Eleanor Merritt, a do-gooding American family-planning worker, was drawn to Kenya to improve the lot of the poor. Unnervingly, she finds herself falling in love with the beguiling Calvin Piper despite, or perhaps because of, his misanthropic theories about population control and the future of the human race. Surely, Calvin whispers seductively in Eleanor's ear, if the poor are a responsibility they are also an imposition.
Set against the vivid backdrop of shambolic modern-day Africa--a continent now primarily populated with wildlife of the two-legged sort--Lionel Shriver's Game Control is a wry, grimly comic tale of bad ideas and good intentions. With a deft, droll touch, Shriver highlights the hypocrisy of lofty intellectuals who would "save" humanity but who don't like people.
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June 30, 2007
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Excerpt from Game Control by Lionel Shriver
The Curse of the Uninvited
'Not on the list,' the askari declared grandly.
'Perhaps. . .' the other voice oiled, deceptively polite, 'one of the organizers... Dr Kendrick?' Exaggerated patience made a mockery of good manners.
With the bad luck that would characterize the next five days, Aaron Spring was just passing the entranceway. Swell. The last thing any population conference needed was Calvin Piper.
The Director bustled brusquely to the door. 'It's quite all right,' he assured the African with a sticky smile. 'This is Dr Piper. Is there some problem with his registration?'
'This man is not on my list,' the askari insisted.
'There must have been some oversight.' Spring scanned the clipboard. 'Let's enter him in, so this doesn't happen again.'
The Kikuyu glared. 'Not with that animal.'
Reluctantly, the Director forced himself to look up. Wonderful. A green monkey was gooning on Calvin's shoulder, teeth bared. Spring slipped the askari twenty shillings. That was not even a dollar, but the price of this visit was just beginning.
The interloper looked interestedly around the foyer, as if pointing out that he had not been here for some time and things might have changed.
'So good to see you.' Spring shook his predecessor's limp hand.
'You're just in time to catch the opening reception. What happened with your registration, man?'
'Not a thing. What registration?'
'There must have been some mistake.'
'Not a-tall. I wasn't invited.'
Spring winced. Piper had a slight British accent, though his mother was American and he'd spent years in DC. The nattiness of Piper's tidy sentences made Spring's voice sound twangy and crass.
The Director led his ward through the sterile lobby. The Kenyatta International Conference Centre was spacious but lacked flair--wooden slatted with the odd acute angle whose determination to seem modern had guaranteed that the architecture would date in a matter of months. Kenyans were proud of the building, the way, Spring reflected, they were so reliably delighted by anything Western, anything they didn't make. All the world's enlightened elite seemed enthralled with African culture except the Africans themselves, who would trade quaint thatch for condos at the drop of a hat.
'Couldn't you at least have left the monkey home?' he appealed.
'Come, Maithus is a good prop, don't you think? Like Margaret Meade's stick.'
God rest her soul, Spring had always abhorred Meade's silly stick. 'Just like it.'
Spring hurried ahead. Having assumed the leadership of USAID's Population Division six long, fatiguing years before, surely by now he might be spared the pawing deference the Director Emeritus still, confound the man, inspired in him. He reminded himself that much of his own work that five years had been repairing the damage Piper had done to the reputation of population assistance worldwide. And by now Spring was well weary of his own staff's nostalgic stories of Piper's offensive mouthing off to African presidents. Why, you would never guess from their fond reminiscences that many of those same staff members had ratted on this glorified game-show host at their first opportunity. All right, Spring was aware he wasn't colourful--he did not travel with a green monkey, he did not gratuitously insult statesmen, he did not detest the very people he was employed to assist, and his pockets did not spill black, red and yellow condoms every time he reached for his handkerchief.
Behind his back Spring vilified Piper, but perhaps to compensate for going all gooey face to face. Here was a character whose politics, having veered so far left they had ended on the far right instead, Spring deplored as uncompassionate and irresponsible. Spring aspired to despise Piper, but he would never get that far. He would only be free to dislike the urbane, unruffleable, horribly wry has-been once sure that Piper adored and respected him first--that is, never.
And Piper made him feel fat. Piper was the older although he didn't look it, and was surely one of those careless types who never gave a thought to what they ate, while Spring jogged four joyless miles a day, and had given up ice-cream.
'You ruined that Kuke's day, you know,' Calvin was commenting about the askari. 'He loved barring my way. You get a lot of wazungu rolling their eyes about Africans and bureaucracy, how they revel in its petty power--but how they don't understand it, wielding stamps and forms like children playing office. I've come to believe they understand bureaucracy perfectly well. After all, most petty power isn't petty at all, is it?