Corporate lawyer Edgar Kellogg switches careers to become a newspaper foreign correspondent in The New Republic, Lionel Shriver’s intermittently sharp satire about journalism, terrorism, and the cult of media personality. The newspaper is crummy, and so is the assignment, in the raggedy, fictional Portuguese outpost of Barba: He’s been sent to replace missing-in-action journalist Barrington Saddler, a legendary honcho among his peers. But Kellogg is ready to pack up the many chips on his shoulder (among them, he used to be a fat kid, and the miserable memory has made him an adult resentful of other men’s success) and move his baggage abroad. In Barba, attracted to a lovely Brit who nearly wrecked her marriage for love of Saddler, Kellogg settles in among his fellow foreign correspondents and begins to practice his own, er, inventive form of reportage.
Shriver wrote her satire more than a dozen years ago, before the breakthrough success of 2003’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; this version, she has said, is roughly the same as the original — which means the structural problems have been there all along. The story is baggy and idling, with an ending that thuds. The dialogue zings, though, and the writing is jazzy, as Shriver describes a new colleague of Kellogg’s as ”one of those women who look terrible on purpose,” and the architecture of Barba as displaying a ”fecal plainness.” The author can toss off a sharp sketch of a passing character in a phrase, and she’s got a gimlet eye for what’s phony, or affected, or even touchingly vain in human behavior. She is also sensitive to what can be truly frightening about the big world, even for intrepid media types well armed with professional bravado and sturdy expense accounts. B