Windsor Terrace’s own Lionel Shriver on how everything boils down to ‘Property’
Author’s new collection uses real estate as a binding theme
Love, life, ownership and happiness — it all boils down to real estate.
That’s the tantalizing premise behind Windsor Terrace author Lionel Shriver’s exquisite new collection, “Property.” In two novellas and 10 short stories, Shriver captures urban life through its omnipresent lens.
“Properties in Brooklyn were proving way beyond our budget and every place had something wrong with it,” says the narrator of the story, “Vermin,” which features a woman hoping to land a larger place with her musician boyfriend. “Even if the apartment didn’t keep the refrigerator in the living room and the bathtub in the kitchen, we picked up right away that the previous residents had been unhappy there. It’s funny how you can tell; misery seeps into soft furnishings as indelibly as tobacco.”
The couple has a long, frustrating search: In the end, they find that all they’re doing is looking at other people’s mistakes.
But ownership — of goods, space, even relationships — is the point, with small items standing in for larger themes. In Shriver’s novella, “The Standing Chandelier,” the symbol is, ostensibly, a lighting fixture. But the issue is the lifelong friendship between a woman and a man.
The chandelier in question is a wedding gift that one of the women gives to her friend — only to realize that his newlywed friend is not as into the gift as she should be. So the woman asks her friend for the chandelier back, which puts the new husband in the middle of an argument that has nothing — but in reality, everything! — to do with him. In the end, he’s not even worth the all the drama — and the chandelier is a symbol of the friendship destroyed over a marriage.
The story, Shriver said, “is a small tragedy.”
But it’s also an example of how good Shriver is with the precise detail that make fiction sparkle. And her details — “that cold roast chicken from the deli section of Key Food…” “the three funky concealed public courts…” “yet another rerun of ‘Requiem for a Dream…’” — bring home the local Brooklyn feel of her writing.
“Being particular is one of those creative writing shibboleths that I suppose I’ve taken to heart, though I draw the line at detail for its own sake,” said Shriver, who remains best known for her school shooting novel, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which was later turned into a Lynne Ramsay film starring Tilda Swinton.
“Generally I try to include details that mean something or at least contribute to the reader’s ability to conjure a picture,” Shriver said.
Perhaps the timeliest of the urban stories in the collection is the wickedly funny, “Domestic Terrorism.” It centers on a twenty-something son whose African-American girlfriend, Jocanda, speaks in vernacular. In the story, her language feels authentic, but, in this day and age, it could also earn a white author accusations of cultural appropriation.
So I had to ask…
“These days? Of course I worry,” Shriver admitted. “But I don’t think I should be worrying. If we didn’t allow white writers to craft dialogue in black American vernacular, we’d never have the ‘The Wire’ or ‘Clockers,’ which is a wonderful book. There’s nothing racist about dialogue that mirrors the way people actually talk. Or are white writers permitted to mirror other white regional dialects, just not any vernacular of color?
“I am utterly exasperated with this new hands-off attitude toward what ostensibly doesn’t ‘belong’ to you,” she added. “The big wide world out there is part of my own experience, part of what I see and hear and think about, and it all belongs to me because it’s part of my observable universe.”
Critics certainly don’t object to her approach.
“Shriver’s understanding of her people is so intimate, so unsentimental,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times about Shriver’s earlier novel, “The Post-Birthday World.” “[She] lofts these characters permanently into the reader’s imagination.”
In keeping with the current real estate theme, you might say Shriver simply owns it.