Bleak peek at Amer­ica’s ‘fu­ture’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.