Thursday, March 29, 2007

The post-birthday world

is a phrase that I feel should enter the standard lexicon--I rationalized reading Lionel Shriver's new novel The Post-Birthday World when I should have been doing other more immediately pressing things because (a) it seemed the perfect book to talk about at this style panel we did the other night and (b) it was good for my soul. Shriver is an amazing writer, definitely one of my touchstones--for various reasons having to do with my own personal psychology I still think that Double Fault is my particular favorite (here was what I wrote about it last year), but this one is a deep pleasure that should not be missed by anyone who loves reading long rich novels about human relationships.

The Post-Birthday World involves an interesting structural choice--the first chapter has the novel's protagonist Irina, an American children's book illustrator living in London with her staid solid think-tank employed partner Lawrence, spending an evening with their glamorous acquaintance Ramsey, a professional snooker-player; Irina and Lawrence always see Ramsey on his birthday, but this year Lawrence is out of town. When Ramsey suggests going back to his house after dinner to get stoned, Irina says yes, and as she sits & watches him shoot frames of snooker, she's overcome with the impulse to kiss him. The novel then unfolds in two parallel paths from this moment of choice, with two chapter twos, two chapter threes, etc. May sound gimmicky (and also reminiscent of the awful Sliding Doors, a movie whose only redeeming feature was Gwyneth Paltrow's nice haircut--my brother saw this by accident when the movie he was trying to see was sold out, & walked out in disgust--when he told me, I thought he was having general disapproval of this sort of movie--then I saw it on a plane and was truly appalled by its lameness, what a pointless thing for someone to have made), but it is a delight, I read it pretty much in one sitting.

I have a longstanding obsession with the question of whether we can talk about style as something moralized. Beyond the linguistic or strictly literary aspects of a novel's style, is it just a kind of fallacy to think that styles encapsulate moral orientations towards characters (i.e. would this be better reframed in more technical terms?), or is it fair? What happens when you make the leap from the stylistic to the moral in considering a prose style? And the reason this book's such a good one for illuminating this question arises from the parallel-tracks-ness of it. I must get sensibly down to work, cannot be sitting here writing about Lionel Shriver all morning, but here are two passages, the first from the post-birthday world in which Irina has kissed Ramsey (Lawrence has just arrived home the next evening, and Irina's in the kitchen cutting him a piece of the pie she baked the day before for his homecoming):

Leadenly, Irina removed the pie from the fridge. Chilling for under two hours, it wasn’t completely set. With any luck the egg in the filling had cooked thoroughly enough that the pie’s having been left out on the counter for a full day wasn’t deadly. Well, she herself wouldn’t manage more than a bite. (She’d not been able to eat a thing since that last spoonful of green-tea ice cream. Though there had been another cognac around noon . . . ) The slice she cut for herself was so slight that it fell over. For Lawrence, she hacked off a far larger piece—Lawrence was always watching his weight—than she knew he wanted. The wedge sat fat and stupid on the plate; the filling drooled. Ramsey didn’t need admiration of his snooker game, and Lawrence didn’t need pie.

She pulled an ale from the fridge, and pondered the freezer. Normally, she’d join him with a glass of wine, but the frozen Stolichnaya beckoned. Since she’d brushed her teeth, Lawrence needn’t know that she’d already knocked back two hefty belts of neat vodka to gird herself for his return. Spirits on an empty stomach wasn’t like her, but apparently acting out of character could slide from temporary liberation to permanent estrangement from your former self in the wink of an eye. She withdrew the frosted bottle, took a furtive slug, and poured herself a better-than-genteel measure. After all. They were “celebrating.”

And here's the post-birthday world in which Irina has virtuously suppressed her sexual attraction to Ramsey (Lawrence has just criticized her for having had a drink before he got home):

Scrutinized for signs of inebriation and disgusted with herself for having overimbibed the night before, in the kitchen Irina poured herself an abstemious half-glass of white wine. She pulled out the pie, which after chilling for a full day was nice and firm, and made picture-perfect slices that might have joined the duplicitous array of photographs over a Woolworth’s lunch counter. She shouldn’t have any herself; oddly, she’d snacked all afternoon. But countless chunks of cheddar had failed to quell a ravenous appetite, so tonight she cut herself a wide wedge, whose filling blushed a fleshy, labial pink. This she crowned with a scoop of vanilla. Lawrence’s slice she carefully made more modest, with only a dollop of ice cream. No gesture was truly generous that made him feel fat.

Interesting, eh? I leave you to draw your own conclusions...


  1. Except that it's actually two sides to the same style ...

  2. made me hot.

  3. Labial pink?!

    That's a pretty racy way to talk about pie!

  4. Thanks! And I couldn't help but notice that you're another Serpent's Tail writer. You have good tastes in publishers.