Lionel Shriver's New Story Collection 'Property' Isn't Just About The Stuff

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"Property," by Lionel Shriver. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Property," by Lionel Shriver. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Novelist Lionel Shriver turns to short fiction with her new book "Property: Stories Between Two Novellas." The book explores how belongings and relationships often become intertwined.

Shriver joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about the book.

Book Excerpt: 'Property'

by Lionel Shriver

The Standing Chandelier


In bottomless gratitude, to Jeff and Sue.
This is not about you.

Jillian Frisk found the experience of being disliked bewildering. Or not bewildering enough, come to think of it, since the temptation was always to see her detractor’s point of view. Newly aware of a woman’s aversion—it was always another woman, and perhaps that meant something, something in itself not very nice—she would feel awkward, at a loss, mystified, even a little frightened. Paralyzed. In a traducer’s presence, she’d yearn to refute whatever about herself was purportedly so detestable. Yet no matter what she said, or what she did, she would involuntarily verify the very qualities that the faultfinder couldn’t bear. Vanity? Flakiness? Staginess?

For an intrinsic facet of being disliked was racking your brain for whatever it was that rubbed other people so radically the wrong way. They rarely told you to your face, so you were left with a burgeoning list of obnoxious characteristics that you compiled for them. So Jillian would demote her garb from festive to garish or even vulgar, and suddenly see how her offbeat thrift shop ensembles, replete with velvet vests, broad belts, tiered skirts, and enough scarves to kill Isadora Duncan three times over, could seem to demonstrate attention-seeking behavior. A clear, forceful voice was to the leery merely loud, and whenever she suppressed the volume the better to give no offense, she simply became inaudible, which was maddening, too. Besides, she didn’t seem capable of maintaining a mousy, head-down demeanor for more than half an hour, during which the sensation was tantamount to a Chinese foot binding of the soul. Wide gesticulation when she grew exuberant was doubtless histrionic. Smitten by another smoldering black look from across a table, she would sometimes trap her hands in her lap, where they would flap like captured birds. But in a moment of inattention, the dratted extremities always escaped, flinging her napkin to the floor. Her full-throated guffaw would echo in her own ears as an annoying laugh. (Whatever did you do about an annoying laugh? Stop finding anything funny?) Then on top of all the ghastly attributes she embodied, merely being in the presence of someone who she knew couldn’t stand her slathered on an additionally off-putting surface of nervousness, contrition, and can’t-beat-them-join-them self-suspicion.


But then, Jillian should have known better by now, having enough times withstood the gamut from distaste to loathing (yet rarely indifference). When people didn’t like you, if this doesn’t seem too obvious, they didn’t like you. That is, the problem wasn’t an identifiable set of habits, beliefs, and traits—say, a propensity for leaning against a counter with a jauntily jutted hip as if you thought you were hot stuff, overusage of the word fabulous, a misguided conviction that refusing to vote is making a political statement, a tendency to mug the more premeditative with a sudden impulse to go camping this very afternoon and to make them feel like spoilsports when they didn’t want to go. No, it was the sum total that rankled, the whole package, the essence from which all of these evidences sprang. Jillian could remain perfectly still with her mouth zipped, and Estelle Pettiford—a fellow crafts counselor at the Maryland summer camp where Jillian worked for a couple of seasons, whose idea of compelling recreation for fifteen-year-olds was making Christmas trees out of phone books in July—would still have hated her, and the girl would have kept hating her even if this object of odium didn’t move a muscle or utter a syllable through to the end of time. That was what slew Jillian about being disliked: There was no remedy, no chance of tempering an antipathy into, say, forbearance or healthy apathy. It was simply your being in the world that drove these people insane, and even if you killed yourself, your suicide would annoy them, too. More attention seeking.

Glib, standard advice would be not to care. Right. Except that shrugging off the fact that someone despised you was impossible. The expectation was inhuman, so that, on top of having someone hate you, you cared that someone hated you and apparently you shouldn’t. Caring made you even more hateable. Your inability to dismiss another’s animus was one more thing that was wrong with you. Because that was the thing: these sneering, disgusted perceptions always seemed to have more clout than the affections of all the other people who thought you were delightful. Your friends had been duped. The naysayers had your number.

There was Linda Warburton, her coworker during a stint leading tours at the Stonewall Jackson House, who grew insensibly enraged every time Jillian brewed strong coffee in the staff kitchen—Jillian made strong everything—as the girl preferred her java weak. After Jillian began going to the extra trouble of boiling a kettle so that Linda could dilute her own mug to her heart’s content, the accommodation to everyone’s tastes seemed only to drive the lumpy, prematurely middleaged twenty-five-year-old to more ferocious abhorrence: Linda actually submitted a formal complaint to the Virginia Tourist Board that Jillian Frisk wore the bonnet of her costume at “an historically inaccurate cocky slant.” There was Tatum O’Hagan, the clingy, misbegotten roommate of 1998, who’d seemed to want to become bosom buddies when Jillian first moved in—in fact, the brownie-baking sharing of confidences became a bit much—but who, once Jillian inserted a merciful crack of daylight between the two, came to find her presence so unendurable that she posted a roster of which evenings one or the other could occupy the living room and which hours—different hours—they could cook. There was the officious Olivia Auerbach only two years ago, another unpaid organizer of the annual Maury River Fiddlers Convention, who accused her of “distracting the musicians from their practice” and “overstepping the necessarily humble role of a volunteer.” (And how. Jillian had a sizzling affair with a participant from Tennessee, who knew how to fiddle with more than his bow.)

Tall and slender, with a thick thatch of kinked henna hair that tumbled to her elbows, Jillian had trouble being inconspicuous, and that wasn’t her fault. She supposed she was pretty, though that adjective seemed to have a statute of limitations attached. At forty-three, she’d probably been downgraded to attractive —in preparation, since postmenopausal flattery went unisex, for handsome; gosh, she could hardly wait for well preserved. So she might plausibly dismiss this bafflingly consistent incidence of female animosity as bitchy takedown in a catwalk competition. But when she glanced around Lexington, which flushed every fall with an influx of fetching freshmen from Washington and Lee—whose appearance of getting younger each year helped track her own decay—Jillian was often awed by the profusion of beautiful women in the world, not all of whom could have been unrelenting targets of antagonism. To the contrary, in her high school days in Pittsburgh, when Jillian was gawky and still uncomfortable with her height, students flocked to sunny blond bombshells, who often benefited from a reputation for kindness and generosity purely for bestowing the occasional smile. Her problem wasn’t looks, or looks alone, even if the hair in particular seemed to make a declaration that she didn’t intend. Jillian had hair that you had to live up to. So looking back, it had been naive in the extreme to have innocently posted photographs of various homespun creations in the early days of social media, in anticipation of a few anodyne responses like, “Cute!” or “Super!”—or in anticipation of no response, which would have been fine, too. When instead her set of handmade dishware attracted, “You’re a talentless, amateur hack” and “Suggest trampling these misshapen atrocities into landfill,” Jillian drew back as if having put a hand on a hot stove. By the time that comments on such applications escalated to routine rape threats, she had long since canceled her accounts.

It did seem to irk some sorts that Jillian was a self-confessed dabbler. She taught herself a sprinkling of Italian, for example, but in a spirit of frivolity, and not because she planned to visit Rome but because she liked the sound—the expressive mamma mia up and down of it, the popping carbonation it imparted even to little pencil: “piccola matita.” Yet the phase was to no purpose, and that was the point. Jillian pursued purposelessness as a purpose in itself. It had taken her some years to understand that she’d had such trouble settling on a career because she didn’t want one. She was surrounded by go-getters, and they could have their goals, their trajectories, their aspirations—their feverish toiling toward some distant destination that was bound to disappoint in the unlikely instance they ever got there. Some folks had to savor the world where they were, as opposed to glancing out the driver’s window while tearing off somewhere else. This was less a prescriptive ideology than a simple inclination to languor or even laziness; Jillian cheerfully accepted that. She wasn’t so much out to convert anyone else as to simply stop apologizing.

It was curious how furious it made some people that you didn’t want to “make something of yourself” when you were something already and had no particular desire to change, or that you could declare beamingly that you were “altogether aimless” in a tone of voice that implied this was nothing to be ashamed of. Jillian had recently been informed at the bar of Bistro on Main that, for an expensively educated woman with a better-than-middle-class background who enjoyed ample “opportunities,” having no especial objective aside from enjoying herself was “unAmerican.”

Jillian had the kind of charm that wore off. Or after enough romantic diminuendos, that’s what she theorized. Even for guys, whose gender seemed to preclude the full-fledged anaphylactic shock of an allergic reaction, the profusion of her playful little projects, which were never intended to make a name, or get a gallery, or attract a review in the Roanoke Times, might appear diverting and even a measure entrancing at first, but eventually she’d seem childish, or bats, or embarrassing, and men moved on. With one crucial exception.

From the book: PROPERTY by Lionel Shriver. Copyright © 2018 by Lionel Shriver. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

This segment aired on April 24, 2018.



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