Wednesday, 6 April 2011

From Richard Yates to Lionel Shriver.

I firmly and without a shadow of a doubt believe Richard Yates to be one of the most skilled authors I have ever read. His novels paint pictures in your mind so finely tuned that afterwards the plots and characters feel more like memories you have lived through than mere words on a page. He wrote with a precision all too rarely seen and with not one superfluous word in hundreds of pages of text. He evoked such raw and tender feelings within one and seemed to understand his characters so perfectly and absolutely, with no holds barred. No character was perfect, and all were endowed the most human of flaws. It was not until I read the novels of Lionel Shriver that I felt Richard Yates' legacy had been continued.

Lionel Shriver's work, since the day I first turned the pages of her greatest novel 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' has strongly reminded me of Yates. To my mind she is the female, modern equivolent of the ultimate writers' writer. So it was with a rather smug feeling, as though I had proved my great insight into matters literary, that I heard her on the radio a few days ago naming Yates' 'Revolutionary Road' as her favourite book. 

When I said Shriver carried on the style of Yates I mean it only in the very purest sense. Their characters and plots are nothing alike, nor the settings or the ideas. However, the same tone emanates through the books of both and the same precision over the choice and placement of words. They are both pitch perfect with their characters and unflinching in depicting them in all their unflattering truth. One would never dream of living in a book by either in the same way that one might fantasise about living in the pages of 'Pride and Prejudice'.

'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is a magnum opus of a book, a complete and utter masterpiece. Shriver had written several books and been a writer for decades before it was published but it proved to be her breakthrough. If I were to tell the uninitiated that it is about a teenage boy who massacres several of his classmates then I make it sound like a trashy novel, but nothing could be further from the truth. The book is not the least bit sensational and is rather a character piece about the mother of the boy, her life and her relationship with her son. A wonderfully full and masterful book which succeeds in painting the picture of a woman, not merely a mother, a complicated individual and one who without intentional bias and with stark truths addresses her life.

Sadly Shriver's 'The Post-Birthday World' fails to work. The characterisations are all still there, though less effective than in her other books, and the tone remains beautifully pitched. However, the disgustingly clunky framework (two divergent lives using the same character are given chapters in turn which means the same events are gone over twice just in different ways) totally spoils it and really is unforgivable. You expect that sort of thing from less skilled authors and find it in popular crowd pleasers like the gruesomely boring but very popular 'One Day' by David Nicholls but not from writers of Shriver's capabilities.

But my favourite of her novels has to be the wonderful 'Double Fault'. It depicts the relationship of a tennis professional with her partner and with the game itself. That is the book that makes me most strongly, and flatteringly, liken Shriver's style to that of Yates for just like him she perfectly paints the picture of her protagonist as a fully rounded and often rather unlikeable figure and is able to define and show her feelings with what feels like true and steady accuracy. With both authors one never feels that they have shirked away from mentioning the more real and unpleasant aspects of their characters and so one is left not necessarily liking the characters but certainly believing in them as true depictions.

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