Lionel Shriver specializes in holding a mirror up to first world fears: rampaging teenaged sociopaths, morbid obesity, a healthcare industry more invested in profits than patients. Her most recent novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 presents an America under economic siege. Set in an all-too-near future, Shriver writes a reality too frightening to ignore.
The Mandibles begins in Florence Mandible’s kitchen. The year is 2029. Florence is squabbling with her boyfriend, Esteban, and 13 year-old-son, Willing. Wash your hands in the gray water, not the clean! Whose turn is it to shower in the trickle that has replaced a hot spray? Willing asks what a reserve currency is as Florence contemplates the family supper of ground pork. It’s the first red meat they’ve eaten in months. The decision to serving the meat at a single meal, in generous five-ounce portions, leaves Florence feeling “dizzy with profligacy and abandon”.
The Mandibles are fortunate: Florence has a job, housing, and food. Increasing numbers of Americans do not. An online attack — called a “bloodless war” by President Alvarado” — has rendered the dollar worthless. Now the bancor is in circulation as new world currency. The United States, scrambling to save itself, announces a “reset”, defaulting on all debt, including Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. Further, all gold held in citizen hands must be turned in to the government. Hoarders will be fined or imprisoned.
Early on, Florence and her extended family take comfort in the fortunes of family patriarch Douglas Mandible, aka Great Grand Man. Once the nearly-100-year-old Douglas dies, the money will disburse, sparing them the worst. When that fortune proves elusive, the Mandible family, like the rest of the nation, find themselves tossed back on their own dwindling resources. And their wits, housed largely in the alarmingly precocious Willing.
Shriver offers readers a crisply written rationale as to how and why America’s economy could derail with such blinding speed. While the details are many, the bottom line is simple. As Willing plies his mother with questions, Florence finally admits: “I don’t follow all that economics drear. When I graduated from college, it was all people talked about: derivatives, interest rates, something called LIBOR. I got sick of it, and I wasn’t interested to begin with.”
Boredom rapidly turns to fear and anger as daily life becomes a harrowing exercise in basic survival. Florence, who works in an overflowing homeless shelter, finds herself doing intakes on displaced nuclear physicists. Food shopping becomes a competitive sport as the price of cabbage climbs to $30 per head and oatmeal becomes so scant that shoppers steal from each other’s carts. The day finally arrives when Florence’s cupboards are bare. Willing, who has been dumpster diving, starts stealing food to feed the increasing number of mouths at the table.
Florence is awash in suddenly homeless relatives: her once-wealthy sister Avery, Avery’s economics professor husband, Lowell, and their three spoiled teenaged children have appeared on Florence’s doorstep. Florence’s longtime tenant, Kurt, now inhabits the living room. Meanwhile, Aunt Nollie has left France, coming home to the United States. She’s living Florence’s attic.
Although Florence’s parents, Carter and Jayne, still have their home, they’re also crowded. Great Grand Man’s fortune having evaporated, he’s been kicked out of assisted living with wife Luella, who suffers from early-onset dementia. Carter and Jayne, who are in their 70s, are now caregivers for a near-centenarian and his demented wife.
Civil life has evaporated. There’s no toilet paper. There’s no natural gas to heat homes or run stoves. The silence from Grand Mimi, Great Grand Man’s first wife, is an ominous backstory brought to chilling fruition when Nollie, estranged from her aged mother for decades, ventures into New York City, intent on finding her mother or Margarita, her mother’s longtime caregiver.
Without spoiling the plot, the Mandibles eventually become homeless themselves, making their way to New York City’s Prospect Park. At this point, the plot leaps forward to 2047, where the adult Willing and now 97-year-old Nollie make a break for the Free State of Nevada, a Galt’s Gulch meets The Stand’s Las Vegas, without Randall Flagg presiding as mayor.
The Mandibles is unusual in Shriver’s oeuvre in having a happy ending; while the same may be said about So Much for That, protagonist Shep Knacker paid a heavy price to have his dream of living on Pemba realized. Here, Mandible family happiness is bittersweet. After all, nothing is free.
As I write, Shriver is in the midst of an ugly maelstrom, accused of “cultural appropriation” — or is it “misappropriation”? These kinds of linguistic acrobatics, however well-meant, take us backward. To openly speak, write, and exchange ideas, to imagine oneself as “the other”, is the hallmark of a free society. So, indeed, is the right to be offended. Attempts to quell free expression under the guise of identity politics — or whatever the culture police wish to call it — is simply another name for censorship. Those self-appointed cultural ambassadors currently hurling epithets at Shriver for her postmodernist crimes are well-advised to read The Mandibles and take heed. It can happen here in America. There’s every reason to think it will.