So Much for That purports to paint a desperate account of terminal cancer from the perspective of an embattled husband who lies prostrate as the belligerence of the US healthcare system and his wife’s disease erode his meticulously constructed empire. Shep Knacker longs to escape his grey-scale version of the American Dream and has been cultivating dreams of “the Afterlife” (read early retirement) on the Zanzibar archipelago from the fruits of selling his handyman firm. However, the ravages of a particularly rare form of asbestos-induced cancer mean his wife needs his health insurance for treatment, thus putting plans for African islands on hold. With the figures of the rapidly deteriorating Knacker fortune preceding each chapter, Shriver asks how much is Glynis’s life worth- should Shep abscond to his “Afterlife” before it’s too late?
In her most celebrated novel to date – the ubiquitous We Need to Talk About Kevin – Shriver owes her success to a fantastically original idea and approach, both in the narrative delivery, in the form of letters to a dead husband, and the exploration of the taboo around whether a mother’s love does, or should, stand fast in the most violent storm. However, in So Much for That she bases her novel on exploring a moral premise that only she could see any ambiguity in. A protagonist who curtails efforts to cure someone they love with recourse to waning Meryl-Lynch accounts would be too callous for even Shriver to conjure, but crude references to the cost of treatment put a slightly sinister gloss on proceedings. Thus, in failing to invoke a particularly engaging moral dilemma, the book falls slightly flat.
However, Shriver does manage – mainly through the increasingly tiresome diatribes of Shep’s best friend Jackson – to use the issue as a means to attack the US medical system and its insatiable appetite for the cash of the sick and exhausted. Indeed, whilst one finds oneself (with our very British, Aneurin Bevan attitude to health) wholeheartedly agreeing with Shriver, it does feel like she flogs the issue a little too relentlessly and will largely be preaching to the converted amongst her UK readership. The groaning pile of one misery after another for Shep at the callous hands of the system does get slightly fantastic in its scale; exacerbated furthermore by the absurd ending, which feels crudely slapped on, given the flow of the rest of the narrative.
So Much For That does succeed in bringing out some entertaining examples of the author’s wit, particularly through the dry cynicism of Flika – the severely disabled child of the Knacker’s close friends (yes, everyone is ill, and more gallingly, they all have ridiculous names). Despite these few flashes, her creations are overly caricatured and whilst it’s impossible not to sympathise with their predicament, Shriver’s awkward prose and blunt dialogue renders them mildly irritating for the most part. Indeed, the novel relies heavily on interchanges between characters and though this spares us too much of Shriver’s direct narrative, it gives an unfortunately stunted feel to affairs.
One needn’t try and find a succinct summation of the novel, as Shriver herself offers up a fairly damning indictment of it by feeling the need to appendix the book with a commentary entitled “Why this book is not a drag” (though perhaps it’d be fair to assume that she wishes to quash objections to the dark subject matter, rather than her incessant, idle recourse to dialogue and the failure to deliver a thought provoking central moral issue). With heart-warming humility she attests that “it’s fun to read, the book is funny… most of the reviews said so.” Confident as this assertion is, it’s sadly not supported in the preceding five hundred pages.
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