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So Much for That


So Much for That

I resisted this book. I read sporadically at first, wondering if
my reluctance stemmed from the topic (SO MUCH FOR THAT concerns the
bell that tolls for us all) or some flaw in the novel itself. In
the end, the voices pulled me in. Even in (especially in) the
throes of the most extreme stress, the characters are smart
cookies: frank, fast-thinking, often sarcastic, always interesting.
They are so articulate, they could pass for embittered stand-up

Their territory, however, is not realism à la Jodi Picoult.
Lionel Shriver is the anti-Jodi Picoult (each wrote a novel about a
high school killer, but how different they are!). I do not mean to
malign either writer. I love Picoult’s down-to-earthness, how
she mixes dinner dishes, soccer games and homework with
life’s gravest moral and spiritual dilemmas. Shriver,
however, is to Picoult what an indie film is to a Lifetime movie.
In SO MUCH FOR THAT, Shriver not only nails the expected pain and
grief of terminal illness, childhood disease, sexual angst and
financial roulette, but also brings out their absurdity.

When Shepherd Knacker sells his handyman company (Knack of All
Trades) for a cool million, he thinks he is about to realize his
dream (he calls it The Afterlife): to retire to some third-world
country where a well-stocked investment account can last pretty
much forever. He and his wife, Glynis, have gone on
“research” trips throughout their 26-year marriage, but
she always finds some drawback. At 48, he can’t wait any
longer (he has been marking time, working as an underling at his
former company and paying too much rent for a suburban house). One
day he buys plane tickets to Africa. He is determined to go, with
or without his family. But that night, everything changes: Glynis
tells him she has cancer, and the word afterlife now takes
on a grimmer meaning.

Destiny has also played a cruel trick on Shep’s best
friend and co-worker, Jackson Burdina, and his wife, Carol. Their
daughter, Flicka, was born with a rare genetic nervous-system
disorder called Familial Dysautonomia (FD) and requires constant
care (“It was like being a doctor yourself but without the
golf. You were always on call”). Flicka isn’t the
blandly adorable dying kid you see in TV’s medical
melodramas; she is tough, furious, wildly intelligent --- and
seriously suicidal.

Flicka and Jackson are two of a kind. His characteristic mode of
expression is the rant, and his world view typically divides people
into Mooches and Mugs --- those, particularly in the government,
who cheat and squeeze and come out on top; and those who meekly
accept their lot. His monologues are Shriver’s principal
mouthpiece for attacking the American health-care system and sundry
other ills of modern life. Black comedy is Jackson’s strategy
for coping with fate. Uncomplaining servitude is Shep’s.

Shriver’s cutting wit and lack of sentimentality make her
book particularly disturbing. Apparently affable doctors deliver
death sentences in code (Shep thinks, “[A] doctor was like a
handyman who, some appreciable percentage of the time, had to knock
on your door and say, I’m sorry, but I cannot clear your
drain. … And then he walks away and maybe he waves, leaving
you with scummy standing water in your bath”). Denial is
described as “scroll down” versus “skip
down.” Chemo is “sick” and “surreal”
and tantamount to bloodletting and leeches.

There is tenderness, too, but doled out judiciously.
Shep’s relationship with his aging father is as poignant as
his relationship with his narcissistic sister, Beryl, is poisonous.
And you cannot help but be moved by his observation, as he and
Glynis wait for her surgery, that “only a warm hand on her
neck seemed to make a difference. This was a time of the body. To
communicate was to communicate with the body.” Talk, in other
words, has its limits.

Perhaps the core of SO MUCH FOR THAT is Shep’s yearning
for some protocol that suits his circumstances: “He
couldn’t see the utility of a civilization that had an
etiquette for…placing the fork to the left of a plate, but as
for what to do while your wife was sliced open you were on your
own.” Most of our reference points about illness are drawn
from TV (“Cancer in the world of entertainment was a neat
one-word expedient for the disposal of characters who had served
their purpose….”), so no wonder Glynis’s friends
and family fall away as her illness progresses --- they have no
idea what to do or say.

The downside of Shriver’s acerbic, epigrammatic style is
that the novel becomes a bit like a series of riffs on taboo
subjects --- entertaining and provocative but emotionally
unsatisfying. Although the characters are tested by adversity, they
do not really evolve, and the parallels between Shep and Jackson,
and Glynis and Flicka, are too heavily signposted. I also felt
slightly cheated by shifts in tone toward the latter part of the
book. First there is the intrusion of a grand guignol shocker (I
won’t be a spoiler, but believe me, this event is bizarre and
off-key --- the plot is not so much twisted as totally distorted),
then a sort-of-happy trick ending. Ironic fables are not my

Still, in a world where books seem ever more formulaic, I love
Shriver’s willingness to take chances. She is to be
congratulated for addressing the hard subjects that most people
gloss over, and for doing so with complexity, honesty and humor. SO
MUCH FOR THAT, with its explicit critique of the current state of
medicine and this culture’s benighted attitudes toward death,
is horrifyingly timely.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011

So Much for That
by Lionel Shriver

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0061458589
  • ISBN-13: 9780061458583