The Culture Warriors Are Coming for You Smart People

MANIA, by Lionel Shriver

As a novelist, Lionel Shriver has made her strongest impressions selecting some hot issue of the day — school shootings, the American health care system, the ballooning of the U.S. national debt — and working it into a well-paced drama about its effects on one family. When this formula works, as it did best with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2003), the result can be riveting and also very popular. The intimacy of domestic politics moderates Shriver’s polemical side, which, when given free rein — as during an infamous 2016 speech she gave on cultural appropriation while wearing a sombrero — usually turns out to be smug, crude and obtuse.

In Shriver’s tiresome new novel, “Mania,” the balance is off. “Mania” is the story of Pearson Converse, an untenured academic who lives with her tree-surgeon partner and three children in a Pennsylvania college town. Most of the novel takes place during an alternate version of the 2010s, when a social-justice fad has been ignited by a best-selling book titled “The Calumny of I.Q.: Why Discrimination Against ‘Dumb People’ Is the Last Great Civil Rights Fight.”

Pearson’s son gets sent home from school for using “the D-word,” now considered a slur. Lawn signs appear in the neighborhood announcing “We support cognitive neutrality.” Student “predators” haunt the literature course Pearson teaches at the local liberal arts college, hungrily searching for any slip-up suggesting that she thinks some people are smarter than others, so they can report her to the administration and get her sacked. Worst of all, Pearson’s best friend from girlhood, Emory Ruth, boosts her TV career by taping editorials endorsing the new ideology known as Mental Parity.

In real life, partisan rancor typically fuels culture-war initiatives like this; in Shriver’s imaginary America, it barely exists. The new ethos gets rapidly and improbably adopted by everybody in every walk of life, regardless of political affiliation. Mental Parity not only borrows from the left’s obsession with egalitarianism, safetyism and language hygiene but also draws on the right’s mistrust of expertise and credentialism; it could have bipartisan appeal if it weren’t so patently absurd.

Soon, Barack Obama is out of favor for being “outstandingly astute, eloquent and well informed,” and replaced by Joe Biden, who makes a point of installing a Treasury secretary who’s “not only an imbecile but an imbecile who was recognizably an imbecile — someone whose speech and affect were conspicuously vacuous.” Similar incompetents are ordered to take out Osama bin Laden, a failed mission that leaves him free to bomb the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

Pearson’s partner, Wade, is forced to hire an assistant who knows nothing about arboriculture and drops a branch on him. Because medical degrees are “now handed out as carelessly as shopping fliers,” a young surgeon botches the ankle surgery his injuries require. Then Wade nearly dies after untrained nurses administer the wrong medication and is saved only by a doctor in his 50s, a relic from the good old days who has the temerity to know what he’s doing.

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