We need to talk about death, according to Lionel Shriver. The 64-year-old writer’s latest novel Should We Stay or Should We Go begins with doctor Cyril and his nurse wife Kay deciding to kill themselves on Kay’s 80th birthday, to avoid indignity and pain in their declining years and prevent themselves being a burden on the NHS. Shriver then explores a series of “increasingly outlandish” scenarios when the fateful day arrives.
He dies; she dies; they both live but end up in a salubrious retirement home or a punitively callous one; they witness the destruction of Western civilization; they experience a ‘cure’ for ageing; they are cryogenically frozen and wake up in a future where humanity has evolved into a birdlike species that regards them as “comical and pathetic”. (Worse, Kay has suffered “freezer burn” in suspended animation and no longer loves her husband.)
This being Shriver, who sparks controversy in her Spectator columns as well as in fiction, the mordant wit and questing intelligence is salted with provocations - about immigration control and Brexit, both of which she strongly supports, and so-called ‘wokery’. Shriver sees herself as a pariah in the liberal literary establishment, under threat of cancellation at any time; I’d say that being anti-woke at a time when the government and most of the media supports the same agenda has done her no harm. But she is charming, funny, and we get on well.
“The most important thing to get across to your readers is that the book is not a downer,” she says, her precise North Carolina cadences intact despite 22 years in London. We’re on the top floor of a co-working space in London Bridge and she’s lean and poised in a black skirt and sweater.
“It’s a playful book, I had a wonderful time writing it and its purpose is to entertain.” Yet it comes from a serious place. “Having crossed the signal threshold of 60, suddenly an age like 80 doesn’t seem that far away, because it isn’t. Also I have very elderly parents, and that has been a sobering experience.” Her mother is 89, blind, wheelchair bound, incontinent and barely able to communicate following a devastating stroke in 2015: her father, a former Presbyterian minister and academic, is 93 “and seriously enfeebled”.
Her eighth book, We Need to Talk About Kevin shot her to literary stardom, its depiction of maternal ambivalence contributing to its word-of-mouth success as much as its discussion of school shootings, then just becoming a hot-button issue of school shooting. It won the Orange Prize, was turned into a film with Tilda Swinton and has sold well in excess of a million copies in the UK. The timing of this 14th novel is similarly apt, arriving when elderly care is high in people’s minds and a bill on assisted dying is passing through Parliament. “That’s just sheer freakish luck,” she smiles.
“But yes, I do believe you should have the right to end your life at a time of your choosing. I would like to see the law changed and I would have less restriction on assisted dying than they are likely to bring in: I imagine you will have to have a terminal diagnosis, be expected to live no more than six months, have two doctors sign off [on you]. I wouldn’t make it that complicated. There are situations that are unbearable and ongoing: excruciating pain with no possibility of relief is especially awful.
“I had the experience of extreme nerve pain last summer, from a vertebra out of alignment in my back, that was so bad I would describe it as suicidal pain,” she adds. A fitness freak who cycles everywhere and performs calisthenics “although my knees are both shot”, Shriver powered perversely through her spinal agony by playing highly competitive tennis.
I believe you should have the right to end your life at a time of your choosing
Shriver doesn’t think younger people should waste time worrying about old age: it’s only when our own or our relatives’ bodies begin to fail that we face up to it and start to plan, and plans often go awry. Nest eggs put aside for future care can be wiped out. A planned exit at Dignitas could be pre-empted by a bus crash. Shriver knows one woman who stockpiled a stash of pills with which to kill herself but is now too demented to use them.
Illness and mortality are recurring themes for Shriver. In her 2010 novel So Much For That a couple’s savings are winnowed away by the American health system “which is grotesquely inefficient, costing twice as much money for worse results” than the NHS. Her 2020 novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space, lampooned the cult of extreme exercise. “I have been interested for my whole life in the relationship between the body and the self, which is extremely complicated,” she says.
Should We Stay is a vehicle for other preoccupations. She picks playfully at the scab of Brexit. Cyril and Kay voice her belief that the economic damage caused by lockdown will be worse than the pandemic. Her depiction in one chapter of an England overrun by immigrants who have burned down the Houses of Parliament and ransacked the V&A seems explicitly designed to outrage.
“Uh-huh, yeah, well I’m not deliberately baiting anyone, but I’m not refusing to write that because everyone will think I’m a big meanie,” she smiles, adding that forecast population rises in Africa will inevitably mean a deluge of immigration towards Europe. But isn’t the idea that images will physically destroy the fabric of Western culture an incendiary one? “It’s a totally apocalyptic scenario and these are deliberately dark images,” she says. In her view she’s following the demographic data to the logical extreme. Imagining the worst, in a book that’s all about imagined futures.
I have this barmy attachment to ‘hardiness’ as well as to the same delayed gratification of my one meal a day
Her reputation as a scourge of identity politics dates from the 2016 Brisbane Literary Festival, where she struck back at criticism of Latino and African-American characters in her book The Mandibles, defending an author’s right to write in any voice and from any perspective. She subsequently put a parodic “diversity hire” – an underqualified black woman always ready to accuse older, white colleagues of sexism or racism, or both – into The Motion of the Body Through Space. Now she sighs: “I guess I’ve been successfully bullied out of using accents, which irritates me.” In 2018 she decried Penguin Random House’s stated plan to make its stable more diverse.
“I care about excellence more than virtue and that has become an unusual and controversial position which I find astonishing,” she says. “One of the reasons I am regarded as such a regressive reprobate is not that I have become some kind of right wing lunatic but because I haven’t changed. I didn’t like affirmative action when I was 16 years old and it first came in in the States.” Does she really think inferior books by minorities are being published at the expense of established talents? “If anything, white male authors now are disadvantaged,” she says. “I don’t like discrimination of any kind, so why would I like that kind?”
Shriver dismisses the campaign to remove statues of slave traders as “theatre”, expensive and with no practical benefit, but also thinks the idea of reparations to enslaved peoples is “a can of worms”. She detests identity politics but adds: “There is nothing malign, initially at least, in the impulse to pursue a fairer society. The biggest problem with the ‘woke’ is their methods - too often involving name calling, silencing, vengefulness, and predation.”
She absolutely believes “cancel culture” is a thing, citing the suspension of a Batley teacher who showed pupils a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in March this year, and suggesting that corporations, educational institutions and publishers are too craven when faced with Twitter mobs. “The biggest reason I haven’t been cancelled is that HarperCollins and the Spectator have stood behind me,” she says. Conversely, JK Rowling was not cancelled for her views on trans rights because she was simply too famous.
Shriver herself seems relatively sympathetic to the trans community, regarding life as “a continual act of becoming, of creation” as she once put it. Her own persona seems as carefully crafted as her fiction. She changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel at 15 and quit America for Nairobi and Belfast before setting in London in 1999. In 2003 she married jazz drummer Jeff Williams.
She eats one meal a day, usually at midnight, goes to bed at 5am and rarely turns on the heating in her Bermondsey home even though she suffers from chronic sensitivity to cold. She’ll cycle miles in the rain and subject her tortured joints to punishing workouts: “I have this barmy attachment to ‘hardiness’ as well as to the same delayed gratification of my one meal a day.”
Her life of writerly solitude and enforced privation sounds like ideal preparation for lockdown. “It hasn’t changed my life enormously,” she nods. “I never used to go to a lot of restaurants anyway. But I’ve had lots of events cancelled, had two [book] releases in a row where everything has happened online. [Jeff and I] spent more time together than at any time in our marriage, so it was an interesting test and we didn’t kill each other. Most of the time we even managed to maintain a conversation, which is the hardest part, because nothing was happening. The lack of stories has put me in a state of desperation.”
Should We Stay or Should We Go is out now (The Borough Press, £18.99)