The American political novel has gotten a bad rep in recent years, probably because we now seem nationally unable to produce a great one . In an oft-quoted 2001 essay in the Guardian , James Wood called for fewer novels attempting to "'tell us how the world works’" and more that "'tell us how somebody felt about something.’" Wood was writing about the social novel, but the rule should be applied to its political counterpart. Great political novels of the past- All the King’s Men , 1984 , Catch-22 , Underworld , The Handmaid’s Tale -succeed because the politics emerge through idiosyncratic characters in their specifically imagined contexts. So Much For That by Lionel Shriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin , is not a great political novel, but it is a good and timely one. The novel is especially impressive because its subject is health care, not obvious fodder for drama or intrigue. It works because Shriver portrays our broken system-how one part of our world works, or fails to-through fully realized characters who have very personal reasons for thinking about it.
His entire adult life, Shriver's protagonist, Shepherd Knacker, has promised to quit the rat race young and "abscond" to some developing nation with a low cost of living where he can live like a king. He finally has the tickets in hand when his wife, Glynis, announces that she has cancer and needs his health insurance. Chastened, Shepherd abandons his exit plan, keeps his job, cares for Glynis, and pays the bills that World Wellness insurance won’t. Suddenly he understands better what his best friend Jackson, whose daughter has the degenerative disease familial dysautonomia, has had to deal with all these years, and the two men spend pages venting their frustrations with the health care system.
But only rarely does this story seem forced into the service of its politics. Jackson’s rants and Shepherd’s ruminations are more than anything opportunities to get to know the characters better. Politics play no part in the single chapter where we see life from chemo-depleted Glynis’ perspective. And we also get an intimate, sustained portrait of a marriage, with its tides of resentment, fear, guilt, and devotion. Witnessing his wife's suffering and nearing bankruptcy, Shepherd earns the right to ask explicitly, as no politician can afford to, "Is there … a limit to how much you should pay to keep any one person alive?" and we believe the question comes from Shep, not Shriver philosophizing. This is what we need political novels to do, voice truths too loaded for the Senate floor. In the process Shriver underscores what has made the health care debate so fraught, that the personal may be political, but the political is absolutely personal.