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Contrarian Lionel Shriver deftly satirizes anti-intellectualism in 'Mania'

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Lionel Shriver is known for her 2003 breakout novel, "We Need To Talk About Kevin," and the social satires that followed, novels like "So Much For That" and "The Mandibles," which lampooned the U.S. healthcare and economic system. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan reminds us that Shriver is also known for the personal controversy she stirred up. Recently, she made critical comments about trans people and hate speech laws. Here's Maureen's review of Shriver's latest satire, "Mania."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: We probably need to talk about the sombrero once again. As anyone versed in literary scandal will remember, back in 2016, Lionel Shriver gave the keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, where she pushed back against identity politics in fiction and notions of cultural appropriation. To accessorize for the occasion, Shriver, a white woman, donned a sombrero. Outcry ensued. That sombrero incident is key not only to understanding Shriver's cultural politics but her outrageous methods as a provocateur in life and literature. A contrarian, Shriver has continued to push back against what she would call woke culture. Although she voted for Biden in 2020 and supports reproductive rights, she endorsed Ron DeSantis in his failed presidential bid. Of late, her anti-immigrant rhetoric has raised alarms. As some commentators have pointed out, it's hard not to read her call for the preservation of a coherent culture in Great Britain, where she lived for decades, as anything other than a code for white. If Shriver weren't such a superb satirical novelist, we could just cancel her, but that would mean sacrificing "Mania," Shriver's latest novel and one of her best. The story takes place in an alternative America, where something called the Mental Parity Movement holds sway. The last acceptable bias, discrimination against those people considered not so smart, is being stamped out. Words like intelligent and sharp are forbidden, thus making it hard to refer to books like "My Brilliant Friend" and everyday devices such as smartphones.

When the novel opens in 2011, Pearson Converse, an adjunct professor of English, is sitting around the dinner table with her partner, her best friend and her 3 young children, all of whom attend the Gertrude Stein Primary School in Voltaire, Pa. Pearson's best friend Emory, who hosts the local public radio arts program, summarizes the ways the Obama administration is expanding the Clinton-era don't ask, don't tell guidelines to cover information related to a person's intellectual profile. Don't ask where anyone went to school, even if you went to Yale - well, especially if you went to Yale. Don't ever mention or fish for IQ, obviously, but also SAT and ACT scores or grade point averages. And forget asking or telling about a performance on "Jeopardy!"

As we readers will learn, Obama in this alternative America is doomed to be a one-term president because, as Pearson tells us, by 2012, the whole notion that one might want to look up to anyone in a position of authority had become preposterous. Instead, the impressively unimpressive Biden steps in, after which, in 2015, the Democratic Party seizes on Donald Trump as their shoe-in candidate for, among a myriad of other reasons, the fact that he never reads. Finding herself hemmed in in the International Literature Survey course she teaches, Pearson decides, much as Shriver herself did, to introduce an incendiary object into the lecture room. She switches out Dostoyevsky's "Crime And Punishment" for a later novel of his, you know, the one called "The Idiot." Predictably, in this anti-brain-shame era, when the fool has been edited out of Shakespeare's plays and fictional eggheads like Sherlock Holmes and Victor Frankenstein have been banished from the curriculum, Pearson must apologize to her class or be fired.

As with any good satire, "Mania" exaggerates real-world trends, such as completion grading, which means giving students credit for simply turning in assignments, and the death of expertise. It also must be acknowledged that Shriver's world here is exclusively ableist, thus avoiding the darker implications of her satire. The chief target of this novel is something more foundational, the tension between the promise of an egalitarian democracy and what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called anti-intellectualism in American life. "Mania" is very funny, occasionally offensive and, yes, smart. It's also, of course, elitist. The novel's fears about the many and stupid are often alchemized into laughs, but the many are many things, warped and wise in their turn. And the few, writers like Shriver, might imagine their - or should I say our - possibilities, too.

MOSLEY: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Mania" by Lionel Shriver. On the next FRESH AIR, how can the human body better endure the extremes of the deep sea, the increased pressure, the lack of breathable air? We'll talk with Rachel Lance about her research for the military and her related book about the scientists who exposed themselves to extremes to conduct research that proved critical to the success of D-Day. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram, @nprfreshair.

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MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.