Peter John McLean

Lionel Shriver, Big Brother, lying to your audience, doing it right, how I feel about it, and this image that is stuck in my head (Reviews)

Funny thing happened to me. I read a book, okay that’s pretty normal, but as I was finishing it there was a scene so vibrant that I created it in my head and couldn’t stop thinking about it. This is not uncommon for me. Yeah, I visualize most of what I read, but it usually gets forgotten or diminished as I consider the next scene and so on and so on. But Lionel Shriver is able to build so much tension in her words, and crush all hope in the universe so deftly, that she can make images that really shake you up. Well, images that really shake me up. It reminded me of when I read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Hunger, for the record, is an extremely disturbing (and equally brilliant) book that has the potential to haunt a reader. It gets into your bones.

Big Brother was similar. Incidentally, the story has a similar subject: obesity and fasting. There is no obesity in Hunger, but there is a lot of starving and a slowly growing desperation to it that makes the story into grand literature. However, what made Big Brother so brilliant was this one scene at the end.

I don’t know how Lionel Shriver writes, I don’t know anything about her process, but I know that if it had been me writing it I would have spent hours and hours writing that couple of paragraphs. I would have had to spend time thinking about what exactly was going on. The physical motions of the characters, the responses or lack of them. I happen to really like a scene that doesn’t require any dialogue at all; it just requires a carefully drawn image for the reader to digest. An image where every word impacts the scene and builds its emotion.

This isn’t easy.

I think the reason I like Lionel Shriver’s books so much is that she builds incredible tension and releases it so well, while continuing to write literary fiction. Her style frequently uses a past tense omniscience that gives her a lot of power over how the book is told, as its not really involving the reader in the situation but instead after the fact. This gives Shriver the opportunity to become an unreliable narrator, offering twists that are intriguing without seeming silly or contrived.

I like it. I probably don’t have anything of value to add to this conversation, it is simply an aspect of her writing style that I enjoy and want to use. The way she describes a single scene, tripping over dead people and catching fat people eating cake. Simple things, really, but described in such a way that they instill dread.

I like it.