Bleak peek at America’s ‘future’
drug!” says Robinson Crusoe as he sits on his island and surveys the European coins, pieces of eight, gold and silver he has found on the shipwreck, “what art thou good for?”
Money proves to be equally useless to the eponymous family in Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles. In the first section, which opens in 2029 and continues into an ever more uncertain future, the US dollar has crashed; in the second section, dated 2047, the economy has stabilised, but as Americans are now chipped and akin to walking credit cards, cash has become “an antiquated store of value”. Like Daniel Defoe’s hero, Shriver’s characters find themselves marooned in a stripped-back, money-less world, and their fight to stay alive as chaos mounts and the possibility of rescue recedes makes for engrossing and thought-provoking reading.
Shriver begins by introducing one Mandible daughter, Florence, her partner Esteban and her son Willing, at home in Brooklyn. Through them we hear of America’s current financial meltdown along with the nationwide power shutdown — “the Stone Age” — which wreaked havoc five years earlier in 2024. The country bounced back from that calamity; however, this new one looks set to cause bigger waves and create longer-lasting damage.
Just when we think the novel will resemble Shriver’s 2003 bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin by revolving around one family and centred on the mother’s perspective, it brings in the rest of Florence’s relatives. We jump to Washington, DC, where Florence’s sister Avery and her husband Lowell are feeling the pinch. When work dries up for both of them that pinch turns into a stranglehold. Meanwhile, the girls’ father, Carter, learns from his father, 97-year-old patriarch and “Great Grand Man” Douglas, that the family fortune — a portion of which each member was counting on — is no more.
What follows is a chain of escalating hard- ship, huge compromises and desperate measures. As more and more Americans have their savings wiped out and all are instructed to hand in their gold, a dog-eat-dog mentality takes hold. The Mandibles seek safety in numbers: every one of them packs into Florence’s cramped household — even Carter’s sister Nollie, relocating from exile in Paris to her home country, now a “pariah nation”. Indoors there is tension from living on top of each other and eking out meagre rations. Outdoors there is anarchy. It isn’t long before the whole family is turfed out on to the streets.
In recent years we have seen several such novels in which characters progress through disaster-struck future years facing grim forecasts and doing battle with increasingly hostile forces. But The Mandibles differs from the likes of James Bradley’s Clade or David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks in its relegation of environ- mental catastrophe to mere background noise. In Shriver’s book it is America’s “fiscal Armageddon” that has precipitated the collapse of civilisation. Her last section sees Willing and Nollie still standing in 2047 and making a perilous trip to defect to the Free State of Nevada. It plays out as a kind of Travails with My Aunt, and along the way shows America’s decline to be terminal, with the best means of survival being to start again elsewhere.
Lionel Shriver’s gloomy vision is punctuated by grim humour