Game Control by Lionel Shriver
HarperPerennial • $13.95 • July 3, 2007 (originally published 1994)
Getting through Lionel Shriver’s backlist is taking more time than it normally does when I discover an author I like (I picked up Kevin, my first Shriver, in February of 2007). Her earlier books are hard to come by in the real world (two are completely out of print), and I’ve resisted ordering them online—partly because I want to save/savor them, and partly because I tend to stumble on them in bookstores at just the right time to read them.
Such was the case with Game Control, which I came across just after finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The two books, though written 16 years apart, have common threads in the theme of population control and the fevered fanaticism of the characters who believe in it. Franzen’s Walter Berglund wants to stop people from having children—Shriver’s Calvin Piper takes things a step further, proposing that culling the human population is the only way to save the planet. We meet him through American do-gooder Eleanor Merritt, who despite herself ends up charmed by the misanthropic Englishman (if not entirely converted to his cause). Can the human race be saved without sacrificing what makes us human?
Like all Shriver’s novels, the book poses more questions than answers, but it’s not all about issues. Game Control is engrossing and darkly funny, as you can see in the excerpt below, in which Eleanor recalls her first meeting with Calvin 16 years earlier:
Halfway through dinner at the luxury hotel, [Eleanor] had been overcome by nausea. . . . She was gripped by anxiety that she had no personality at all, and concluded that if she had failed to concoct it by twenty-one, it was now time to make one up.
“I can’t eat this,” she announced, fists on the cloth. “I’m sorry. The idea of our sitting here paying hundreds of shillings for shellfish while people right outside the door starve—it makes me sick.”
Calvin nimbly kept eating. “If you truly have ambitions to work in the Third World, young lady, you’ll have to develop a less delicate stomach.”
“How can you!” she exclaimed, exasperated as he started on another prawn. “After we’ve spent all day forecasting worldwide famine by the year 2000!”
“That’s just the kind of talk that whets my appetite.”
“Well, it kills mine.”
“If you feel so strongly about it,” he suggested, “go feed them your dinner.”
Eleanor had picked up her plate and left the restaurant. One of the waiters came running after her, since she’d marched off with their china. Eleanor looked left and right and had to walk a couple of blocks to find a beggar, and was promptly confronted with the logistical problem of delivering her food aid and returning the plate. So she stood dumbly by the cripple with elephantiasis, whose eyes were either uncomprehending or insulted. He rattled his tin, where she could hardly muck shrimp, now could she? It struck her, as the saffron sauce dripped from the gilt-edged porcelain, that just because you could not walk did not mean you had no standards of behaviour, which parading about Nairobi with a half-eaten hotel entrée after dark clearly did not meet.
What are you reading this week?