This review first appeared on The Spinoff on 30 June 2016
In humans, the mandible is the largest and strongest bone in the face. In insects, mandibles are those freaky appendages near the mouth, used to grab food and fend off rivals. In Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, the Mandibles are an American family fighting to survive, including by fending off rivals for food, following the collapse of the greenback in 2029.
When The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 opens, the small and not especially close New York clan are held together by an infuriatingly hardy patriarch. Douglas Mandible is 94, incredibly wealthy, and still dominates his rivals on the tennis court. His family have been waiting for him to die for a long time, but won’t admit it.
Meanwhile, the US foreign debt is out of control. China and Russia demand to be repaid in a new international currency of their invention, the bancor. In protest, America’s first Latino President defaults on the debt, sending the dollar and the Dow into freefall. The Mandible fortune is almost instantly wiped out, along with the savings of millions of Americans. All gold, including jewellery, is recalled by the US Treasury (something that could technically happen tomorrow under emergency economic powers still on the books).
Old Douglas Mandible is unconcerned until he gets kicked out of his high-end retirement village with his much younger (but demented) second wife. His son Carter, well into his 70s, rues that he’ll never be able to retire to that ranch in Montana. Grand-daughter Avery, a kook therapist and housewife in her 40s, keeps throwing dinner parties, hiding the receipts so she won’t have to admit how much she paid for smoked salmon and olive oil. Her husband Lowell, an economics professor, insists the market will self-correct any minute, and resents younger colleagues getting all the “expert commentator” airtime.
Only Avery’s sister Florence, who works at a homeless shelter and lives with her Mexican boyfriend, doesn’t take much notice, because she didn’t have any savings in the first place. Her household already knows how to make one cabbage last a week and wash the dishes in grey water.
The point is well made – millions of Americans already live like this. In Shriver’s apocalypse, wealthy white baby-boomers have the most to fear.
Eventually, all the Mandibles are all under the same roof, hungry, unemployed (except Florence, homeless shelters being one service left for which there is plenty of demand), and sick to the back teeth of each other. Even then, most cling to the fantasy that it’s a temporary state of affairs. Only Florence’s 14-year-old son Willing, who takes it upon himself to keep his hapless relations alive, and his novelist great-aunt Nollie, who flies in from France for a front-row seat to the carnage, can see what’s coming.
Shriver is good at making her readers confront things they’d rather not think about. Most famously, she made everyone talk about Kevin, back when school shootings in the US were still shocking and rare. Her other novels deal in uncomfortable truths about morbid obesity and terrorism. Now she’s written a gripping novel about fiscal and monetary policy, and the punchline is this: America is fucked.
Shriver has admitted in interviews that as someone interested in the arts, she used to think economics was irrelevant. This makes her impeccable research even more impressive; the whole thing could double as an undergraduate economics syllabus. But to pull this book off, she has to somehow walk readers through the fictional equivalent of Economics for Dummies, while at the same time introducing multiple complex characters and filling in the gaps between 2016 and her fictional 2029. She does this by having the characters hash it out over the dinner table, and because she writes killer dialogue she mostly gets away with it.
There are plenty of these self-referential writerly jokes, and they’re funny if you like that kind of thing. Willing tells Nollie,“Now isn’t a time for novels. Nothing made up is more interesting than what’s actually happening. We’re in a novel.” Nollie (an anagram of Lionel) is Shriver having a laugh at her own expense: a semi-famous one-hit-wonder novelist, she still dresses the way she did when was 30, completes 3000 jumping jacks a day, and carts around a box of unpublished manuscripts and early drafts in case a university library ever wants to buy them. This in a future in which paper books are non-existent and universities are going the same way.
I’ve always been interested in what fiction can do politically that other forms of analysis can’t. In The Mandibles, Shriver uses fiction to fatally expose another fiction: that small pieces of paper and numbers on a screen hold any value whatsoever. The whole notion of a currency only works as long as everyone chooses to fervently believe the same collective fiction. Once that’s gone, other convenient fictions start to fall like dominoes – the rule of law, private property, “America”.
As it happens, I read much of this novel in America, and discussed it with American friends. Shriver’s future didn’t feel like much of a stretch to them, and I was glad to be flying home to New Zealand. It’s a curious, informative and discomforting read, and I was left wondering what to do with the vivid preview of a very possible future. Shriver’s intention is certainly to warn. What’s not so clear is whether she’s warning so the crisis can be averted, or so prudent readers can get as far away as possible before it strikes.