Lionel Shriver’s scabrously funny 15th novel presents a dyspeptic view of people in thrall to exercise. In 2013 Shriver’s own daily regime involved “130 press-ups, 200 side crunches, 500 sit-ups and 3,000 star jumps … The jumps take 32½ minutes, or three every two seconds”. The Motion Of The Body Through Space was written, she recently revealed, after she realised that she may be more dedicated to her exercise than to her writing.
The protagonist, Serenata Terpsichore (“rhymes with chicory”), is a 60-year-old woman from upstate New York with a beguiling voice and ruined knees. The former she puts to lucrative use as a voiceover artist and narrator of audiobooks. The latter are the result of a lifetime’s adherence to the doctrine of working out; in particular the belief that 10-mile runs are the key to longevity and good health.
As it tuns out, all those years of pounding the sidewalk mean that Serenata’s old age is accompanied by searing joint pain and the need for a knee-replacement operation. To make matters worse, her husband Remington has caught the fitness bug. Forced into early retirement from the New York State Department of Transport, the formerly sedentary and unathletic Remington announces that he intends to fill the days by training to run a marathon. A nubile young personal trainer named Bambi convinces him that merely running 26.2 miles is passé; these days triathlons are where it’s at.
Under the rather-too-intensive guidance of Bambi, Remington enrols for a MettleMan race (like Ironman, with the punitive addition of a single chin-up to cap off the 140.62 combined miles of swimming, cycling and running). Not surprisingly, this opens a huge rift in the couple’s marriage. Serenata views exercise as “biological housework, like vacuuming the rug”, and is appalled by her husband’s sanctimonious exaltation of fitness. “MettleMan isn’t just an exercise regime,” she complains. “It’s a cult. The man I fell in love with has been kidnapped.”
It’s interesting that given her own obsessive exercise regimen, Shriver is prepared to admit to being part of the problem. The novel even goes so far as to posit a contemporary definition of what the word “problematic” has come to mean: “It’s, like, a great big giant word for everything that’s super bad.”
This analysis comes courtesy of Serenata’s restless young neighbour Tommy (who is herself obsessed with counting daily steps on her pedometer). When Serenata complains that the audiobook commissions appear to be drying up, Tommy explains that her friend’s hitherto admired facility for accents and non-white speech patterns has become a liability: “See, now they’re all saying that white readers pretending to talk like marginalised communities is ‘mimicry’ and also it’s, like, cultural appropriation.”
Shriver’s contentious views on diversity are no secret. Her address to the 2016 Brisbane writers’ festival expressed the hope that concerns over cultural appropriation would be “a passing fad”; and she subsequently drew criticism for stating that publishers might prioritise a manuscript “written by a gay, transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around on a mobility scooter”. It’s a stance that has drawn accusations of racism and the sacrifice of personal friendships (Shriver admitted that she was in danger of frightening off what remained of her liberal readership when she came out in favour of Brexit).
The Motion of the Body Through Space is proof, if it were needed, that Shriver’s natural response to an open wound is to pour on more salt. Remington has long anticipated that his career-long ascent within the Department of Transport will lead to its directorship. Instead, he is overlooked for promotion in favour of a much younger African American woman whose priorities include the introduction of gender neutral bathrooms and mandatory enforcement of “preferred pronouns”. Some of these innovations he is prepared to tolerate (“Announcing ‘I’m Remington Alabaster and I’m a he’ was no skin off his nose”); but his boss’s refusal even to skim a meticulously compiled dossier on the kelvin-rating of street lamps provokes an unguarded moment of rage that costs Remington his job.
Shriver’s essential bugbear is that, taken to extremes, the concept of cultural appropriation prohibits the act of fiction writing itself: “If writers have to restrict their imagination to personal experience,” she has stated, “the only option left is memoir.” The grand irony of course is that The Motion of the Body Through Space is a novel drawn from the first-hand experience of a writer who monitors her frequency of star jumps and has been on the receiving end of a pasting for her views on diversity. Certainly it’s problematic – but few authors can be as entertainingly problematic as Shriver.
• The Motion of the Body Through Space is published by Borough (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.