Five Books in My Life: Lionel Shriver
The Catch-22 of Returning to Books Like Catch-22
Lionel Shriver’s latest, The Mandibles, is out today from Harper.
What was the first book you fell in love with?
Like most readers, I have always been a serial philanderer. First loves get immediately demoted to not-the-real-deal when another fancy comes along. If we’re going to skip over the likes of Curious George Goes to School and Bartholomew and the Oobleck, I’d still have to admit to a trite entrancement with horse books: My Friend Flicka and Black Beauty (there has to be something sexual about the nearly universal power of the equine to captivate young girls). But by age ten I moved on to a passion for science fiction that lasted for a good five years, for once I discovered Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, I dropped the horsies like hot bricks. I still have a high regard for the genre.
Thereafter began my Serious Literature phase, and I’m glad I gluttonously stuffed down all the Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom! being my favorite) and Dostoevsky I could before the age of twenty. Rereading The Idiot was rewarding in my mid-thirties, but in general as a reader I’ve become more of a slob, and wouldn’t have the patience for The Brothers Karamazov today. I tried to reread it in my forties, and didn’t get past the third chapter. All that religion was exhausting.
Name a classic you feel guilty about never having read?
Moby-Dick. It had been on my self-contrived Summer Reading List when I was 16, and my father insisted that I wasn’t old enough to get it. He was wrong. Now I’m too old to get it. I’d have stuck with it at 16. These days I’d be more likely to throw all those whaling details across the room, and watch the movie.
What’s the book you reread the most?
I have read Catch-22 six times. It should have been five. I adored it when I first read it at 13, and ritually reread it around my birthday for four years thereafter. But when I was asked to write an essay about the novel for the 50th anniversary of its publication, I found it fantastically disappointing: rambling, badly structured, and far less funny than I recalled.
Rereading is dangerous. Like meeting old boyfriends, it’s courting disillusionment. Even Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence was not quite as moving as I remembered it when I reread it to write an introduction; it didn’t quite live up to the glorified simulacrum in my head. I think you end up being mentally loyal not only to the book itself, but to the experience of first reading it, which may not be repeatable. After all, Age of Innocence is still a fabulous novel. My vague sense of disappointment was my problem.
The exception to this rule has been Richard Yates. On revisits, Revolutionary Road and Disturbing the Peace (which I just reread this spring) are even better than I remembered.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Of course, loads! All of Edith Wharton! All of Richard Yates! All of Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, and Elizabeth Bowen! Think how revered I would be—why, I would be a god!
But funnily enough, there’s one less feted and more recently published novel that I quite specifically wish I’d written: T.C. Boyle’s 1996 The Tortilla Curtain. I am fascinated by the topic of immigration, and have flirted with writing an immigration novel for decades. It’s an issue about which I feel profitably conflicted, but also one so delicate that it would be easy to put one’s foot in it. (Traditionally, fiction writers err almost exclusively on the side of telling the immigrant’s story; little is ever written about the native-born whose hospitality is strained.) This novel addresses the issue from both sides, with eyes wide open. After I read it, I thought: nuts. Someone just wrote the book I would have liked to. Oh, well. Gets me out of a lot of work!
What’s the new book you’re most looking forward to?
Since I also read his masterful short story “Chixalub” for a New Yorker podcast a year ago, I fear that poor T.C. is going to think I’m stalking him. (We don’t know each other. We are simply aware of each other, which is an interesting relationship.) But Boyle has a new book coming out in October called The Terranauts, a not-really-sci-fi novel in much the way my own latest is not-really-sci-fi either, about a group of experimental subjects who try living in a sealed off, self-contained bubble (think The Dome, I guess) to see if an off-earth colony might be feasible. My best bet is that these subjects don’t all end up getting along… So I’m sure to bid to review it, if only to get my free copy. I may be a big Boyle fan, but I’m cheap.