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Review of Lionel Shriver’s new novel “The Motion of the Body through Space”: political correctness and exercise culture

Book cover of Lionel Shriver’s novel The Motion of the Body Through Space. The book cover is green and has a lone man running with some trees around.

Lionel Shriver’s novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space, came out when Australia was in a strict lockdown and it seemed like a no-brainer for me to pick this one up. I have enjoyed Shriver’s writing in the past, one of my favourite books from her is The Mandibles. Shriver has not been without controversy and she has, in my opinion said some pretty tone deaf things in the past. After reading this book, I kept wondering if this was Shriver’s way of ‘speaking her mind’ to her audience. It felt like Shriver was wagging her finger at me as I read this book, and I don’t know if that was really for me.

If I am honest though, there are parts of the books that I loved which is why I think it is important to talk about her novel in two ways. Firstly, there is an extremely interesting discussion about our obsession with fitness and fighting against aging. This is played out between a husband and wife, Remington and Seranata. They are horrible characters, but you sort of love to hate them. Then, there is a very different conversation happening in Shriver’s book. This one is hard to gauge because on the one hand, perhaps the characters are just meant to be really awful. And on the other hand, knowing Shriver’s past comments, are these characters Shriver’s way of talking about race and political correctness without putting her name to it. Is it racist or sexist if your characters say it?

So let’s unpack some of Shriver’s arguments about exercise and political correctness (PC) culture. Exercise linked with how we look has become a key element of how we constitute our existence. Instagram can make you feel like the only way to measure a person’s worth is by how many visible ab muscles you can see. It’s toted as ‘being healthy’, but I wonder if there is anything really healthy about it at all. Shriver touches upon this performative nature in fitness cultures where it can feel like calories are only truly burnt off if you post about your workout online. Take this conversation between the characters Seranata and Tommy:

“Well, you post your steps. Every day. Online. Just about everybody clocks up, like, twenty K or more, and Marley Wilson, this total cunt from senior year, regularly posts thirty.”

“How many miles is that?”

“Just under fifteen,” Tommy said promptly.

“Unless she’s really hoofing it, walking that mileage could take five hours a day. Does she do anything else?”

“Whatever else she does isn’t the point.”

p. 27

The motivation for this type of exercising and fitness is all about looking good and possibly feeling morally superior to those around you. Posting it online means there is a performance to this kind of fitness. On the one hand, posting online can create communities and help people stay focused on their goal. The idea of online accountability is very big these days. On the other hand, this type of performative fitness can be extremely toxic and I don’t think society has even really begun to unpack these issues. One only has to think of that fact that Orthorexia, an eating disorder that centres itself on ‘healthy’ eating and living, is not even properly recognised throughout medicine yet.

Shriver’s two main characters have a complex relationship with exercise. Seranata has done it all her life and only had to stop after her knees gave out. Remington has taken up exercise, marathons and then an ultra marathon of sorts, in his mid-60s. It seems fairly clear throughout the novel that Remington struggles with old age, losing his job, and feeling the slow decline of life. I think, in many ways, there is pressure on everyone to look and be younger than they actually are. I don’t know what ever happened to just, looking your age.

The last aspect of exercise culture that I want to touch on with Shriver’s novel is also a good segway into my next discussion around PC culture and censorship.

Remington is about to start his triathlon called METTLEMAN:

“We are the human race. Mach two. We are the stronger, leaner, meaner, fiercer, more powerful members of mankind who will prove there are no limits, and there is nothing we can’t achieve because WE-ARE-METTLEMEN!”

The crowd erupted with cheers loud enough to cover Seranata’s murmur, “Leni Riefenstahl, where are you?””

p. 299

From an exercise culture point-of-view, this cult-like relationship and feeling conveyed through the speech at the beginning of the race can be extremely enticing and also, extremely toxic. It feels like there is a family mentality, but there is also a more sinister motivation. Feeling better, leaner, and meaner than your opposition is one thing, but it also feels like there is an edge of dangerous superiority here.

Seranata’s comment about Leni Riefenstahl is even more interesting because Riefenstahl was a Nazi propagandist film maker who directed Olympia in 1938 which was about the summer Olympics in 1936. After the war, Riefenstahl was banned from working in film because of her relationship with the Nazis. She has become quite controversial though, because she argued that whilst she was funded by the Nazis, her work was her own and was not explicitly propaganda for the Nazi and Aryan race. It was her freedom of speech and artistic expression. Olympia was ‘Kunst’ and had nothing to do with the Third Reich. Does Shriver see herself as a modern-day Riefenstahl?

It is rather perplexing to me as to why Shriver brings up Riefenstahl in her novel. I would love to as Shriver what she thinks of Riefenstahl’s work and motivations.

PC culture and freedom of speech are constantly thrown around without much thought. More and more often, people of all ages are expressing their frustrations at not being able to say or do certain things (anymore) because PC culture is getting in the way of freedom of speech. First of all, freedom of speech has never meant freedom of consequences and while you can, in theory, say whatever you like there will also be repercussions for those words, sometimes even legal ones. Let’s take a look at some dialogue from Remington:

“how often you hear, ‘You wouldn’t be able to say that now’? And they’re usually talking about a film or a stand-up routine that’s only three or four years old. […] Soon you won’t even be able to say what it is that you’re not allowed to say. We’ll become convinced that to express anything at all is extremely risky, and the species will go mute.”

p. 111

This line of argumentation from people concerned about their freedom of speech is pretty common. The idea that if you remove one word (like the n-word) or one T.V. show (think Little Britain) then there is nothing free or sacred. Nothing is safe and soon there won’t be any words or books or films! But there is always a line. And if I am honest, most of the people complaining about this encroachment of freedom of speech don’t even own the histories or the stories they are wanting to keep alive (see my above examples).

As pointed out by Nesrine Malik, Shriver has “said on a 2018 BBC radio programme that in the UK, white men are on the bottom of the rung, ‘below Jews’, because they are considered to be powerful, and we are only in the business of ‘privileging the disadvantaged'” (We Need New Stories p. 222). Malik suggests that criticism is equal to victimisation using the logic of many people fighting for their rights to be ‘politically incorrect’. Malik has the numbers to back up her argument that white people have nothing to worry about in today’s society since they still dominate in most fields. Yet, there is this fear that whiteness will be overrun.

If a neo-Nazi says ‘Heil Hitler’ and no one is around to hear them, did they even make a sound?

In The Motion of the Body Through Space, Shriver also uses Seranata to make some interesting points about women in the work force:

“Women nowadays get to choose. We squeal and make the men kill the water bug in the kitchen, and then when anyone questions our courage in the face of threat, we can get on our high horse and act insulted. Pretty good deal, when you think about it. We can be world beaters, and run whole companies, and then claim to be traumatized by a hand on our knee when helplessness is politically useful. Men aren’t really given that option.”

p. 51

This passage echoes the sentiments from her BBC interview. Won’t someone think of the hetero white dudes for once! All facetiousness aside, the fear of being pushed out of the warn and caring patriarchal nest must feel terrifying to many people. But, I am hear to tell you, to reassure you… It will be okay. You will get through this.

The downplaying of sexual assault is infuriating in this passage. I remember distinctly that in science class in high school I had a boy sit next to me. Every lesson he would put his hand on my leg and rub it. At first, I had no clue what he was doing. And his hands kept moving a bit further across my leg… I tried getting the teacher to move me, but we had assigned seats and the teacher would not budge. The teacher was male and I did not feel comfortable talking about what was happening to me so I dropped it. I brought it up with some friends, and they laughed it off – didn’t I enjoy the attention? I was trapped. And every day for the whole term that boy sat next to me trying to rub my leg. I would hit his hand away, tell him to stop, and even threaten violence. And every day he would come back to class, with an entitled smirk, and try put his hand on my leg again.

The idea that women ‘use’ sexual assault to their advantage is just insulting to every single woman who has ever existed and who ever will exist on this planet. No woman I have ever met or read about, who has been sexually assaulted or has experienced inappropriate behaviour has ever gotten anything from coming out with those allegations. Instead, these women get attacked, hounded, followed, intimidated, killed, abused, fired from their jobs, mistreated, and ostracised from society for speaking out. How does playing the ‘helplessness’ card work again?

These two passages that I have brought up also address the issue of meritocracy – another myth that society has created just like the tooth fairy. Surely, that if you work hard your efforts will be rewarded. Surely, the only reason why so many books are written by white people and why so many white authors receive so many accolades and help is because white people just work really hard and have earnt all their rewards. White people just write better? Surely it isn’t because of a system that rewards some and blocks others? To believe in meritocracy is to willfully ignore the world around you. So why is it so seductive to people? Meritocracy allows you to free yourself from any doubts that your whiteness – or whatever other privileges you might have – have helped you get to where you are. Instead, meritocracy wraps up your privileges with a neat hard working bow. You don’t have to address anything uncomfortable because you got their all by yourself and no one and nothing helped you.

After writing this article, I cannot help but feel more frustrated and annoyed with Shriver. I don’t know how this novel will influence what I read in the future, but it will definitely make me think about Shriver’s work, past and future, in a new light.

Have you read Shriver’s new novel and do you think she is speaking through her book? Can we ever really know the intentions of an author, and should we let this influence what we read? As always, share the reading love.