The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
Reviewed by Victoria Hoyle
17 July 2007
In 2005 Lionel Shriver won the Orange Prize for Fiction for her seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003). The judges' decision caused a minor furore within the literary establishment, not least because Shriver was a virtual unknown, published by a small press, and had a man's name. The book itself, however, was almost universally recognized for what it was—a disturbing and vigorous meditation on motherhood and modern America, a compelling virtuoso performance by a mature author. The Post-Birthday World—a long, meandering, and, it has to be said, somewhat arduous take on parallel worlds—hardly bears favorable comparison. Bloated and repetitive at 600 pages, it reads a little like a literary paean to that '90s chick-flick Sliding Doors, the one in which there are two Gwyneth Paltrows: one who discovers that her boyfriend is having an affair, has her hair cut and meets the love of her life in the form of John Hannah, and one who doesn't and descends into depressing inertia.
Irina McGovern, a children's book illustrator, and Lawrence Trainer, a political commentator, are the very picture of domestic harmony and connubial unity. American ex-pats living comfortably in London, they have a steady routine that suits them both rather well: they rise every morning to freshly-brewed coffee and a copy of The Daily Telegraph, work diligently at their perfectly suitable jobs, and eat the exquisitely balanced meals that Irina cooks—Shriver does a fine line in food-porn—before settling down together in front of the TV in the evenings. Their sex life leaves something to be desired, but that is only to be expected after 9 years of monogamy and Irina, Shriver's protagonist, considers herself rather lucky in her mundane partnership:
Irina accepted the fact ... No one would ever recount the peaceable, convivial union of a children's book illustrator and a think-tank research fellow as one that launched ships or divided nations. No modern-day Shakespeare would squander his eloquence on the ordinary happiness—if there is such a thing—that percolated within a modest flat in Borough through the 1990s. Nevertheless, Irina regarded her relationship with Lawrence as a miracle. (p. 16)
This comfortable state of affairs lasts until the 6th July 1997 when she goes out, alone, for a birthday dinner with a star snooker player called Ramsey Acton. A long-term pal of Lawrence, Ramsey is everything his friend is not: suave, sexy, and a little bit rough, he would never dream of discoursing on the Irish troubles or unrest in the Middle East. He speaks plainly, in a garbled south London patois and, with Lawrence away at a nation-building conference in Sarajevo, Irina is duly wooed or, rather, turned on. At the end of the evening she finds herself up close and personal: leaning across Ramsey's snooker table their heads come together, they turn towards one another ... At which point the world forks in two. In one reality Irina throws Lawrence to the wind, closes the circuit and kisses Ramsey in a moment of rampant sexual desire, while in the other she chastely pulls away and runs home to make a rhubarb pie. It is, so Shriver says, "the most consequential crossroads of her life" (p48).
From then on the two Irinas narrate in parallel: they each have a Chapter 1, 2, 3, etc. and they each experience more or less the same life-events, although, of course, with different reactions and repercussions. Irina No. 1 eventually marries Ramsey and embarks on a passionate, if rather stormy and unsatisfactory, life with him, while Irina No. 2 stays with Lawrence and their "ordinary happiness," although it turns out to be worth less than she once thought. The world in general—its politics and happenings—remains absolutely unchanged: Irina, Lawrence, and Ramsey are the only points of difference between the post-birthday worlds.
If that sounds unambitious and uninspiring then that's because, largely, it is. Undoubtedly, Shriver is a canny writer and The Post-Birthday World is perfectly sound work; at least, it isn't boring and there are aspects that please. For example, the novel perfectly evokes the flick-switch death of Irina's passion for Lawrence, that sickening blow whereby the blessedly familiar becomes deadly boring, while simultaneously meditating on its slow, sad demise in the other reality. Arguably, what it lacks in thrills, it makes up for in honest precision. And Shriver boasts a sardonic wit, verging on the downright cynical, that enlivens the proceedings considerably. Here, for example, is Irina musing on the vagaries of clitoral stimulation:
His earnest manipulations were never quite right of course—never quite, exactly right. But to be fair, there was something inscrutable about that recessive twist of flesh, if only because the clitoris was built on an exasperatingly miniature scale [...] Because one millimetre to the left or right equated geographically to the distance from Zimbabwe to the North Pole. Little wonder that many a lover from her youth who had imagined himself nearing the gush of Victoria Falls had, through no fault of his own, been paddling instead the chill Artic of her glacial indifference. (p. 66)
Such linguistic coups are not always successful—"Passion lurks within the interstice. It is grouting rather than bricks" (p. 95) being a case in point—but, by and large, Shriver proves adept.
Yet, while The Post-Birthday World showcases her style, it has none of her substance; it certainly never attains the thematic depth or narrative pitch of We Need to Talk About Kevin. This is largely because Shriver squanders her two-world conceit on little titters of cleverness. Instead of using it to consider real differences or changes in personal and world perspectives, she piles on neat turns-of-event that demonstrate how the minutiae of the Irinas' lives reflect one another. Not infrequently they dabble in the postmodern and muse on what their other self is up to (e.g. "a fleeting shadow crossed her mind, of that other life in which she could only look at Lawrence in guilt and shame and frantic desperation to cover her tracks" [p. 73]) but it is hardly the stuff a critic's dreams are made of. The two narratives serve to mirror rather than interrogate each other and the parallel worlds comment on each other only in the most superficial of ways. Irina 1 and 2 are virtual clones, physically and mentally, who diverge at a single moment—the kiss—and then differ only in superficial externals. They even reconcile into, or become, the same woman for the narratives' denouement, in order that Shriver can execute a nifty twist whereby the final chapter might belong to either one of them. Essentially they travel to the same place from the same place, and Shriver, quietly, with some little aplomb, contrives to write the same novel twice.
Inevitably, this involves a good deal of repetition—two dinner parties, two Christmases, two awards ceremonies, two funerals—and, also inevitably, begins to verge on the tedious (saved only by the occasional witty interjection). No number of smart synchronicities can excuse the sheer slog of 600 pages of Irina, Irina, and more Irina. Shriver expresses the difficulty several times herself—"the symmetry was forbidding" (p. 197); too much of one thing is "less a feast than a mugging" (p. 423)—and seems to recognise the insularity of her plot. Yet there is little at all to be said of the world outside of Irina's immediate sphere of experience and influence. Even the novel's other characters are decidedly flat. Both Lawrence and Ramsey are straw men, set up to contrast one another in marvelous opposition, while Irina's family and friends are deliberate cartoons: the strident, controlling mother, the homely sister, the bumbling brother-in-law, the bitchy girlfriend. There is literally nothing beyond the protagonist(s)—the world begins and ends with the Irinas; there is no wider narrative and no ambition to reach for it. Political affairs and real-world incidents are doggedly present, including the death of Princess Diana and 9/11, but they hardly touch the sides of Shriver's plotline.
Late in the novel Irina muses that "in science fiction, when parallel universes collide, the molecular integrity of the whole world is imperiled" (p. 482), but Shriver shows little interest in exploring the possibilities inherent in this statement. Nor does she stoop to consider the philosophical ramifications of her concept—for example, what does a split world suggest about the nature of reality itself? Which is the more authentic experience? Is there such a thing as authentic experience? Is there such a thing as experience? How many moments of divergence are there? How many worlds are there?
Instead, she leaves us in no doubt of her thematical premise. She earnestly (and repeatedly) lays it down for us: both Irinas illustrate children's books in which single decisions serve to change lives and fortunes for better or worse. Discussing this project, Irina No. 1 decisively articulates Shriver's raison d'etre:
"The idea is that you don't have only one destiny. Younger and younger, kids are pressed to decided what they want to do with their lives, as if everything hinges on one decision. But whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides. You're dealing with a set of trade-offs, and not one perfect course in comparison to which all the others are crap [...] There are varying advantages and disadvantages to each competing future. But I didn't want to have one bad future and one good. In both, everything is all right, really. Everything is all right." (p. 440)
All things considered, this is neither a challenging nor a revolutionary take on the possibility of alternate futures. It turns out that The Post-Birthday World's conceit is just that: a conceit, and a misspent one.