In 1882, Anthony Trollope published a science fiction novel. The Fixed Period was set on Britannula Island, off the coast of New Zealand, in the distant 1980s. Medical advances had posed a unique problem for the British Empire: how to deal with the fact that death had become more or less less optional. The enlightened rulers of Britannula proposed a radical solution – that, in the words of the narrator, “the world should not afford to endure the indignities, weakness and selfish misery of extreme old age”, and that all citizens should be euthanized. to 68.
Although Trollope didn’t get a lot of things into his vision for the future, he did recognize that one of the outcomes of great advances in medical technology would be overcrowding and a new focus on quality, rather than just the amount of life. The subject has been explored in more recent books, both non-fiction – Atul Gawande’s coruscating. Being mortal – and fiction – Don DeLillo’s austere contemplation of the cryogenic industry, Zero K. Now we have Lionel Shriver’s Should we stay or should we go, a tumultuous, sometimes bilious satire novel that asks how long we want to live and how we want to die.
The novel opens with Kay and Cyril Wilkinson, a middle-class couple in their fifties, both employed by the NHS. It’s 1991 and Kay’s father is mired in a painfully prolonged decline, his dementia being a “vortex of unlimited needs.” Kay and Cyril agree – a modest proposal – that on Kay’s 80th birthday (she is a year younger than Cyril), they end their life together with a dose of Seconal. The thinking is clear – they do not wish to be a burden on the NHS, on their three children, on each other. “For creatures, surviving in a state of advanced decomposition is unnatural,” explains Cyril, hyper-rational. “We don’t live any longer. We are dying for longer!
About a third of the way, the novel jumps back in time to the 2010s, with the date of the suicide pact fast approaching. Cyril, a fervent Remainer, lets himself be drawn into Brexit. Kay suffers from a “seizure.” . . of value, what to do with her life now that she did not have any, or would not even have one in such a short time. Now 2020, a year that “sounded like a ridiculous year, an unfathomable year, the stuff of late night movies with spaceships and dying suns pushing the human race to colonize other planets,” is here, and the couple must decide, in more existential terms, whether to go or to stay, to stay or to go.
The rest of the novel has a lot of fun examining all the possible outcomes for the couple, taking the model of Kate Atkinson Life after life and that of Paul Auster 4321 and follow the characters from the date they agreed to end their lives until a number of potential deaths. In one version, Kay takes the Seconal and not Cyril; in another, the order is reversed. In one chapter they find themselves on the Suffolk coast in a posh retirement home in Aldeburgh – “a cross between jury duty and summer camp” – then in the next they are in a horrific institution run by the state called Close of Day Cottages.
The possible futures are getting wilder and wilder. In one, a drug is discovered that reverses aging, and the couple live a life of almost endless utopian happiness, funded by “modern monetary theory”: “Lo, it was more than possible for the government to print. an infinite amount of money. and then give money to its citizens to buy things. In other chapters, things go less well. In one, they are frozen and wake up with a “freezer burn” to find that humanity has evolved to have wings and lives in a vast beehive. In another, Covid-19 triggers a long period of stagflation that is immune to stimuli – “governors have stopped worrying about numbering buying crises after QE12”.
Literary culture is going through a period of sincerity and sentimentality; Unsurprisingly, Shriver is anything but the post and there is something exhilarating about reading such a beautifully heartless novelist, watching her pull her characters’ legs out over and over again. Although it’s almost heretical to say it, I think Shriver’s novels are wonderful. Not only is it salutary to have a provocateur and a gadfly among us, a libertarian Brexiter in a literary culture that otherwise slavishly sticks to the same liberal line, but his books are fun, clever and, perhaps, because unconventional political views of their author, unlike anything you will read.
Should we stay or should we go, by Lionel Shriver, The Borough Press, RRP £ 18.99, 288 pages
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