FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

 

More articles by:

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

December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail