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Lionel Shriver: Fighting the war on terror, armed only with irony

American novelist Lionel Shriver looks on during a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, India, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.

Manish Swarup/AP

They said irony was dead after Sept. 11, 2001. A decade later, expat American novelist Lionel Shriver knows that is false – and even believes humour may be the one counter-assault that the terrorists cannot withstand.

Shriver's new novel, The New Republic, is a satire about a terrorist campaign to liberate a fictional Portuguese peninsula, and its 14-year wait for publication says a lot about public attitudes toward its themes.

"If it had been published when it was written, I would have been seen as prescient," she said, explaining that the manuscript was rejected by numerous publishers in 1998 and then became completely unpublishable after the events of Sept. 11. "I am not writing about terrorism because everybody else is. I was concerned with this issue when nobody gave a toss. But it never pays to be ahead of your time."

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Shriver, a freelance foreign correspondent and novelist who won the Orange Prize for We Need to Talk about Kevin, now lives mainly in Britain but spent the 1990s in Belfast during the period when a series of ceasefires eventually ended the worst of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

"I grew increasingly exasperated with how effectively terrorism netted political benefits," she said in an interview from her home in London. "It worked a treat in Northern Ireland. People who ran the IRA went directly to government. Great. … These were the people who everyone was afraid of. … They were the big, swaggering, dangerous, hard men. I found them revolting, both sides, but I tend to focus on the Republican side because they were much better at it and better at getting what they wanted. The New Republic came out of that perspective, but I did not want to write a heavy-handed treatise. I turned to satire."

She had already used Belfast as the setting for her 1990 novel The Bleeding Heart, so she looked elsewhere on the map of Europe. Drawing a beard on the tip of Portugal, she gave the country both a non-existent geography and a fictional separatist movement, assiduously covered by a posse of foreign correspondents rather reminiscent of the reporters in Evelyn Waugh's 1938 satire Scoop.

The book's anti-hero is Edgar Kellogg, a former prep-school fat boy and New York corporate lawyer, whose dreams of a career in journalism land him in the midst of a terrorism campaign that may have been invented by an unethical colleague on a slow news day.

Shopping the book around in 1998, Shriver discovered U.S. publishers were not the least bit interested by a mid-list author's satire on terrorism, a topic they thought irrelevant to most Americans. She moved on to other projects and was back in New York in 2001: Alerted to a plane crash on the Internet, she watched the second crash and the collapse of the World Trade Center on television.

"I was one of many penumbral participants. … It had a big impact on me the same way it had a big impact on everybody, and ultimately I don't take terrorism lightly. I did not take terrorism lightly in Northern Ireland either. It upset me so much seeing people benefiting" from horrible behaviour, she said.

Now her topic was painfully relevant, but a satire was impossible. "Publishing a lighthearted romp about terrorism at that point would have been foolish," she said.

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In the intervening decade, however, Shriver has become more and more publishable while public grieving over the terrorist attacks has naturally waned. In 2003, she produced We Need to Talk about Kevin – a novel about a high-school shooter that was also rejected by many publishers before it was picked up by the small British house Serpent's Tail – and became a bestselling author.

Meanwhile, while the topic of terrorism still dominates the news, the attacks of Sept. 11 are not so recent that a bit of humour is impossible.

"Little by little, the whole subject gets less touchy. I am glad of that. You can't cry all day forever," she said.

"It had started to eat at me; the time started to feel right and I wasn't willing to consign that novel to the dump. I felt the point I was making was as pertinent as ever, more pertinent than when it was written." And so, she unearthed her terrorism satire, holding back her next novel, about obesity, so The New Republic could be published this year.

"One of the weapons against which terrorists are unable to defend themselves is laughter," Shriver said, noting that the so-called shoe bomber and underwear bomber were failed terrorists not merely because their bombs did not go off, but also because their popular sobriquets make them look ridiculous. "Being tagged the underpants bomber is the perfect revenge on that guy. It is so humiliating; it makes him farcical."

The New Republic includes a nasty satire of a political opportunist who builds up a legal party around the phantom terrorists, but also targets the journalists who salivate over a story they are too lazy to discover doesn't actually exist. During a riot, one character worries about how the "observer paradox" affects journalism, as rock-throwing locals enact violence for the benefit of the TV cameras, but Shriver's satire gets sharper as Kellogg debates whether he should start phoning in bomb scares if he wants to keep his new job.

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"Of course, these people get coverage and that is what they want. … When you keep delivering the headlines, it only encourages other lunatics, but I don't believe in censorship," she said, recalling the British government's inept attempt to ban the voice of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams from the airwaves. (British broadcasters hired Irish actors to read his statements instead.): "I don't really know what the answer is."

Well, there is always irony.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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