Review: Lionel Shriver’s “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047”

People who read Lionel Shriver’s dystopian novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-47, last summer when it was published may have said ho-hum; it won’t happen here. At that time Donald Trump was looking increasingly scary, but few people believed he could be elected. Nine months later, reading Shriver’s sizzling novel is downright frightful. How prescient, and Shriver doesn’t even mention Trump in her story. Nor does she need to because the United States in this disturbing novel is depicted as a nation that has gone under the wrecking ball and barely survived, at least as the country it once was. It’s a clever, exasperating story, so frightfully good that you want to slap the writer on her back and thank her for her insights, even if much of the time as you read The Mandibles, you feel like checking the Internet to make certain the country still exists.

To wit, in 2029, the dollar has just crashed in Europe, because the USA has defaulted on its loans, after the debt has reached close to 300 percent of the GDP.  President Alvarado, who is a Lat (Latino) announces that all treasuries are null and void, that all gold has been called in, and that citizens can leave the country with no more than $100. That’s not going to help them because the international community has issued a new currency, the bancor, and no one wants useless American dollars. Food has become a real scarcity. One character is pleased that she’s found a grocery store that sells cabbages for $20. For years, American money has been virtually worthless; telecommunications and the national defense system have collapsed. Earlier attempts to fix the country’s economic mess were unsuccessful. No countries will loan money to the United States. The retirement age to collect Social Security has already been mandiblesmoved to 69, then 72, and finally to 75. The gold, it is rumored, will be sent to China, to bribe them not to invade us. Much of the novel is about economics, demonstrating a remarkable understanding on Shriver’s part. You wonder if she should be Secretary of the Treasury, instead of Steve Mnuchin.

Almost everything that isn’t economic is also a mess, pretty much throughout the world. “People believed whatever suited them,” which can be argued is already true. The New York Times no longer exists, but neither do any other newspapers. People use something called a fleXscreen to keep up with the news. It can be folded so it fits in your pocket but opened up and extended to the size of a large TV screen. Outside the USA, things are also quite dire but not as bad as within our country. There’s no reason to take a safari in Tanzania, for example, because there are no longer any animals. Education has become so minimal that one of the main characters who is still in secondary school observes that “his classmates couldn’t write their own names.” Another of his observations: “Nobody at my school reads anything. They use ear buds, and get read to.” The Chinese have begun outsourcing their manufacturing to the United States where they can hire workers at lower wages.

That’s the context into which Shriver introduces the Mandibles, a family, once filthy rich, but which—like everyone else—loses almost everything during the latest economic collapse. The focus is on Florence and her son, Willing, still in his teens, and Florence’s partner (but not her son’s father), Esteban, also a Lat. As the novel unfolds, Florence, who is 44, and her son, who is 13, are arguing over water. This makes sense because not much is left anywhere. Showers are down to once a week, and the water for washing dishes has already been recycled. There are references to the Stoneage, an earlier economic calamity that has left most people broke. But the Mandible patriarch (Florence’s grandfather, Douglass, who is 97) has kept the family estate—made from an engine business in the 19th century—under tight control. Douglass divorced his wife years ago and married a woman thirty years younger, but he’s paid his price for that move because his much younger wife, Luella, is suffering from dementia. So he has to take care of her—quite the opposite of what he intended.

The Mandibles have had a fairly rough time, especially Lowell, one of Douglass’s grandsons. He’s been a professor of economics at Georgetown, but lost his job (he didn’t foresee the economic catastrophes). He’s mugged on the street, even losing his shoes. When they all realize that the patriarch’s money has also been lost, most of the people in the extended family move in with Florence, the only person who still holds down a job. It’s a fairly riotous scene, with thirteen people all living in Florence’s house (Douglass and his second wife, his children, grandchildren, his great-grandson Willing, plus Willing’s cousins). Then a neighbor forces them out of the house at gunpoint, and the entire brood of Mandibles is left on the street of Brooklyn.  The streets are also filled with homeless people and thousands of cats and dogs, dumped by their owners who can no longer afford to feed them.

Thirteen-year-old Willing is the most practical of the bunch, and an economic whiz-kid. He’s also the mortal center of the family, disturbed that Luella is tied up when they are all stacked together in his mother’s house. He feels that her dementia has been contagious. “No one made beds, or picked up, or took out the garbage. They hardly cooked, and there were no mealtimes. Someone would idly open soup and eat straight from the can.” It’s Willing who guides the family out of the city, once they’ve been forced out of their house, takes them to another part of the state and eventually beyond that. But that’s in the final section of the novel, which takes us to 2047 and even beyond, clever again in so many ways but also the slowest part of the story.

The Mandibles is dynamite fiction, often comic in spite of the dire circumstances presented in the story. As I mentioned earlier, as much as anything the novel is an economic fantasy of what will inevitably go wrong with the county (and the world) if it fails to address its economic excesses. And that takes us back to Trump (and his predecessors) because the novel subtly probes the issues of failed leadership, especially the lies those leaders unleash to protect the few while sacrificing the rest. Nations can collapse just as easily as family dynasties. Thus, it’s the old issue of leadership. Or the lack thereof.

Lionel Shriver: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
Harper, 402 pp., $27.99


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.