Oh, how I wanted to like this book. How I wanted to like Lionel Shriver! Alas, Lionel Shriver is not a very likeable writer.
"So Much For That" is about Shep who has been saving all his life so he can retire early and run away to a place where people bask in the sun and live on a dollar per day and he is now ready to go. And then his wife goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like 'I have cancer'. So rather than living on a dollar a day, they live on a few thousand a day covering all the medical expenses Glynis now generates.
This book is really a rant about the American health care system. But not only! It's also a rant about taxes, parking tickets, the government, the police, the education system... Shriver doesn't even stop there, when she is on a roll no one is safe - not artists and not people who misuse the word 'literally'. As all that ranting couldn't possible fit in the narrative, Shriver invents the character of Jackson whose main purpose in the book is to rant. So there is some ranting in the narrative, then it seamlessly moves onto the dialogue which has this natural feel of people reciting wikipedia articles to each other and then back to the narrative. In the end there is only one voice in this book - Lionel Shriver's very angry voice. And this is my main problem with this novel - if you want to write fiction, then create a world, create the characters, send them on some journery. If you are just angry at the US health care system, then write essays and opionion columns. Don't use the characters as props in your tirade, don't make idiots out of them by having them orate for pages about everything you're mad about. As a matter of fact some characters in 'So Much For That' are just personifications of a rant. There is Beryl for example, a character so ridiculous and two-dimensional that it seems like it was just a spiteful caricature of someone Shriver knows and strongly dislikes.
There is constant whining of a middle class who comes to the shocking conclusion that life isn't just.
"There's something especially terrible about being told over and over that you have the most wonderful life on earth and it doesn't get any better and it's still shit" Oh, cry me a river. Really. I have up to here with you and your First World Problems.
"“No,” said Shep, and changed the subject. “I guess we’re lucky, though. We live in the States. Hey, we get the best medical care in the world.” “Think again, pal. In comparison to all the other rich countries like England, Australia… Canada… I don’t remember the rest. Look at all the statistics that matter – infant mortality, cancer survival, you name it? We come in last. And we pay twice as much.” “Yeah, well. At least we don’t have socialized medicine.” Jackson guffawed. Shep wasn’t stupid, but he could be painfully cooperative. That “socialized medicine” bogyman went all the way back to the 1940s, when Harry Truman had wanted to bring in a national health service, just like the Brits. Nervous that doctors wouldn’t keep raking it in, the American Medical Association concocted this inspired cold war buzz phrase, which had struck terror in the hearts of their countrymen ever since. A genius stroke of labeling. Like when supermarkets came out with that “no frills” line, packaging a perfectly standard, decent product in stark, ugly-ass black-and-white, thus ensuring that no one with any class would buy it, at half the brand-name price. It worked. Even Jackson’s cash-strapped mother hadn’t wanted to be caught dead with no-frills tissues in her cart. “You realize fortysomething percent of this country is either on Medicaid or Medicare?” said Jackson;"
"She went on, “this World Wellness Group outfit is the health insurance company from hell. They levy co-pays on everything, including the meds, and we have to fill dozens of prescriptions every month. With their whopping deductible, you’re out five grand before you’re reimbursed a dime. Their idea of a ‘reasonable and customary’ fee is what a doctor’s visit cost in 1959, and then they stick you with the shortfall. They’re way too restrictive about going out of network, and Flicka requires very specialized care. Then there’s co-insurance on top of the co-pays: twenty percent of the total bill, and that’s in network. And here’s the killer: there’s no cap on out-of-pocket expenses. Add to that that their lifetime payment cap – you know, how much they’ll fork out in total, ever – is also pretty low, only two or three million, when someone like Flicka could easily exceed numbers like that before she’s twenty… Well, we had to find other coverage.”
Talking about contrived dialogues. There really are good 300 hundred pages of it, and to use the pun from the very book, they are not good pages. After that, it seems like Shriver has finally got everything off her chest and run out of steam. The plot is set free at last and it is guaranteed you're going to read the last 150 pages or so in one sitting taking in everything including a quite obvious product placement and a sappy ending.
It is possible that Shriver was very aware of the shittness of the first part of the book because one of her characters says at some point (and let's remember the characters in Shriver's book never speak for themselves, they are just spokespeople for the author):
""“You know, these movies…” He was groping. “Remember how sometimes, in the middle, a movie seems to drag? I get restless, and take a leak, or go for popcorn. But sometimes, the last part, it heats up, and then right before the credits one of us starts to cry – well, then you forget about the crummy middle, don’t you? You don’t care about the fact that it started slow, or had some plot twist along the way that didn’t scan. Because it moved you, because it finally pulled together, you think, when you walk out, that it was a good movie, and you’re glad you went. See, Gnu?” he promised. “We can still end well.”
Having said all that, I will admit the book is a page turner in its weird tedious way. But readability is not the way to my heart. It's the way to my bed. If a book is very readable I can easily find myself seduced and I spend a whole night in my bed with it. But after it is all over, if readability was all the book had to offer, we will part our ways and never see each other again (what is it with me and all those sexual innuendos lately?).
Oh Look, I have just found this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/23/so-much-for-that-lionel-shriver - I should've read this instead of the book. Brilliant.