment, he is their moral and intellectual inferior. They are wrong on both counts. Handy Randy not only comes into money perfectly legally through a trust fund, he has grown the business and made it much more profitable. Shriver has shot herself in the foot with her own irony. I sure hope she's covered for that.

I happened to hear an interview with the late American author and social commentator Joe Bageant the other day. He died a couple of weeks ago - of cancer spookily enough. Bageant said that there were whole streets of houses in his hometown of Winchester, Virginia where families were renting houses that had been built by their fathers and grandfathers. They'd had to sell to slum landlords to pay medical bills. The slum landlord then rents the house back to them for a hefty price. Why don't any of the characters in So Much For That get politically active instead of dreaming about living high on the hog on a tropical island and having their pricks lengthened? Bageant wrote a lot about class in America. It was his view that Americans exist in a kind of collective hallucination where they think that because they can buy a new car on credit and a house on a hundred-and-ten per cent mortgage, they're middle class. They're not dirt poor because at least they have clean clothes, but they don't actually own anything except debt. They work in call centres, which Bageant describes as 'plantations', in mind-numbing jobs that they can't leave because they need the health insurance. Bageant calls this a form a of 'indentured slavery'. So where is Norma Rae when you need her?

I wonder if it's even possible for an American to write a Great American Novel now. Lionel Shriver couldn't find the objectivity or courage necessary to confront a clear breach of the social contract, not to mention the Hippocratic Oath. So much for 'never do harm'. Not only does Shriver fail to adequately tackle the central issue of the corrupt relationship between health-care professionals and health insurers which involves each pathologically exploiting the other and directly causing misery to patients, she opens several other lines of inquiry which she then drops after a few cursory remarks. She brushes over the insidious demand on patients with terminal illness to 'battle' their illness and remain relentlessly positive. She never convincingly challenges the ethics of routinely extending the life of terminal patients by a few months at costs into the millions of dollars. It isn't enough just to toss a few snippy comments into a character's mouth, not on a subject as vexed as the one she's bitten off. It needed a good chew.

It seems to me America needs a Great American Novel more than ever but is there anyone left with the critical chops to write it and will the country be able to take it? Shep's American dream is to escape the country altogether, forever. Perhaps that's all that's left. Maybe Americans have the health-care system they deserve. I suppose it's always possible that this is Shriver's point. If so, it's a bemusingly round-about way of making it.


Speaking of escaping, the late David Foster Wallace's uncompleted novel, The Pale King, has been lovingly assembled from drafts and notes by his longtime editor and friend Michael Pietsch and is just out in Australia. Alerted to this some weeks ago, I tested my local library's borrower-choice service to the limit by suggesting they purchase Infinite Jest. Never in a million years did I imagine I'd get away with that. But today there it was, all fresh and new. All one-thousand-pages-and-change of it. There's a budget surplus to be exploited there, I can tell you. I'll be straight back tomorrow to order The Pale King. Larrikin's End Municipal Library will almost certainly have the oddest fiction collection of any regional Australian town by the time I'm finished. Another pretentious doorstop written by a man? I'm about to find out.