Shriver, Lionel: The Mandibles, a family 2029-2047

Lionel Shriver is a libertarian southern Democrat, born in 1957, daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Realising herself to be a ‘tomboy’ she felt uncomfortable with her ‘girly’ name, Margaret Ann, and so she changed to Lionel. She has a BA and MFA from Columbia University. She describes herself as an expat, having lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and now mostly in London.  The upside of being an expat, she explains, is that “I live in a larger world, emotionally, politically, and intellectually”.  Rather little can be found of her private life, except that she is a keen cyclist and is married to a jazz drummer. Interesting insights into her character and views can be read in Bomb magazine: http://bombmagazine.org/article/2774/ where she is described as ferociously intelligent, uncompromising, independent, opinionated, driven, scorchingly funny, contrary, passionate.

This is her 12th novel.  The most well-known was her seventh, about a school shooting, called We Need to Talk about Kevin. It was awarded the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, and became a movie in 2011. She is also a successful journalist, writing for the New York Times and the Guardian. She would legalise all drugs and stay out of foreign wars. She is critical of government, noting that in the USA there are 170,000 pages of Federal Regulations and it costs 6 trillion dollars annually to enforce them. This quote gives a flavor of her work: “In an era of weaponised sensitivity participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity that many are apt to bow out”. And also “to progress is merely to go forward and you can go forward into a pit”.

Turning now to the book itself: the year is 2029. The author tells the story of a family living in the USA, where the economy has collapsed. The national debt has risen to an unsustainable level, and the dollar is all but worthless. The Federal Government sends the army to people’s homes, looking for gold to confiscate, including small items like wedding rings. Some go to extraordinary lengths to hide gold items of great sentimental value, but there are harsh penalties for those who are caught. The financial crisis afflicts the whole western world, and to restore stability the International Monetary Fund, supported by countries including Putin’s Russia and super-rich China, has recently launched a new currency unit, the bancor. The US refuses to use it, and makes the bancor illegal in America – possession constitutes treason. How rapidly America has changed: by 2027 the US President is currently a Latino and the first language is Spanish.

The story follows the fortunes of a Manhattan family, the Mandibles. Great grandfather Douglas Mandible sits on a fortune made long ago but is now a sprightly 97-year-old and has shown no signs of passing the family wealth to children and grandchildren. Now it’s too late: the president ‘resets’ the national debt, treasury bonds become void, and the family fortune is wiped out. The family includes his dementia-impaired wife, and his daughter Enola who lugs around a paper-copy of her latest book. One family member is a therapist, one works in a homeless shelter and one is an economics professor. But the economist loses his job because funds for universities are not what they were and his particular flavour of economics is considered inappropriate for the times. As the economy crashes out of control, crime soars, looting is commonplace, people lose their homes and there is a food and water crisis. Property rights evaporate and fourteen Mandibles end up in one small house. Desperate measures are required to survive: grandson Willing is good at stealing whilst the 17-year old Savanna becomes a successful prostitute. No questions are asked.

Through skillful use of dialogue the author’s views on global economics are articulated. Flows of money and social behaviour are collectively a good example of a complex system that can go wildly out of control. We are reminded “Money is emotional… worth what people feel it’s worth. They accept it in exchange for goods, and services, because they have faith in it. Economics is closer to religion than science.”

The plot itself moves rather slowly. When things seem completely desperate the novel fast-forwards to 2047, and we see that things have reached a new and rather more tolerable quasi-stable state.  Law and order are restored. The currency is now a new dollar linked to the bancor. Citizens are given a cranially-implanted chip that records their financial transactions so that tax can be accurately levied. Not everyone is chipped: there is an outside world, where people are un-chipped and live a simple pastoral life. This appeals to Willing, who tests the widespread belief that crossing the border to join the un-chipped world will trigger an explosion in one’s head.  And there is another border – a fence between US and Mexico to keep out the illegal American immigrants.

What did we make of the tale? We spent much time discussing whether it could actually happen. We decided it could, although we struggled with the economic theory. None of us are economists, but between us we reached an adequate grasp. There seem to be four possible ways in which our society might conceivably collapse: economic Armageddon, spread of a deadly virus, revolution against the government and climate change, or any combination of the four. The book reminds us that we need to take care, our civilisation is much more fragile than most people realise.

Is the book anti-American? Yes, it is. In the book, the US in no longer a supreme power, the American dream has evaporated and there is little hope of a full recovery. Almost all the characters are behaving badly – Shriver has said she likes to craft hard-to-love characters.  No one is a hero although Willing comes close to being the protagonist. In fact the character development is rather weak, as in most science fiction. But this isn’t really science fiction – it is a new genre, rather like a book we read some months ago, Submission by Michel Houellebecq, which dealt with another kind of crisis and was also set in the near future but this time in France.

We agreed that the story is highly topical. It was written well before Trump became the US president and just before the Brexit vote. Both of these turns of events persuade us that our liberal Western democracies have become inherently unstable – practically anything is possible – something which few people are prepared to accept or even discuss. The thought of dystopia inevitably disturbs and undermines our very existence. Yet our nations are increasingly polarised, moving towards what one Mandible describes near the end of the book: “Government becomes a pricey, clumsy, inefficient mechanism for transferring wealth from people who do something to people who don’t, and from the young to the old — which is the wrong direction.”

Some said the book contains humour but others were unconvinced. There are distant cousins called Goog and Bing, named after search engines. Ho ho. Why is the family called Mandible?  Presumably because they are examples of greedy consumers. The ‘joke’ is that they are the ones that will always suffer most in a financial meltdown, and others may laugh at their humiliation. An example of shadenfreude, presumably.  Above all, Shriver likes to shock, and in doing so there isn’t much room for humour.

We agreed it is an interesting book, but the interest comes mostly in thinking about and discussing the shocking issues raised. Yes, we might all have to face an economic Armageddon. Be prepared.