So Much for ThatSo Much for That by Lionel Shriver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lionel Shriver is one of a small handful of authors whose workI consistently love—no matter how far one novel might stray from the next. In So Much for That, Shriver takes on midlife malaise, mesothelioma and the medical industry (and make no mistake, U.S. “health care” is all about industry). Her prose is scathing, angry, and unfailingly witty. I can see why certain reviewers hated this book; it is admittedly depressing. Shriver’s characters are all unlikeable in one way or other, and at times unbelievable, to boot. They serve as mouthpieces for all that is wrong with this country and its overabundance of meaningless diversions, paid or unpaid. But I, for one, laud this author for tackling the nasty underside of our counterfeit, largely-pointless way of life in such a deliciously entertaining manner.

Shriver takes no prisoners. Protagonist Shep is a poster child for the delusional “do-righter” who believes that if you toe the line and follow the rules, your reward will come in the “afterlife”—not in the Heavenly sense, but by having a sufficiently large nest egg to leave one’s mundane woes behind in favor of a simpler existence in some far-flung and less expensive recess of Earth. (I confess—this is my plan, too, albeit right here in California, so this book struck a personal chord.) His friends and coworkers think he’s nuts, and in the end, his wife, Glynis, throws a wrench in this formerly shared goal by developing mesothelioma (that stubborn cancer caused by asbestos).

Glynis is anything but the peaceful, angelic loved one coming to terms with impending death—she’s crass, selfish, dishonest, and abusive toward her well-meaning husband and the few friends and family members who dare to visit her. But her attitude rings more true than trite in a way we usually don’t glimpse in novels. If that weren’t enough for Shep to contend with, there’s his artistic mooch of a sister, his aging, fecally-incontinent father, and a best friend and former employee (Jackson) who is a tiresome boor. Though Jackson is one-dimensional in his rants (in this regard, he reminds me very much of my own brother), the sad thing is that everything he says about everything is true, in particular the medical system. His own daughter, Flicka, is living with familial dysautonomia, or FD—a rare genetic disorder found among Ashkenazi Jews. Flicka is a painful sight—a drooling, stooping, tearless teen with an access “port” in her stomach much like the spout of an orange juice container.

As you can see, this is not a book for the faint of heart; light entertainment it ain’t. So Much for That is more the literary equivalent of being roused by a printed-word defibrillator. Nonetheless, if you can stand 400 or so pages of large and small jolts, the ending, while a bit far-fetched, is a glorious triumph of the little guy. It celebrates the joy to be found in simply managing life and death on one’s own terms.

I don’t usually give books five stars, but this one deserves it. Besides showcasing Shriver’s trademark luminous prose, at its core, So Much for That pays long-overdue homage to certain fundamental truths: the primacy of terminal illness (the fight against which she likens to battling the weather); the impermanence of our Earthly existence (despite our stubborn fairy-tale denials to the contrary); and the exorbitant, torturous and ultimately ineffective medical “weapons” we employ—at astronomical cost—to do nothing more than distract us from the finality and supremacy of death (while conveniently bankrupting its victims in the process). It is a face-slapping wake-up call to those of us fortunate enough to be well, yet audacious enough to complain. For many readers, its message—that suffering and death are inevitable and exempt no one—will be unwelcome and best stuffed under the sofa along with lost change and potato chip crumbs. But for the rest of us, its reminder to live life—now, fully, and genuinely—is a welcome admonishment to appreciate our short time on Earth while we revel in our precious health. Personally, I loved every minute of this ride.

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