So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

Prior to reading this book, I had heard it repeatedly described as a “health care” novel. The message, it was said, predominates. I began the book with some trepidation. Over four hundred pages of a fiction author’s message about health care is not my idea of a good time. My doubts evaporated quickly.

But not before Chapter One starts off with this:

Shepherd Armstrong Knacker
Merrill Lynch Account Number 934-23F917
December 01, 2004 – December 31, 2004
Net Portfolio Value: $731,778.56

Recognition that the “Net Portfolio Value” will soon start to decline takes little familiarity with the art of foreshadowing. This is a message book. And then the prose and characterization begin.

“Shep” Knacker is a professional handyman. He accumulated his nestegg by first building up and then selling a home repair company. The proceeds, after tax, were not sufficient and the timing was wrong for him to begin “The Afterlife”, his dream of ditching modern society for a tropical paradise where a person could get by on dollars a day. Instead, he has continued to save and has stayed on with the company. Shep had poor judgment and worse foresight in selling the company just before it became extremely valuable. The new owner, silverspooned Randy Pogatchnik, was a terrible employee and is a worse boss. Shep is miserable. The only thing that has been sustaining him is his belief in “The Afterlife.”

Shep is married to Glynis, an artisan metalworker who plans more than works to the family’s financial detriment. They have two kids: Amelia who is grown and Zach who is in high school. Shep is tired of the grind and shouldering the family’s financial load. The book begins as he is packing for “The Afterlife”. He has not yet told Glynis. He plans to:

He wasn’t presenting her with a total fait accompli either, a wave goodbye at the door. Officially he would confront her with a choice, on for which, in the service of credibility, he had paid through the nose. Odds were that he had purchased nothing but an illusion, but an illusion could be priceless. So he’d bought not one ticket, but three. They were nonrefundable.

His determination to go is bolstered by the fact that the bank account is his doing. He has provided Glynis with a home, food, and time to practice her art. She has frittered away that time, something over which the ever-responsible Shep manages to feel some guilt. The problem is that Glynis is a perfectionist and has not been pushed.

She could overcome her anguish about embarking on an object that, once completed, might not meet her exacting standards only if she had no choice. In this sense, his helping had hurt her. By providing the financial cushion that should have facilitated making all the metal whathaveyou she liked, he had ruined her life. Wrapped in a slackening bow, ease was a poisonous present.

Lionel Shriver has deftly sketched out the family. Shep is a reliably pragmatic man with a soft touch and one dream, the “priceless illusion” that keeps him motivated. Glynis is a hard-edged perfectionist who has let the dream slip, to the extent she ever shared it. We meet them at a crisis point. Shep is leaving with or without Glynis. He cannot stand mundane reality anymore.

I was won over by the writing quoted above and lines like this in which resentment is described as:

an emotion distinctive for being disagreeable on both its generating and receiving ends.

When Shep does tell Glynis, she indulges where he expected resistance. He sets his plight in heroic terms, pitting “The Afterlife” against endless milk runs to the A&P.

”There are worse fates.”

“No,” he said. “I’m not sure there are. I know we’ve seen plenty of poverty – raw sewage running in gutters and mothers scavenging for mango peels. But they know what’s wrong with their lives, and they have a notion that with a few shillings or pesos or rupees in their pockets things could be better. There’s something especially terrible about being told over and over that you have the most wonderful life on earth and it doesn’t get any better and it’s still shit.”

Shep’s passion for ditching the 9-to-5 world is infectious. Glynis’ reasonable response was grown-up but frustrating. Why can’t Shep have his dream?

The answer, of course, is health care. Glynis calmly informs Shep that she has cancer and she will need the health insurance he gets through his employer. He cannot leave for his paradise. The news is shattering. He must slink back to the jerk Pogatchnik and beg his job back. The situation is doubly hard because, as Shep left, he dropped a trail of colorful suggestions for what Pogatchnik could do with the job.

Shep’s best friend is Jackson. Jackson and his wife Carol have a daughter, Flicka, who suffers from familial dysautonomia (FD). FD is a rare genetic disorder that affects almost exclusivly Ashkenazi Jews and causes insensitivity to pain and a multitude of other problems. Flicka is sixteen years old, a daddy’s girl, and will be lucky to survive to her late twenties. Jackson and Carol also have a second daughter, Heather, who they would have aborted had the amniocentesis revealed that she too had the disorder. Heather craves the attention her suffering sister receives. To keep her from feeling “left out”, Jackson and Carol obtained a prescription of placebos. To placate themselves, they allowed Heather to eat her way into obesity as compensation for the misfortune of having an unwell sister.

My misgivings about this being a message book started creeping back on the little cat feet of foggy passages like this:

”You sound so down on Medicare and Medicaid. But you’re not saying that you wish old and poor people didn’t have access to health care.”

Jackson sighed. That line was so predictable. Shep was a class-A Mug. For the ranks of complacent dupes to which, alas, Jackson also belonged, Shep Knacker could be the mascot. “No, I’m not saying that. My point is, guys with health benefits don’t think they’re paying their own medical bills. They cling to their precious employee health insurance as if it’s this great freebie. It’s not free! They don’t understand they’d be getting, like, fifteen grand more in salary if it weren’t for the damned health benefit! It’s fucking sad, man.”

“Money’s gotta come from somewhere, Jacks. Som big national thing would send taxes through the roof. There goes your fifteen grand. Worse, if you earn a decent living.”

“It seems like it’s all the same dough, but it’s not. Think about it. Every piece of paper that just landed in your mailbox cost money. Some officious twit was paid to fill in all those codes, and tick the boxes, and fire off copies to five other places. Thirty percent of the money spent on medical care in this country goes to so-called ‘administration.’……”

Large sections of the book are filled with conversations like this one. Shep playing straight man while Jackson, who has been dealing with the health care industry for years, feeds him statistics and rants in a way familiar to anyone who has heard political talk radio (left/right, does it matter?) or someone who listens to political talk radio. Under the weight of a great bulk of this sort of dialogue, the smooth realism of the opening starts to fade. It is to Lionel Shriver’s great credit that, despite this sort of thing, her characters only occasionally feel like props for her essay on health care. Shep, Glynis, Jackson, Carol, and Flicka throb with vitality and truth. Zach spends his time holed up in his room, so is little more than a placeholder for most of the book. Amelia is window dressing and Heather is a disaster.

There is a third major health crisis that begins developing a third or so into the book. Shriver plays it a little too coy, only giving hints of the condition besides otherwise providing full access to the character’s thoughs. The strings, in other words, started to show.

This transparency is not helped by the fact that the narrative hangs on the three major health issues: FD with about 350 or so sufferers worldwide; mesothelioma with an incidence rate of less than 30 per 1,000,000; and the unidentified condition which, given the statistics I was able to find, may have an incidence rate as high as 100 per 1,000,000, but it is probably much, much lower (I added plenty of fudge factors to get to 100/Million). The third condition is asking lots of indulgence from the reader. I found it hard to indulge given the way this third afflicted character had been portrayed and all the circumstances surrounding his life. The numbers were an aggravating factor, but the plot machinations required to get there were simply too implausible.

(I am not including in the tally an elderly parent and the parent’s health issues which are plausible. Though this fourth health care crisis could feel wedged in to provide a comprehensive birth-to-death overview of the disadvantages of the American health care system.)

Still, Lionel Shriver is skilled at keeping us perched on the shoulder of these two suffering families. The frustrations of dying in slow motion are conveyed with a disquieting candor. Cancer is a bitch and Shriver holds back little of the psychological trauma. At least, she maintains the grit for the first two-thirds to three-quarters of the book.

The material is so heavy, the tragedy so black, Shriver must have felt a need to provide some light and hope. She does this through a number of very suspect plot developments. Coincidence upon coincidence would not be so bad, but the novel ultimately gives way to Hallmark(tm) moments. Closure and even hope for the future abounds, which alone is not bad, but it feels similar to what I imagine a Nicholas Sparks book feels like at the end if I was ever masochistic enough to subject myself to his dreck. Things work out too well, the characters handle life’s uppercuts too easily.

The downside of this happy-as-possible-under-the-circumstances ending is that the message is lost. Topping off the novel with syrup leaves such a sickly sweet taste that it is hard to imagine many readers are left with a hunger for action.

33 Responses to So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

  1. Great review Kerry…in the end I was less critical than you but it’s certainly not, for me, great literature. The ending was rather schmaltzy … but I did like the fact that she grappled with a tricky problem.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Whispering. The ending was the biggest problem for me. Even with the speech-making, there was a good story about fully rounded characters. I did not, however, like the sub-plot with that third, “surprise” medical issue.

      I had forgotten that you had reviewed this work. In revisiting it, you did a beautiful job. I should have linked to you and will remedy that now.

      I highly recommend anyone remotely interested in the book (even if they have no desire to read it) visit Whispering Gums.

      • Oh that wasn’t why I commented Kerry! I agree with the third surprise medical issue – it was loading it on a bit thick. I think overall the characterisation was good. As I wrote in one of the comments on my post, my marginalia on the ending was the erudite note “corny”. But, when I thought about it as I wrote the review, I felt a little more generous. That said, I do think it undermined her health message.

      • Kerry says:

        I know you don’t comment for links. It is just that your summary of the story and “more generous” take on the novel is well worth reading for anyone interested in talking about it. Basically, I liked your review better than my own even if I may not have liked the book quite as much.

  2. Shriver always comes across to me as a rather middlebrow and obvious writer. That said, I’ve not read any so that may be massively unfair.

    Still, I won’t be starting with this one. Schmaltz and a debate about a foreign country’s healthcare debate. In a few years I suspect it’ll be out of date even for Americans and right now it’s relevance to anyone who isn’t American seems doubtful (though I note WG took to it more – still, why should I care more about this than I would about healthcare systems in Bolivia or Sweden to take some random examples? Is there any real universality to the book?).

    • Kerry says:

      To answer your last question, the book is at its best in getting at illness and dying. Though Swedes may not have to foot large medical bills, they do die from cancer. For most of the book, Shriver provides an unsentimental look into the struggle with mortal illness. However, your sense that the intrusive theme of the American medical system tends to obscure the human story underneath is warranted. There is more policy to slog through than the rest is probably worth for you.

      This is the only book by Lionel Shriver that I have read. Based on it, I would say she is middlebrow. She is not entirely obvious, however. There are some nice insights into suffering, relationships, character. But it is still firmly middlebrow stuff, in this novel at least.

      • Yes, I agree that she is middle-brow. As Kerry says the complexity of health (insurance, in particular) policy gets a bit much at times – and is pretty America-centric – but I think, also as Kerry says, there is universality in the human/personal responses to terminal or serious illness. This is my second of hers – it wouldn’t have been my top choice to read (was a local reading group selection) but I wasn’t sorry to have read it.

  3. Amy says:

    This was my first Shriver read, and I’m not running to the store to get others, although I’ve heard The Post-Birthday World is really good. But this one bogged down at various points for me with the strained health care dialogue, and the ending totally sank it for me. Much too contrived and too happy.

    That said, one thing I did like was that Glynis was no dying saint–she was very prickly and real.

    • Kerry says:

      Yes, if Glynis or Flicka had been the kind of chipper patients that feature in fundraising commercials, the novel would have been unbearable. Their prickliness kept the book interesting and real.

      Like you, I am not rushing out to buy Shriver’s back catalog.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Steph says:

    I think Shriver always tackles difficult issues in her books and is really provocative but I do think the execution was really lacking on this one. She’s clearly a very intelligent writer, so I think she could have managed to get her message across without all the polemic. And the ending was kind of ridiculous and not without its problems. I’m glad this one was booted from the ToB!

    • Kerry says:

      Always glad to be in your company, Steph. She is a very intelligent writer, but the ending is quite problematic. I did not have the same intensely negative reaction I had with Next, so I do not actively dislike the novel. It is not, though, Rooster worthy.

  5. How did this get into the ToB 16 in the first place?

    • Kerry says:

      Yes, a definite ball drop by the selection committee.

    • Jenny says:

      I assume it was the “buzz factor”—in a year that was a huge health care battle, here’s the health care book.

      I didn’t read it. I’ve got 2 of her books on my TBR pile, so I just had to pass on this one. Sounds like I didn’t make a terrible decision.

      • Kerry says:

        Excellent point, Jenny. Health care was/is a timely issue and Shriver is a very talented author. Still, I would not have picked it for the 16.

  6. kimbofo says:

    I read this one last year and *loved* it, and ate it up in the space of one weekend. I do, however, agree that the ending was a bit weak. Funnily enough, as much as I enjoyed this story and found it an interesting treatise on the nature of illness, dying and the need to give your life purpose, it has not stuck with me. In other words, it was a good read, but not a profound one.

    As to being middlebrow, I’m not sure I quite agree. Have you seen the woman in action on TV? She is fiercely intelligent, with an emphasis on the fierce. ;-)

    • Kerry says:

      I absolutely agree with you, Kim, that Lionel Shriver is intelligent. I have not seen her on TV, but the novel bristles with intelligence. What I meant by “middlebrow” is that there is nothing particularly innovative nor, as you say, “profound” in the book. It is a very well-crafted conventional story.

      There are insights, but they are neither shocking nor innovative. Maybe it is more a compliment to her talent than an insult to say that her best moments give the feeling of recollection, of her having found the right words to convey something I have felt before. But it seems to me the ambition of this book was to tell a story of the moment rather than to create a highbrow work of art for the ages.

      I would be surprised if even Lionel Shriver had any hope that the book would be relevant in twenty years’ time. It is too polemical (and the ending too timid) to ever be considered a literary masterpiece. That’s about all I meant. I did not mean to suggest Shriver was not a very intelligent person. It is clear even from this work that she is. She was more an advocate than an artist here, though.

      • kimbofo says:

        In that case, I think you’ll find that Shriver has completely nailed what it was she wanted to achieve with this novel. According to an essay she wrote about the book she talks about writing “fiction that speaks to our experience”. In other words, she wanted to write something that everyone would identify with, even if it was about a topic few of us would find appealing.

      • kimbofo says:

        Bugger. I put the link to the essay in and it didn’t appear. Let me try again http://www.powells.com/blog/?p=14549

      • Kerry says:

        Great link, Kim. I think she tried to do a little too much perhaps. The polemics tend to detract from the “experience” aspect, in my view. She wanted a novel about the American health care system, a novel about the experience of dying (or someone you love dying), a novel about the culture of cancer patients, and a novel about the value of a life. I do not think they all work so well together in novel form, at least for me.

        I also see from her essay that she did, in many ways, hit the mark at which she was aiming. She is extremely talented and I applaud her bravery (until the end) in tending to write how things are rather than how we wish they were. I was not satisfied with her explanation of the flinch at the end, though: “you and I both deserved a break.”

  7. marco says:

    Are there books you wouldn’t consider Middlebrow, though, in this tournament? I have Skippy Dies in the Tbr and I’m considering adding Goon Squad – which seems well written and stylistically interesting – but, with the possible exception of Nox (I’ve read and enjoyed Anne Carson in the past) none of the books shortlisted really seem “works of art for the ages”.
    Discounting the more extreme positive and negative views, it seems a given that Freedom is a less successful novel than the Corrections, which itself was very enjoyable, at times funny and touching, but hardly “innovative”, “shocking”, or “profound”.
    Are works like Freedom or SSLS really that different from So Much For That? Their authors may well have attempted to write a literary masterpiece, something that could still be relevant in twenty years time, but if they fail to squeeze any new insight from their engagement with the Zeitgeist, what remains is an even less successful attempt as social/political critique than in Shriver’s case.

  8. I agree, Kerry, with your definition of middle-brow. I have seen Shriver interviewed, a couple of times, and she can be SCARY but that doesn’t mean her writing reaches that level of imagination/creativity/innovation that blows your mind away or at least challenges you.

  9. Kerry says:

    You certainly make a fair point, Marco.

    I cannot speak directly to Room, Skippy Dies, Nox, and The Finkler Question as I have not read them, though Nox does seem “highbrow” in that (from descriptions) it tries to breathe new life into both subject and form.

    I think A Visit From the Goon Squad qualifies as “highbrow”. Whether it succeeds entirely or not, is certainly debatable. It may be more gimmicky than innovative, for instance, but Egan certainly aimed high in both form and content. So, I would say Goon Squad has more highbrow ambition (or more closely achieves highbrow results) than So Much For That.

    Bad Marie, Kapitoil, Next, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Bloodroot, and Savages are right out.

    I think Shteyngart perhaps had ambition, but he fails in my opinion. I would rather read book like So Much For That which is largely successful (hate the end) than a wreck (at least with respect to the comedy) like Super Sad True Love Story.

    Model Home may try but it is not yet in the same league as Freedom (as flawed as I found it).

    Lord of Misrule probably doesn’t make it either, though the more I type the more ridiculous it seems for me to be sorting these books. Lord of Misrule had similar ambitions, I think, to So Much For That on one level. It wanted to firmly set a story in a particular place and time. Lord of Misrule was more innovative with language, So Much For That tried to do more. But more is not always better. As James Woods has pointed out, trying to shove in more does broaden a work, but often at the expense of depth. That’s what I thought happened to Shriver.

    Franzen is a highbrow author, at least, he is certainly trying to be. I found Freedom very mediocre, so I am not eager to put it in the “highbrow” bin. And comparing it to So Much For That, they both suffered from many of the same problems. They tried to put in too many current political issues which interfered with characterization, neither broke any ground in form, both were very ably written but not stunningly so.

    Yet, Freedom does seem like it will age better than So Much For That. The latter is so tied to a particular political position, a particular state of health care, that I am not sure it strikes at the universal, as Max indicated with his question. I also am more reluctant to allow So Much For That my “highbrow” label (not worth the printing costs) because the author seemed to bail on both her message and her story. She came up for air when she should have dove a little deeper. Instead of having sympathy for her readers and herself, she should have sacrificed us all. The failure of will is the difference.

    I do not think Franzen made the same error. In that way, Freedom is different and belongs more with Goon Squad. (Not to say the Freedom ending does not leave some hope and redemption, it does. The close fits with the larger theme and aim of the novel, though, the characters are not suddenly wealthy, beautiful, and happy, they are battered but have given up some freedom/ambition to obtain contentment. Franzen maybe softened at the end, Shriver bailed.)

    Lots of typing to say, there are only shades of difference, but I do think Freedom is objectively superior as a work of art to So Much For That.

  10. No, no, no Kerry … I liked YOUR review better than mine.

  11. Biblibio says:

    This has nothing to do with the story or the book itself, but what’s the deal with the names? Flicka? Shep? Granted, some of the names may be nicknames but still…

  12. I’ve read two books by Shriver: We Need To Talk About Kevin, which I absolutely loved. Thought it was one of the best books I read in 2005. The other one was Double Fault, which I found incredibly trying.

    I think I might skip this one, although I might have to try another one of her books, as according to some other folks in blogging-wonderland, Double Fault’s her weakest/least impressive book.

    • Kerry says:

      This is the only book of Shriver’s I’ve read, so I cannot provide any opinion on whether to try another or which that should be. Based on this one, I am open to reading another of her books (and I keep hearing praise for We Need to Talk About Kevin), but I am not going to run out to the bookstore right away looking either.

      Given her and my disagreements on the ending, I just may not be the right reader for her.

  13. Tiffany says:

    There are parts of your review that I really agree with – particularly about the peripheral characters. After reading “We Need to Talk About Kevin” I was quite convinced that Shriver was a parent, but after reading “So Much for That” I was quite convinced that she wasn’t as the relationship between Glynis and her children was so unplausible – I did some googling and turns out that I was right the second time!

    I disagree that the main themes are healthcare or even illness, I think that that’s a bit like saying “To Kill a Mockingbird” was about the justice system. I strongly feel that the book was about capitalism and the American Dream, and what a farce it all is. In essence, what is the purpose of being a superpower, or even a developed country if your life stinks? For this reason I would also disagree that this is a decidedly middlebrow book, as I think that if you interested in engaging with philosophical ideas that are very political, rather than esoteric then it’s incredibly thought provoking. E.g. the debate around whether or not meritocracy truly rewards hard workers with Pogatchnik, but also the criticism of the overexpecting, under contributing bourgoisie class like Beryl. I also think that this makes that ending a really lovely one apart from the horrible twee coupling that occurs.

    One character that I loved to hate and looked forward to meeting her every time she came along was Beryl – even though she was a total cliche.

    It was a really different book to “We Need to Talk About Kevin” – more characters (that I don’t think that she coped with) and also I heard that with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” she tried to keep in non political, to the extent that she made him use a bow and arrow rather than a gun to avoid a debate on gun control. In this goal, I think think that she did a great job.

    p.s. It’s lovely to see such an intelligent and engaging forum!

  14. Kerry says:

    Tiffany,

    Thanks for your very engaging comment. I am glad we agree on some parts, even more pleased we disagree on others.

    I am not sure you’ve convinced me on capitalism and the American Dream being the primary focus. However, I am glad you brought that up because that aspect is there and it is important. I do not think Shriver really intended that (she says practically nothing about those ideas in her essay on the book), but the American healthcare system and the financial difficulties the characters face are necessary outgrowths of American-style capitalism. When individuals choose how much health care to consume (or when they expect to be able to do so) and hospitals are operated for-profit and for-profit insurance companies mediate the exchange between the two, you get what we get. And I emphatically do not mean to imply that “for-profit” is any sort of pejorative. My point is that the problems inherent in the intersection between capitalism, quality of life, and health care are, in some ways, intractable. Shriver does, whether intentionally or not, touch on these issues.

    What I mean to say is that, while I am not convinced that the book is about these aspects, I think you are right in suggesting that a book which examines (on some level, at least) the American healthcare system is necessarily also about capitalism just as a book which could be described as about the justice system in the [1930s] South must necessarily engage race issues.

    I am happy you’ve disagreed, because the points you’ve raised are so much more interesting than what I’d already been thinking.

    I agree about Beryl, though she seemed a little over the top. Then again, maybe not. There are people like that. (I also agree that the “horrible twee coupling” is the worst aspect of the ending, the part which makes the ending unbearably bad for me.)

    I have not read We Need to Talk About Kevin, so I cannot add anything. Thank you, though, for giving me a better sense of how it contrasts with this work. Maybe I will try it.

    Thanks again for a great comment. I hope we can disagree more, on this or other books!

  15. Tiffany says:

    Thank you for referring me to the essay, while I’m pleased that I read it it was also really disappointing to me because I would have much preferred that she was engaging with those political ideas on a really conscious level, rather than an incidental intractible level. I think that she is absolutely a smart enough person and good enough writer to do so. I must say the the other criticism I would have made before reading this was that she didn’t engage with the idea of why medication costs so damn much, and make those links to the drug companies.

    I would have loved to have been an editor for this book. I would have cut out some of the storylines that didn’t quite get there (all of the children apart from Flicka, the ridiculous plastic surgery – although I would have kept the elimination of the character, which I think would have been even more ironic if it occured just from him losing his job). I then would have made her go further into those links between capitalism and the American dream – expanding on the “mugs and the mooches” – and of course made her get rid of the hook up at the end!

    Having said that, given that I am still thinking about it and we are still talking about it, I am really pleased that I read this book and think that it does deserve its accolades.

    I so enjoyed being able to read a book, read your reader smart comments and get involved in an exchange that at my next trip at the library I’m off to find another of these books.

  16. Kerry says:

    Based on your suggestions, I would have loved for your to have been an editor for the book. Shriver could have drilled deeper into the connections between health care, the price of a life, capitalism, and the American Dream. To me, this would have been more fully addressing the crux of the matter rather than broadening the scope. In other words, I think you are exactly right that engaging in issues like the costs of treatment would have improved the book. Particularly as those issues are far from simple.

    I am pleased I read the book too. While I always hope my next book is great, I mostly hope it is one that will be sufficiently stimulating to have me (and commenters) talking about it weeks, months, years down the road.

    Thanks for your great comments!

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