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In Lionel Shriver’s entertaining send-up of today’s cult of exercise—which not only encourages better health, but now like all religions also seems to promise meaning, social superiority, and eternal life—an aging husband’s sudden obsession with extreme sport makes him unbearable.
After an ignominious early retirement, Remington announces to his wife Serenata that he’s decided to run a marathon. This from a sedentary man in his sixties who’s never done a lick of exercise in his life. His wife can’t help but observe that his ambition is “hopelessly trite.” A loner, Serenata disdains mass group activities of any sort. Besides, his timing is cruel. Serenata has long been the couple’s exercise freak, but by age sixty, her private fitness regimes have destroyed her knees, and she’ll soon face debilitating surgery. Yes, becoming more active would be good for Remington’s heart, but then why not just go for a walk? Without several thousand of your closest friends?
As Remington joins the cult of fitness that increasingly consumes the Western world, her once-modest husband burgeons into an unbearable narcissist. Ignoring all his other obligations, he engages a saucy, sexy personal trainer named Bambi, who treats Serenata with contempt. When Remington sets his sights on the legendarily grueling triathlon, MettleMan, Serenata is sure he’ll end up injured or dead. And even if he does survive, their marriage may not.
The Motion of the Body Through Space is vintage Lionel Shriver written with psychological insight, a rich cast of characters, lots of verve and petulance, an astute reading of contemporary culture, and an emotionally resonant ending.
Shriver's bitter satire of the elite exercise industry (after the collection Property) huffs along with sobering reflections on aging. Serenata Terpsichore and Remington Alabaster, married for 32 years, have recently moved to Hudson, N.Y., in the wake of Remington losing his civil engineering job in Albany. The couple's bumptious domestic bickering comes to a head after sedentary Remington, at 64, announces he will run marathon. Serenata, who's been a runner for years, scolds him for the unwelcome "incursion into her territory." Nevertheless, Remington trains, buys neon-colored running gear and a "brushed-steel, state-of-the-art" treadmill with surround sound. At the finish line, he is accompanied by Bambi Buffer, a late 30-something woman in a lavender sports bra whom Serenata derisively refers to as an "anatomy illustration." Bambi encourages Remington toward a new goal, the Lake Placid MettleMan Triathlon. With Serenata as a mouthpiece, Shriver casts her familiar brand of mordant humor at easy targets, but unlike in the work of Edward St. Aubyn, for instance, the narrator's meanness serves no apparent purpose, and the razor-sharp observation isn't balanced by self-implication. The result is underwhelming.