The Mandibles review: future shock family
Lionel Shriver finds the ‘funny side of moral dilemmas beyond our wildest nightmares’ in a ‘bubbling, spitting pot’ of a novel set in a collapsing society, writes Sara Baume
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
Halfway through the first chapter of The Mandibles, Florence, a fortysomething homeless-shelter employee, is standing over a kitchen sink of grubby water and talking with her 13-year-old son. The year is 2029 and America is about to capsize into financial crisis, followed by famine, a wave of crime, widespread displacement.
From the living room, the boy, Willing, asks his mother what a “reserve currency” is . When Florence replies: “I don’t follow all that economics drear”, I irresistibly nodded my agreement. But Lionel Shriver is, obviously, terrifically interested in exactly such “drear” – “interest rates”, “open market operations”, “bond auctions” and “margin calls”. She has, obviously, been consumed by her research and wishes for readers to be infected by her fiscal enthusiasm.
In the chapters to come, many a page is taken up by discussions between members of the Mandible family and their cohorts as they attempt to explain to one another what has happened and what might. This is a not-too-distant epoch in which children are no longer able to write with a pen and paper, but instead understand perfectly the specifics of monetising national debt.
After a while, I stopped trying to follow matters pecuniary and allowed myself to be absorbed by Shriver’s meticulously imagined version of the future, and by the American family whose lives are each being unexpectedly and extravagantly affected by the crisis.
The chapters alternate between Mandibles. At the helm is ancient Douglas E, who lives in a luxurious retirement home, the Wellcome Arms, with his dementia-riddled second wife, Luella.
His expat only daughter, Nollie, a once-successful author, has lived in Paris for decades but feels forced, in her 70s, to return home. Europeans, apparently, can no longer tolerate the American of the species: “They’ve always hated us for being crass, and for ruling the world,” she says. “Now they hate us for not ruling the world.”
Carter, Nollie’s only brother, is a well-off ex-journalist who has just gifted his spoilt youngest son, Jarred, a farm in upstate New York. In DC, Carter’s middle child Avery is married to a tenured professor with three children in private school. Then there’s Florence in Brooklyn, with her perspicacious son and “Lat” – Latin American – boyfriend.
And, as far as everyone in the family is given to understand, there is a fortune. Or, at least, there was. By the third chapter it’s clear that the patriarch’s “portfolio” is imperilled by the national situation. By the seventh, Carter is parked outside the Wellcome Arms packing as many of his father’s newly worthless possessions as possible into his car, as well as the old man and his dotty spouse.
The horrors of the future as conjured by Shriver are chillingly plausible. People survive into their hundreds, and many of the young people are employed by services that care for them in some form. A cabbage costs $20 and up. Education is more usually perceived to be a financial impediment as opposed to an ethical benefit. The obese have “majority status”. The latest music craze is “beastRap, comprising birdcalls, wolf howls, lion roars, cat purrs, and barking” – presumably out of nostalgia, since there are barely any safari animals left in Tanzania.
“Nothing made up is more interesting than what’s actually happening”, Willing says. And, perhaps because everything here has been made up in careful accord to what might actually happen, it is fascinating indeed.
Part one unfolds disaster after disaster, coming to an abrupt and momentous stop in 2038. When part two picks up the story nine years on, the Mandibles have suffered a multitude of indignities.
In 2047, everyday life remains characteristically gloomy and ominous. The US economy is cautiously back on track, though many citizens have died due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and almost every last living American has a chip implanted in the back of their neck through which the government is able to control their finances.
Now the newest craze is for music “drawn from the sounds of bygone mechanisms” – dial-up internet collections, washing machines, mobile phones.
Shriver is to be applauded for finding the funny side of moral dilemmas beyond our wildest nightmares, and for bravely incorporating toilet humour into literary fiction. As things go steadily downhill throughout the 2030s, a shortage of loo roll means the family must resort to fashioning “ass napkins” from old clothing, described so elegantly as “harlequin squares piled in sprightly towers like vertical quilts”.
She is also brazen in the face of political correctness; much fun is to be had at the expense of Luella’s unsystematic destruction and whimsical ramblings.
The inappropriateness is in keeping with the moral code of this particular future: “[T]hey had now entered a hard-assed era of American culture during which all that gutless guff about ADHD, gluten intolerance, and emotional support animals was out the window.”
The Mandibles is anything but a subtle novel, and Shriver has always been a writer who errs toward the most controversial position possible. Her staple topics are wealth obsession, physical decline, the inherent cruelty of human nature. She is a natural observer of follies. Her previous novel, Big Brother (2013), cast a cutting, candid eye on America’s weight problem – or rather, America’s attitude problem with regard to weight.
In 2012, Shriver published, to excoriating reviews, The New Republic, a satirical novel about terrorism that was originally completed in 1998. Most recently she has attracted attention for repudiating Kamila Shamsie’s campaign for a woman-only year of publishing in 2018.
This, her 12th novel, can be accused of many things. It’s a bubbling, spitting pot of its author’s agendas, but laced with Shriver’s spicy intellect, her unapologetic eye for detail, her suitcase of deviant ideas, it is also a salient, spellbinding read.
I’d recommend approaching The Mandibles in a spirit of fun and of argument; I suspect its author would concur.
Sara Baume is the author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither