|04-04-2017, 04:02 PM||#1|
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THE MANDIBLES A Family, 2029-2047 Post Collapse Life in America
A Family, 2029-2047
By Lionel Shriver
402 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.
Florence Darkly suffers from all the typical problems of the middle-class Brooklynite. With cabbage up to $20 a head, the grocery bill is a constant struggle. Owing to chronic water shortages, she and her teenage son can shower only once a week. Her morning ritual no longer includes coffee — climate change has ruined the arabica bean crop — or The New York Times, which has long since folded (“God rest its soul”), along with every other newspaper. As a white woman in an America where Latinos are now the socially dominant ethnic group, she remembers her marginalization every time a robotic voice on the phone instructs her to press 1 for Spanish and 2 for English.
But Florence is better off than most. She owns her own house in rapidly gentrifying East Flatbush. After years of being displaced at work by bots (now called robs, “for obvious reasons”), she knows her job at a homeless shelter in Fort Greene is secure — “the one thing New York City was bound never to run out of was homeless people.” She even has a safety net: the fortune amassed generations earlier by the family patriarch, Elliot Mandible, pieces of which trickle down in times of need.
This future is only 13 years away, as Lionel Shriver depicts it in “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047,” her searing exemplar of a disquieting new genre — call it dystopian finance fiction. When the novel opens, America is perched on the cusp of catastrophe, though no one knows it yet. The population is still reeling from the aftershocks of “the Stonage” (an abridgment of Stone Age), the technology blackout in 2024 that brought the entire country to a halt, an event at least as traumatic for this generation as Sept. 11 was for their parents. China has already established itself as the world’s superpower, a position cemented by its usurpation of the number 1 as its international calling code. (The move is largely symbolic: Phone calls have become so rare that the sound of a ringtone triggers the fear that someone must have died.) The European Union has already dissolved, with the euro replaced by local currencies like the “nouveau franc.” Then the United States defaults on its loans; Treasury bills are rendered worthless. Overnight, the dollar crashes, supplanted on the international market by the “bancor,” a currency controlled by the New IMF. The stock market follows suit, taking the Mandible family fortune with it.
Most people assume the crisis is temporary, not unlike the economic downturn that coincided with Florence’s college graduation — born in the mid-1980s, she’s a millennial. But her son, Willing, watches the business news and has an uncanny sense of how all the pieces fit together. As one character puts it, “Complex systems collapse catastrophically.” Within a few years, Florence’s family will have lost literally everything they once thought they owned.
Lionel Shriver Credit Sarah Lee It’s probably already obvious that Shriver isn’t the kind of writer who lets her themes rise gently to the surface. She seizes them with an almost animalistic ferocity and interrogates them for all they’re worth. Her smart, satirical fiction is old-fashioned in that it serves as a vehicle for investigating political and social questions, but it’s also almost uncannily of its moment. A few years after the massacre at Columbine High, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” her breakthrough novel, examined the psychology of a mother whose son *committed a school shooting. “So Much for That,” which appeared just as the Affordable Care Act became law, chronicled the bankruptcy of a family whose health insurance is laughably inadequate to cover their bills for a devastating illness. More recently, “Big Brother” delved into the contradictions surrounding the popular perceptions of obesity and weight loss. Though these books are nominally about very different subjects, they pulse with the same undercurrent of rage at the hypocrisy of American mores and the dysfunction that plagues our broken social contract.
Shriver has always seemed to be at least a few steps ahead of the rest of us, but her new novel establishes her firmly as the Cassandra of American letters. Like David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” or Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake,” “The Mandibles” depicts a world that is at once familiar and horribly altered. What’s most disquieting isn’t the disruption of daily life (though it’s devastating) but the ease with which people adapt to their new circumstances. Shriver’s dystopia is imagined as minutely as a pointillist image, with every detail adding another dot to the overall picture. The devolution of civilized society happens slowly at first, then all at once. The niceties of life gradually disappear: citrus fruit, olive oil, toilet paper. Streets are no longer cleaned; once-upscale storefronts are boarded shut; even Zabar’s is vandalized and looted. Florence stops ironing to save electricity and wears a bandanna to disguise her unwashed hair. Willing gives away his beloved spaniel while the family can still afford to feed it, knowing that by the time they won’t be able to, no one else will either. Homeownership, the foundation of the American dream, proves to be the longest-lasting currency. Eventually, most of the Mandible clan will seek refuge with Florence in East Flatbush, including her sister, Avery, and brother-in-law, Lowell, a former economics professor at Georgetown who failed to predict the current situation and still doesn’t comprehend it. (Tenure is among the luxuries that society can no longer afford — Lowell has been summarily sacked.) Then Florence’s grandfather, Douglas Mandible, appears on the doorstep, now 97 years old and saddled with a wife suffering from dementia. All that remains of Bountiful House, his once-grand estate, is the silver service, each piece engraved with an M.
The M stands for Mandible, of course, but it might just as well stand for Money, the novel’s true subject. The Mandible descendants never laid hands on the cash, but it was always there in the background, silently working its mysteries on their psyches. “A family fortune introduced an element of corruption,” we are told early on. Its bite is felt in subtle ways. Back in the old days, Florence’s father, Carter, wondered if it was fair that he and his sister, Enola, would have to divide the fortune equally, considering that he had three children (Florence, Avery and their younger brother, Jarred) and four grandchildren, while Enola, a novelist, remained single, with no dependents. After the Renunciation, as the economic collapse is called, even a small amount of money can be psychologically transformative. When Lowell heads to the supermarket after finally receiving a summer’s worth of back pay, the sensation of “trouser pockets that bulged with banded cash” makes him feel like “a real man” for the first time in months. But his buoyant mood is pierced by the discovery that, thanks to inflation, the cash won’t even cover the groceries in his cart.
Even before the first of the novel’s *multiple allusions to it, I was reminded of “The Corrections,” Jonathan Franzen’s saga of three siblings struggling to get by at the turn of the millennium. Like Franzen, Shriver is a shrewd social commentator with a fine ear for irony. A marvelous subplot revolves around Florence’s Aunt Nollie, once a best-selling novelist, who returns from voluntary exile in France bearing carton upon carton of her own books and manuscripts, which she insists on holding on to for reasons that become brilliantly clear. But “The Mandibles” suffers from a common flaw of speculative fiction: Virtually every detail of the narrative serves to communicate some expository element, giving it a didactic tone. The characters sometimes feel less like human beings than figures in a modern morality play. But when the pace slows down and they’re allowed to breathe, they can offer wonderful aperçus, as when Florence reflects on the value of true generosity, which “entails no recompense. It means giving up something you fiercely value and cannot replace.”
If “The Mandibles” takes the tone of a piercing alarm rather than a reflective family chronicle, that may be a feature, not a bug, as we say these days. In the weeks since I first picked it up, developments in the news have lent unsettling credence to Shriver’s dark vision. This newspaper ran an article about a woman in Pennsylvania who was the first American found to have bacteria resistant to a “last resort” antibiotic. (By 2047, according to “The Mandibles,” “superbugs” will be so rampant that the germ-spreading custom of shaking hands will disappear.) NPR reported that the Colorado River is drying up, creating a water crisis that may be a sign of more widespread future scarcities. Most dramatically, the outcome of the “Brexit” vote may spell the beginning of the end for the European Union.
As I walk the streets of Flatbush, the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood where my family recently bought a house of our own, scenes from “The Mandibles” replay in my head. I don’t remember the last time a novel held me so enduringly in its grip. “The line between owners of swank Washington *townhouses and denizens of his sister-in-law’s Fort Greene shelter was perhaps thinner than he’d previously appreciated,” Lowell realizes late in the novel. The line separating us from our dystopian future may be equally thin. The curse of Cassandra, after all, was that she told the truth.
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