~Welcome to the World, Baby Girl~
On the 1st of November 2011 a baby girl called Nargis was born in Lucknow, India and was proclaimed in an entirely unprovable but interesting PR stunt as being the 7 billionth human being on our planet. The Indian papers were not slow to spot the irony of both her gender and her birthplace, pointing out that female infanticide and foeticide in Lucknow are so common that there are just 899 girls for every 1000 boys. Many would ask if the 7 billionth human is something that should be celebrated, claiming that it's a milestone that marks trouble ahead. But for me, reading about little Nargis at the same time as I was reading Lionel Shriver's novel 'Game Control' was a fascinating coincidence because Game Control is about the global population boom and what it means for the future.
Eleanor Merritt is an American-born aid worker in her late 30s travelling around her part of Africa with a briefcase full of condoms and preaching birth control in a land where nobody's taking much notice. Eleanor is a woman who's easy to ignore even though she speaks Swahili and tries very hard to please everyone. She feels terribly embarrassed about having staff, is a soft touch for every one around her with their hand out and suffers (or perhaps enjoys) social invisibility. Eleanor lacks confidence in herself and her professional role and wonders if she'll ever find a man to make her feel special. Every relationship goes bad - for example there was one guy who went back to the USA for three weeks holiday and just never came back. Keeping that in mind, she seems to be barking up entirely the wrong tree by falling for Calvin Piper, the ex-elephant culler turned demographer and disgraced ex-head of an American aid agency who was sacked for supplying abortion equipment to African clinics. Eleanor and Calvin have 'history' - they shared a single night of what might be called passion in any other man but seems misplaced in his case a decade and a half before but Calvin's changed.
~Calvin and Wallace - Chalk and cheese~
Calvin has given up on sex and pretty much given up on emotions and humankind too though he seems to have a grudging fondness for his pet green monkey who travels around sitting on his shoulder. Calvin is a man so cold and misanthropic that he tells anyone who'll listen that the only way forward is mass control of the population. He points out that birth control just isn't working and the planet can't keep supporting the booming population. Something drastic is needed and he has plenty of rat experiments up his sleeve to paint a picture of what would happen to society if nothing is done to stem the human flood. In the opposite corner sits his arch nemesis, Wallace Threadgill, who maintains that population growth fires up creativity, leads to evolution and the generation of great ideas and invention. He puts it to Eleanor that in the time it took for the world population to double, food output went up four-fold. Population growth must therefore be a good thing. The truth probably sits somewhere between the two ideas of the two men but neither is flexible.
~How many is too many?~
Game Control takes the issue of population control far further than might be expected in a novel with a love story at its heart but perhaps given that it's a Lionel Shriver novel we shouldn't be surprised. Why would a woman best known for tackling the issues of a mother who hates her child and a child who becomes a killer (in We Need to Talk About Kevin) be nervous about proposing an audacious plan to wipe out one third of humanity? For that's what Calvin Piper has in mind and along the way he wants to corrupt Eleanor and recruit her to his cause. When Eleanor accidentally finds out more than she needed or wanted to know about the mysterious QUIETUS organisation, she's got no real option but to get involved and work with Calvin. The question is who will corrupt whom? Can Calvin 'turn' Eleanor before her inherent 'goodness' does him in?
~Did it work for me?~
The book is set in Tanzania and Kenya with occasional forays off to other parts of the world but the African 'angle' is fascinating. I have a friend currently working in West Africa for (of all the crazy and unlikely organisations) the Tony Blair Faith Foundation after spending a year with VSO. In under 2 years she's already pretty burned out by the African aid 'circus' so I can only imagine how long timers like Eleanor, Calvin and Wallace could lose their grasp of reality. Shriver is fantastic at describing the Kenyan city where much of the action takes place. In one passage she describes a building where Calvin has an office as having "the rounded contours preferred by architects in the mid-sixties with a penchant for designing office buildings to resemble giant toiletries" before going on to say that this looks like a 22-storey tampon holder. When I read that I knew EXACTLY what she meant and exactly how such a buildling would look.
I know there are many people who think that natural and man-made disasters in Africa and elsewhere are just mother nature redressing the balance and who think wishy washy bleeding heart liberals (small 'l') like myself are just mugs for supporting disaster relief so I came at this book from a stance that made me naturally anti-everything Calvin stood for. As he develops his devious plans to annihilate two billion people, even I couldn't help but get caught up in what was going on. Would AIDS do the job for Calvin and QUIETUS or would their secret high tech lab come up with a fiendishly demonic virus or plague to achieve their mission? Calvin should surely have had a bald head and a white Persian cat rather than no sex-drive and a tame monkey.
There's a lot to admire about Shriver's book - the creativity for a start, the wonderfully villainous baddie and the juxtaposing of the culling of animals with the problem of human overpopulation. Shriver is never scared to make her 'heroines' hard to like or her plot lines difficult to swallow and of the three of her books that I've read, poor weak love-lorn Eleanor is probably the least detestable leading lady despite all her failings. Shriver explains in an afterword in my Harper edition that the book lost her the support of her American publisher and cost her a year living in Nairobi and no book had been harder to write. I can believe all those things. If you think of the vitriol she received for 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' from people who accuse her of hating children just because her character guns down dozens of his classmates, you can only imagine how the publishers thought a book proposing to kill off 2 billion people would go down. She tells us a large part of the hard copy run was unsold and went to pulp.
A few things just didn't work for me though. Chief amongst these was the repeated appearances of Panga, Calvin's dead ex-lover who brings a ridiculous sense that the author has lost touch with what's otherwise a harshly realistic look at what a man with a mission and good funding might be able to do. Calvin books an extra seat on the plane and room in a hotel for Panga so she won't have to 'sit on the wing'. I would happily have seen Shriver's editor take a big thick red pen through all the passages referring to Panga's ghost. The woman herself is perhaps needed as an explanation for Calvin's coldness but her ghost is just a silly detour that doesn't add credibility to the story. The mysterious research centre and the evil cabal of baddies gathered around Calvin are very 1970's James Bond in flavour but if you're going to buy into the idea of mass murder on an unprecedented scale, why shouldn't you accept some colourful characters? Even Calvin shows a tiny glimmer or humanity - he's asked the scientists to please come up with something that won't kill Jews because they've already had a bad enough time in the Second World War.
I didn't like or enjoy 'We Need to Talk About Kevin', I loved 'The Post Birthday World' but I think 'Game Control has just crept ahead of TPBW on my Shriver list. I've a couple more at home to try - I think I'll be bumping them up the pile after reading this one.