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The New Republic, Page 1

Lionel Shriver



  A Novel



  To Sarowitz, of course—

  a solo dedication being long overdue


  My experiences with journalists authorize me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised . . . They have huge power, and many of them are extremely reckless.


  Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.




  Title Page




  Author’s Note

  Chapter 1: Honorable Mention

  Chapter 2: Saddling Up

  Chapter 3: Long Time, No See

  Chapter 4: Inversion 101

  Chapter 5: Security Theater

  Chapter 6: Only Edgar

  Chapter 7: Edgar Meets His New Little Friends

  Chapter 8: Ninety-Nine Push-Ups and Cloudberry Shampoo

  Chapter 9: G;p[[u Mpmdrmdr

  Chapter 10: The Empty Wingchair

  Chapter 11: The Celery Wars

  Chapter 12: Edgar Meets Baby Serious and Debuts at the Barking Rat

  Chapter 13: A Brief Apprenticeship as an Ignorant Dipshit

  Chapter 14: No Trace Found of Reporter in Terrorist Stronghold

  Chapter 15: Any Slob Can Buy Shit

  Chapter 16: A Whiff of the Old Bastard Himself

  Chapter 17: Playing Hard to Get with a British Accent

  Chapter 18: Couscous and Balaclava

  Chapter 19: Saab Stories

  Chapter 20: Edgar Earns His Savvy

  Chapter 21: One Less Ugly Landmark

  Chapter 22: Taken for SAPSS

  Chapter 23: Impostor Syndrome

  Chapter 24: Barba Is No Longer Boring

  Chapter 25: Portugal Denies Immigration Overhaul Is SOB Appeasement

  Chapter 26: Every Former Fat Boy’s Dream

  Chapter 27: Friend of the Fucking Family

  Chapter 28: Barrington Has Feelings

  Chapter 29: Stealing Shit from Shitheads

  Chapter 30: Supporting the Peace Process

  Chapter 31: The Tooth Fairy Gives an Interview

  Chapter 32: Renowned International Terrorist Brakes for Pussycat

  Chapter 33: Little Jack Coroner Sits on a Foreigner

  Chapter 34: The Tooth Fairy Leaves Behind a Bigger Surprise than a Quarter

  Chapter 35: Bubbardizing Humberto

  Chapter 36: Barringtonizing the Barking Rat

  Chapter 37: The Curse of Interesting Times

  Chapter 38: Inversion 102

  Altavista Epilogue


  About the Author

  Also by Lionel Shriver


  About the Publisher

  Author’s Note

  Written between Double Fault and We Need to Talk About Kevin, The New Republic was completed in 1998. At that time, my sales record was poisonous. Perhaps more importantly, my American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as Foreigners’ Boring Problem. I was unable to interest an American publisher in the manuscript.

  In short order, both discouragements lifted. My sales record improved. Post-9/11, Americans became if anything too interested in terrorism. Thus for years after the calamity in New York, I was obliged to put the novel on ice, because a book that treated this issue with a light touch would have been perceived as in poor taste.

  Yet the taboo seems to have run its course. Sensibilities have grown more robust. I am hopeful that this novel—whose themes have become only more trenchant since it was written—can now see print without giving offense. Though tightened with the cold eye of distance, the book is published roughly as I first wrote it, with one small, irresistible addition in the epilogue that readers will readily recognize.

  Chapter 1

  Honorable Mention

  WHISKING INTO HIS apartment house on West Eighty-Ninth Street, Edgar Kellogg skulked, eager to avoid eye contact with a doorman who at least got a regular paycheck. His steps were quick and tight, his shoulders rounded. Unable to cover next month’s rent, he peered anxiously at the elevator indication light stuck on twelve, as if any moment he might be arrested. Maxing out the credit cards came next. This place used to give him such a kick. Now that he couldn’t afford it, the kick was in the teeth, and tapping cordovans literally down at the heel, he calculated morosely that for every day in this fatuous dive he was out ninety bucks. Waiting on a $175 check from the Amoco Traveler was like trying to bail out a rowboat with an eyedropper while the cold, briny deep gushed through a hole the size of a rubber boot.

  Up on the nineteenth floor, Edgar shot a look around at what, underneath it all, was a plushly appointed one-bedroom, but the management’s cleaning service had been one of the first luxuries to go. At only ten a.m., Edgar found himself already eyeing the Doritos on the counter. One thing he hadn’t anticipated about the “home office” was Snack Syndrome; lately his mental energies divided evenly between his new calling (worrying about money, which substituted neatly for earning it) and not stuffing his face. God, he was turning into a girl, and in no time would find himself helplessly contriving sassy Ryvita open-faces with cherry tomatoes (only twenty-five calories!). The thought came at him with a thud: This isn’t working out. Quick on its heels, I’ve made a terrible mistake. And, since Edgar was never one to put too fine a point on it, I’m an ass.

  This was not the positive thinking that the how-tos commended in the run-up to a job interview, in preparation for which Edgar cleared off the beer cans and spread out the National Record. Hours in advance, his concentration was already shaky. Picking out single words in strobe, his eyes skittered across an article about terrorism: these days it was news that there wasn’t any. Further down: some correspondent had gone missing three months ago. The gist: he was still missing. If it weren’t a reporter who’d vanished, this “story” would never have run, much less on the front page. After all, if Edgar Kellogg disappeared tomorrow, the Record was unlikely to run frantic updates on the ongoing search for a prematurely retired attorney turned nobody freelancer. In the argot of his new trade, “freelance” was apparently insider jargon for “unemployed,” and when he mumbled the word to acquaintances they smirked.

  Yet instead of getting up to speed on current events, Edgar found himself once again compulsively scanning for a Tobias Falconer byline. Funny thing was, when he found one, he wouldn’t read the article. And this was typical. For years he’d snagged this oppressively earnest, tiny-print newspaper—one of the last austere holdouts that refused to go color—solely to locate Falconer’s pieces, but he could seldom submit to reading them. Edgar had never tried to identify what he feared.

  Collapsing into the deep corduroy sofa, Edgar surrendered to the free-floating reflection that ten frenzied years on Wall Street had so mercifully forestalled. For all that time, Toby Falconer’s supercharged byline had given Edgar a jolt, its alternating current of envy and wistfulness confusing but addictive. These little zaps made his scalp tingle, but reading whole features would be like sticking his fingers into a light socket. In that event, why buy the paper at all? Why monitor the career of a man whom Edgar hadn’t seen in twenty years, and of a traitor to boot, whose very surname made him wince?

  But then, Falconer’s fortunes had been easy to follow. A foreign correspondent first for U.S. News and World Report, then, seminally, for the National Record, he filed peripatetically from Beirut
to Belfast to Sarajevo. More than once he’d won a prize for covering a story that was especially risky or previously neglected, and these awards filled Edgar with a baffling mixture of irritation and pride. Of course, Edgar had chosen the far more lucrative occupation. Yet he’d learned to his despair how little money was worth if it couldn’t buy you out of slogging at seven a.m. into a law firm you reviled. “Well compensated” was an apt turn of phrase, though in the end he couldn’t imagine any sum so vast that it could truly offset flushing twelve, thirteen hours of every waking day down the toilet.

  When Edgar ditched his “promising” career in corporate law (though what it promised, of course, was more corporate law) in order to try his hand at journalism six months ago, he’d been reluctant to examine in what measure this impetuous and financially suicidal reinvention might have been influenced by his old high school running buddy—who, having always obtained the funnier friends, the prettier girls, and the sexier summer jobs, had naturally secured the jazzier vocation. If Toby Falconer and Edgar Kellogg were both drawn to journalism in the fullness of time, maybe the convergence merely indicated that the two boys had had more in common at Yardley Prep than Edgar had ever dared believe as a kid.

  Dream on. To imagine that he bore any resemblance to Falconer in adolescence was so vain as to be fanciful. Toby Falconer was a specimen. No doubt every high school had one, though the singular was incongruous as a type; presumably there was no one else like him.

  A Falconer was the kind of guy about whom other people couldn’t stop talking. He managed to be the center of attention when he wasn’t even there. He always got girls, but more to the point he got the girl. Whichever dish you yourself envisioned with the bathroom door closed, she’d be smitten with our hero instead. Some cachet would rub off, of course, but if you hung with a Falconer you’d spend most of your dates fielding questions about his troubled childhood. A Falconer’s liberty was almost perfectly unfettered, because he was never punished for his sins. Anyway, a Falconer’s sins wouldn’t seem depraved but merely naughty, waggish, or rather enchanting really, part of the package without which a Falconer wouldn’t be the endearing rogue whom we know and love and infinitely forgive. Besides, who would risk his displeasure by bringing him to book? He did everything with flair, not only because he was socially adroit, but because the definition of flair in his circle was however the Falconer did whatever the Falconer did. To what extent a Falconer’s magnetism could be ascribed to physical beauty was impossible to determine. Good looks couldn’t have hurt; still, if a Falconer had any deviant feature—a lumpy nose, or a single continuous eyebrow—that feature would simply serve to reconfigure the beautiful as archetype. A Falconer set the standard, so by his very nature could not appear unattractive, make a plainly stupid remark, or do anything awkward at which others would laugh, save in an ardent, collusive, or sycophantic spirit.

  Hitherto Edgar had been the Falconer’s counterpart, that symbiotic creature without which a Falconer could not exist. The much admired required the admirer, and to his own dismay Edgar had more than once applied for the position. While he’d have far preferred the role of BMOC if the post were going begging, he was eternally trapped by a Catch-22: in yearning to be admired himself, he was bound to admire other people who were admirable. Which made him, necessarily, a fan.

  To date, the only weapon that had overthrown a Falconer’s tyranny was cruel, disciplined disillusionment. Sometimes a Falconer turned out to be a fraud. Lo and behold, he could be clumsy, if you kept watch. At length it proved thoroughly possible, if you forced yourself, to laugh at his foibles in a fashion that was less than flattering. Wising up was painful at first, but a relief, and when all was said and done Edgar would be lonely but free. Yet taking the anointed down a peg or two was a puzzling, even depressing exercise, in consequence of which he reserved his most scathing denunciations for the very people with whom he had once been most powerfully entranced.

  Edgar’s public manner—gruff, tough, wary, and deadpan—was wildly discrepant with his secret weakness for becoming captivated by passing Falconers, and he worried privately that the whole purpose of his crusty exterior was to contain an inside full of goo. He couldn’t bear to conceive of himself as a sidekick. Having ever been slavishly enthralled to an idol of any sort shamed him almost as much as having once been fat. Hence of Edgar’s several ambitions at thirty-seven the most dominant was never to succumb to the enchantment of a Falconer again.

  It was in the grip of precisely this resolution that Edgar Kellogg had marched out of Lee & Thole six months ago, determined to cast off the dreary Burberry of the overpaid schmo. At last he would grow into the grander mantle of standard-bearer, trendsetter, and cultural icon. It was in the grip of this same resolution that Edgar set off for his four p.m. job interview with the National Record. He’d had it with being The Fan. He wanted to be The Man.

  Chapter 2

  Saddling Up

  “WIN, THAT YOU? Guy Wallasek at the Record. I know it’s been three months, so this is a formality—I’m way past the mother-hen stage. But Saddler hasn’t deigned to show his face in Barba, has he? . . . Here? At this point, he wouldn’t dare . . . I stand corrected. Whatever Saddler lacks in consideration, he makes up in gall.” The lardy editor covered the receiver’s mouthpiece and murmured to his four p.m. appointment, “Be right with you.”

  Edgar squinted at framed Pulitzers, nodding, pretending to be impressed. These props exhausted, from the lamp table he picked up a rectangular coaster, laminated with a reduced front page from the National Record, RED ARMY OVERTHROWS GORBACHEV GOVERNMENT. The byline, hard to make out, began with a B. He’d change places with that reporter in a New York minute. Chasing tanks with a microcassette beat the dickens out of filing another prospectus for public offering. The window behind Guy Wallasek afforded an uninspiring view of solid green glass; soon Edgar would run out of ostensible fascinations. He didn’t want to seem to lose himself in the copy of today’s Record, implying that he hadn’t read it.

  The desk chair squealed as Wallasek leaned back. “I’d sure like to give him a piece of my . . .” The big man chuckled. “Yeah, I’m kidding myself. I’d probably fix our prodigal a cup of tea. I’m only his boss, right? . . . Me? At first I assumed it was a stunt. Another one. But what would Saddler do with more attention? Keep it in jars? And that peninsula of yours is such a snake pit . . .”

  Edgar’s face was stiff from keeping an unnaturally pleasant I’m-in-no-hurry expression in place for ten minutes. Wallasek could easily have made this call before their appointment. And why bother with the power play? Edgar would have stripped to his boxers and danced the cha-cha for a chance to write for Wallasek’s foreign desk.

  The editor guffawed, shooting Edgar a glance to make sure he felt left out of the joke. “You do see him,” Wallasek went on, “tell Barrington next time he takes a vacation maybe he could send a postcard. Lucky for the Record the story’s gone into deep freeze. The SOB hasn’t claimed so much as a faulty Chinese firework since Saddler went AWOL, right?

  “ . . . Rich, isn’t it? That bastard has drawn slack-jawed adulation by the drool bucket—not to mention apoplectic rage. But worry is new. Must be the odd champagne glass raised in his absence, yeah? . . . Cer-ve-ja de puka pera?” Wallasek pronounced with difficulty. “Sounds revolting. Thank the Lord for you brave foreign correspondents and your sacrifice for the world’s hungry need to know . . . Sarcastic, moi?” Chortle-chortle. “Yeah, they don’t make nemeses like they used to, Win. Ciao.”

  Edgar’s amiable grin had, he feared, slid to a grimace. His girlfriend Angela always ragged on him for slouching, and his erect I’m-just-the-man-you’re-looking-for posture in the director’s chair was hurting his back. Meanwhile, Wallasek fussed with papers on a desk that was every job applicant’s nightmare: crumpled piles doubtless dating back two presidential administrations, grease-stained with Danish crumbs. You’d never get away with a desk like that at Lee & Thole.

  “So!” Wallas
ek exhaled, locating Edgar’s clips and CV. Their binder was missing, the photocopies disheveled. An uncomprehending gaze betrayed that Wallasek hadn’t read a paragraph of Edgar’s articles. Next time he wouldn’t bother with the color photocopying, which looked nifty but cost a buck a page. Edgar squirmed. Maybe clued-up hacks never sent color clips. The bright borders beaming from the editor’s hands looked overeager. Edgar welcomed the common charge that he was a wiseass—rude, surly, and insubordinate—but the prospect of appearing a rookie was mortifying.

  He slouched.

  “Mr.—Kellogg!” Wallasek exclaimed, with the same sense of discovery with which he’d looked up to find that a stranger had been sitting in his office for the last fifteen minutes. “No trouble finding the place?”

  “The Equitable Building is bigger than a breadbox.” Edgar chafed at pre-interview chitchat and its artifice of relax-we-haven’t-started-yet, when empty schmooze was really one more test to pass. He had to stop himself from fast-forwarding, this summer has sure been a hot one and that’s a mighty fine wife in your desk photo there and you don’t have to ask where I live since the address is on my résumé and no I don’t want a cup of coffee.

  “Can I get you—?”