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Lionel Shriver is an enormous talent

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Lionel Shriver

The more Lionel Shriver I read, the more I want to be her.

I’m simultaneously awed by and envious of her stupendous talent. It’s not so much her plotting – I enjoy the stories Shriver tells but those, I think, are conjured from the real magic: her characters.

Shriver has this deft, delicate, inimitable touch that allows her to balance the scales of personality just so. Her characters are familiar and fascinating and rooted and totally bizarre. We never encounter people like these, but it feels like we could.

You don’t necessarily want to, mind – Shriver is not a sentimentalist about her characters and they’re not all appealing. In fact, I suspect she actively dislikes some of them. I certainly do.

Eaton Striker, for instance, is a cold bastard. Probably sociopathic. I knew he was trouble the second he showed up to hear the band. And I was right.

Then there’s Checker Secretti. He’d get on my nerves, if I ever had to spend any time with him in the flesh – that effortless genius; that constant, careless, grinding cheer. I’d beat him with my shoe. While Eaton remains unredeemed, though, Checker can be forgiven. It’s easier to see his quirks as part of a whole, a human being, because he’s the main character. We see the world through his eyes.

Besides, his earnest optimisim is charming. Sometimes. And we all have our faults. Glass houses, and all that.

Shriver takes these two very different people – one an immovable object, the other an irrisistable force, as she puts it – and sets them against each other. 

Checker is the center of this universe. He’s young and beautiful and a transcendent percussionist. Life fascinates and beguiles him; he fascinates and beguiles everyone else. His band, the Derailleurs, is a local institution with a passionate, if limited, following.

And that’s all Checker needs. He doesn’t want to record an album or headline bigger gigs. He just wants to play. And the other Derailleurs bow to his deeply-rooted, deeply-felt instincts.

Enter Eaton, all discipline and manicured, manipulative cunning. He’s the only one who doesn’t fall under Checker’s spell; in fact, he immediately sets about undermining Checker’s power. Eaton is easy to hate – you want Checker to be as charming as he seems to be. But Eaton is also the only one to recognize the darkness inherent in Checker’s manical light.

Now that I’m finished Checker and the Derailleurs, I miss every one of those nihlistic songbirds. Shriver makes them so specific that, once you’re done, the absence resonates with their words and actions, their flaws and foibles and surprising strengths. And whether any of it jives with you, a bond is forged. Makes you reluctant to turn that last page.

But once you start, you just have to know how it ends. Shriver is that good.

So read Checker and the Derailleurs. Then read everything else Shriver has ever written. Trust me.

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