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Property, Page 1

Lionel Shriver


  To Berger: one of the three people who make my life worth living.


  I bought a wood [ … ]. It is not a large wood—it contains scarcely any trees, and it is intersected, blast it, by a public footpath. Still, it is the first property that I have owned, so it is right that other people should participate in my shame, and should ask themselves, in accents that will vary in horror, this very important question: What is the effect of property upon the character? [ … ]

  If you own things, what’s their effect on you? What’s the effect on me of my wood?

  In the first place, it makes me feel heavy. [ … ]

  In the second place, it makes me feel it ought to be larger.

  —E. M. Forster, “My Wood”



  Title Page



  The Standing Chandelier: A Novella

  The Self-Seeding Sycamore

  Domestic Terrorism

  The Royal Male

  Exchange Rates

  Kilifi Creek


  The ChapStick

  Negative Equity


  Paradise to Perdition

  The Subletter: A Novella

  About the Author

  Also by Lionel Shriver


  About the Publisher

  The Standing Chandelier

  A Novella

  In bottomless gratitude, to Jeff and Sue. This is not about you.

  Jillian Frisk found the experience of being disliked bewildering. Or not bewildering enough, come to think of it, since the temptation was always to see her detractor’s point of view. Newly aware of a woman’s aversion—it was always another woman, and perhaps that meant something, something in itself not very nice—she would feel awkward, at a loss, mystified, even a little frightened. Paralyzed. In a traducer’s presence, she’d yearn to refute whatever about herself was purportedly so detestable. Yet no matter what she said, or what she did, she would involuntarily verify the very qualities that the faultfinder couldn’t bear. Vanity? Flakiness? Staginess?

  For an intrinsic facet of being disliked was racking your brain for whatever it was that rubbed other people so radically the wrong way. They rarely told you to your face, so you were left with a burgeoning list of obnoxious characteristics that you compiled for them. So Jillian would demote her garb from festive to garish or even vulgar, and suddenly see how her offbeat thrift shop ensembles, replete with velvet vests, broad belts, tiered skirts, and enough scarves to kill Isadora Duncan three times over, could seem to demonstrate attention-seeking behavior. A clear, forceful voice was to the leery merely loud, and whenever she suppressed the volume the better to give no offense, she simply became inaudible, which was maddening, too. Besides, she didn’t seem capable of maintaining a mousy, head-down demeanor for more than half an hour, during which the sensation was tantamount to a Chinese foot binding of the soul. Wide gesticulation when she grew exuberant was doubtless histrionic. Smitten by another smoldering black look from across a table, she would sometimes trap her hands in her lap, where they would flap like captured birds. But in a moment of inattention, the dratted extremities always escaped, flinging her napkin to the floor. Her full-throated guffaw would echo in her own ears as an annoying laugh. (Whatever did you do about an annoying laugh? Stop finding anything funny?) Then on top of all the ghastly attributes she embodied, merely being in the presence of someone who she knew couldn’t stand her slathered on an additionally off-putting surface of nervousness, contrition, and can’t-beat-them-join-them self-suspicion.

  But then, Jillian should have known better by now, having enough times withstood the gamut from distaste to loathing (yet rarely indifference). When people didn’t like you, if this doesn’t seem too obvious, they didn’t like you. That is, the problem wasn’t an identifiable set of habits, beliefs, and traits—say, a propensity for leaning against a counter with a jauntily jutted hip as if you thought you were hot stuff, overusage of the word fabulous, a misguided conviction that refusing to vote is making a political statement, a tendency to mug the more premeditative with a sudden impulse to go camping this very afternoon and to make them feel like spoilsports when they didn’t want to go. No, it was the sum total that rankled, the whole package, the essence from which all of these evidences sprang. Jillian could remain perfectly still with her mouth zipped, and Estelle Pettiford—a fellow crafts counselor at the Maryland summer camp where Jillian worked for a couple of seasons, whose idea of compelling recreation for fifteen-year-olds was making Christmas trees out of phone books in July—would still have hated her, and the girl would have kept hating her even if this object of odium didn’t move a muscle or utter a syllable through to the end of time. That was what slew Jillian about being disliked: There was no remedy, no chance of tempering an antipathy into, say, forbearance or healthy apathy. It was simply your being in the world that drove these people insane, and even if you killed yourself, your suicide would annoy them, too. More attention seeking.

  Glib, standard advice would be not to care. Right. Except that shrugging off the fact that someone despised you was impossible. The expectation was inhuman, so that, on top of having someone hate you, you cared that someone hated you and apparently you shouldn’t. Caring made you even more hateable. Your inability to dismiss another’s animus was one more thing that was wrong with you. Because that was the thing: these sneering, disgusted perceptions always seemed to have more clout than the affections of all the other people who thought you were delightful. Your friends had been duped. The naysayers had your number.

  There was Linda Warburton, her coworker during a stint leading tours at the Stonewall Jackson House, who grew insensibly enraged every time Jillian brewed strong coffee in the staff kitchen—Jillian made strong everything—as the girl preferred her java weak. After Jillian began going to the extra trouble of boiling a kettle so that Linda could dilute her own mug to her heart’s content, the accommodation to everyone’s tastes seemed only to drive the lumpy, prematurely middle-aged twenty-five-year-old to more ferocious abhorrence: Linda actually submitted a formal complaint to the Virginia Tourist Board that Jillian Frisk wore the bonnet of her costume at “an historically inaccurate cocky slant.” There was Tatum O’Hagan, the clingy, misbegotten roommate of 1998, who’d seemed to want to become bosom buddies when Jillian first moved in—in fact, the brownie-baking sharing of confidences became a bit much—but who, once Jillian inserted a merciful crack of daylight between the two, came to find her presence so unendurable that she posted a roster of which evenings one or the other could occupy the living room and which hours—different hours—they could cook. There was the officious Olivia Auerbach only two years ago, another unpaid organizer of the annual Maury River Fiddlers Convention, who accused her of “distracting the musicians from their practice” and “overstepping the necessarily humble role of a volunteer.” (And how. Jillian had a sizzling affair with a participant from Tennessee, who knew how to fiddle with more than his bow.)

  Tall and slender, with a thick thatch of kinked henna hair that tumbled to her elbows, Jillian had trouble being inconspicuous, and that wasn’t her fault. She supposed she was pretty, though that adjective seemed to have a statute of limitations attached. At forty-three, she’d probably been downgraded to attractive—in preparation, since postmenopausal flattery went unisex, for handsome; gosh, she could hardly wait for well preserved. So she might plausibly dismiss this bafflingly consistent incidence of female animosity as bitchy takedown in a catwalk competition. But when she glanced around Lexington, which flushed every fall with an influx of fetching freshmen from Washington and Lee—whose appearance of getting
younger each year helped track her own decay—Jillian was often awed by the profusion of beautiful women in the world, not all of whom could have been unrelenting targets of antagonism. To the contrary, in her high school days in Pittsburgh, when Jillian was gawky and still uncomfortable with her height, students flocked to sunny blond bombshells, who often benefited from a reputation for kindness and generosity purely for bestowing the occasional smile. Her problem wasn’t looks, or looks alone, even if the hair in particular seemed to make a declaration that she didn’t intend. Jillian had hair that you had to live up to.

  So looking back, it had been naive in the extreme to have innocently posted photographs of various homespun creations in the early days of social media, in anticipation of a few anodyne responses like, “Cute!” or “Super!”—or in anticipation of no response, which would have been fine, too. When instead her set of handmade dishware attracted, “You’re a talentless, amateur hack” and “Suggest trampling these misshapen atrocities into landfill,” Jillian drew back as if having put a hand on a hot stove. By the time that comments on such applications escalated to routine rape threats, she had long since canceled her accounts.

  It did seem to irk some sorts that Jillian was a self-confessed dabbler. She taught herself a sprinkling of Italian, for example, but in a spirit of frivolity, and not because she planned to visit Rome but because she liked the sound—the expressive mamma mia up and down of it, the popping carbonation it imparted even to little pencil: “piccola matita.” Yet the phase was to no purpose, and that was the point. Jillian pursued purposelessness as a purpose in itself. It had taken her some years to understand that she’d had such trouble settling on a career because she didn’t want one. She was surrounded by go-getters, and they could have their goals, their trajectories, their aspirations—their feverish toiling toward some distant destination that was bound to disappoint in the unlikely instance they ever got there. Some folks had to savor the world where they were, as opposed to glancing out the driver’s window while tearing off somewhere else. This was less a prescriptive ideology than a simple inclination to languor or even laziness; Jillian cheerfully accepted that. She wasn’t so much out to convert anyone else as to simply stop apologizing.

  It was curious how furious it made some people that you didn’t want to “make something of yourself” when you were something already and had no particular desire to change, or that you could declare beamingly that you were “altogether aimless” in a tone of voice that implied this was nothing to be ashamed of. Jillian had recently been informed at the bar of Bistro on Main that, for an expensively educated woman with a better-than-middle-class background who enjoyed ample “opportunities,” having no especial objective aside from enjoying herself was “un-American.”

  Jillian had the kind of charm that wore off. Or after enough romantic diminuendos, that’s what she theorized. Even for guys, whose gender seemed to preclude the full-fledged anaphylactic shock of an allergic reaction, the profusion of her playful little projects, which were never intended to make a name, or get a gallery, or attract a review in the Roanoke Times, might appear diverting and even a measure entrancing at first, but eventually she’d seem childish, or bats, or embarrassing, and men moved on.

  With one crucial exception.

  She’d met Weston Babansky while taking a poorly taught English course when they were both undergraduates at Washington and Lee. Their instructor was disorganized, with a tendency to mutter, so that you couldn’t tell when he was addressing the seminar or talking to himself. She’d been impressed by the fact that after class Weston—or “Baba,” as she christened him after they’d grown to know each other better—was reluctant to bandwagon about Steve Reardon’s execrable lectures with the other students, who railed about paying tuition through the nose for this rambling, incoherent mishmash with a relish that alone explained why they didn’t transfer out. Instead Baba was sympathetic. The first time they had coffee, he told Jillian that actually, if you listened closely, a lot of what Reardon said was pretty interesting. The trouble was that qualifying as an academic didn’t mean you were a performer, and teaching was theater. He said he himself didn’t imagine he’d be any better up there, and on that score he was probably right. Weston Babansky was inward, reflective, avoidant of the spotlight.

  Already subjected to multiple aversions, Jillian appreciated his sensitivity—although there was nothing soft or effeminate about the man, who was three or four years older than most of their classmates. No sooner did he express an opinion than he immediately experienced what it was like on its receiving end, as if firing a Wile E. Coyote rifle whose barrel was U-shaped. It was one of the many topics the two had teased out since: how careless people were with their antipathy, how they threw it around for fun; how these days people indiscriminately sprayed vituperation every which way as if launching a mass acid attack in a crowded public square. Sheer meanness had become a customary form of entertainment. Since the disapprobation she’d drawn that she knew about was doubtless dwarfed by the mountain of behind-the-back ridicule that she didn’t, Jillian herself had grown ever more reluctant to contrive a dislike even for celebrities who would never know the difference—pop stars, politicians, actors, or news anchors, whose high public profile presumably made them fair game. She’d catch herself saying, “Oh, I can’t stand him,” then immediately hear the denunciation with the victim’s ears, and wince.

  It turned out that Baba was also a northerner, and in respect to his future, equally at sea. Best of all, they were each on the lookout for a tennis partner—ideally one who wouldn’t scornfully write you off the moment a wild forehand flew over the fence.

  Lo, from their first hit they were perfectly suited. They both took a long time to warm up, and appreciated wit as well as power. They both preferred rallying for hours on end to formal games; they still played proper points, which would be won or lost, but no one kept score—more of Jillian’s purposive purposelessness. It didn’t hurt that Baba was handsome, though in that bashful way that most people overlooked, with the stringy, loose-jointed limbs of a natural tennis player. He was ferocious, hard hitting, and nefarious on court, but the killer instinct evaporated the moment he exited the chain-link gate. His tendency to grow enraged with himself over unforced errors was Jillian’s secret weapon. After three or four of his backhands in a row smacked the tape, he did all the hard work for her: he would defeat himself. He was complicated, more so than others seemed to recognize, with a dragging propensity for depression to which he admitted as a generality, but never actively inflicted on present company.

  She also found his understated social unease more endearing than the facility of raconteurs and bons vivant who greased the skids at parties by never running out of things to say. Baba often ran out of things to say, in which case he said nothing. She learned from him that silence needn’t be mortifying, and some of their most luxuriant time together was quiet.

  Baba was something of a recluse, who kept odd hours and did his best work at four a.m.; Jillian had joked that if the courts had lights, she’d never get a point off him. She was the more gregarious of the two, so after they’d exhausted themselves bashing balls back and forth it was Jillian who delivered the bulk of the stories for their ritual debrief on a courtside bench. For a man, he was unusually fascinated with teasing out fine filaments of feeling. Thus they used each other as sounding boards about the friends and lovers who came and went. Baba was neither perturbed nor surprised when one of the seniors in Jillian’s dormitory suite came to so revile her company that the moment Jillian entered the suite’s common area the girl flounced back to her room. “You have a strong flavor,” he said. “Some people just don’t like anchovies.”

  “Liver,” Jillian corrected with a laugh. “When I walk in, she acts more like someone slid her an enormous slab of offal—overcooked, grainy, and reeking.”

  In fact, which badinage proved the more engaging was a toss-up: the assertion and reply on court, or the tête-à-tête when they
were through. One conversation seemed a continuation of the other by different means. As a walloping approach shot could be followed by a dink, Baba would no sooner have questioned on the bench whether it was really worth his while to complete his degree at Washington and Lee (the interest he was rounding on was computer networks, a field transforming so quickly that most of what he was studying was out of date) than Jillian would mention having discovered a great five-minute recipe for parmesan chicken. The conversational ball skittered across all four corners of their lives, from lofty speculative lobs about how, if energy was neither created nor destroyed, could that mean there was necessarily life after death—or even life before life?—to single put-aways about how Jerry Springer had a campy appeal at first, but ultimately was unendurable. It was with Baba that Jillian first began to haltingly explore that maybe she didn’t want to “be” something she wasn’t already, and with whom she initially considered the possibility of making things outside the confines of the pompous, overwhelmingly bogus art world. Together they agreed on the importance of owning their own lives, and their own time; they viewed the nine-to-five slog of a wage earner with a mutual shudder.

  After graduation—Jillian finally settled on a suitably diffuse degree on cross-fertilization in the arts (which got her adulthood off to a thematically pertinent start by serving no earthly purpose), while Baba’s major had more of a science bent (she could no longer remember what it was)—she loitered in Lexington, tutoring lagging local high schoolers in grammar, vocabulary, and math, often for SAT prep. That was the mid-1990s, when the internet was taking off, and as a freelance website designer Baba easily snagged as much work as he cared to handle. So from the start, they both did jobs you could do from anywhere.

  But if you could be anywhere, you could also stay put. Lexington was a pleasant college town, with distinguished colonial architecture and energizing infusions of tourists and Civil War buffs. Virginia weather was clement, spring through fall. And what mattered, other than Jillian’s pointless, peculiar projects—the hand-sewn drapes with hokey tassels, the collage of quirky headlines (“Woman Sues for Being Born”)—was being able to play tennis with your ideal partner three times a week.