I’m a big fan of Lionel Shriver’s writing, although her fearless approach to topical and difficult subjects often makes me feel uncomfortable. She writes about ideas that some people might agree with but wouldn’t bring up in general conversation because of the fear of being judged. Her latest book, The Mandibles: A Family, 2027-2049 made me feel equally as uneasy as anything else of hers I’ve read.
I read We Need to Talk About Kevin years ago and still get cold shivers remembering the family and events of that book. The characters in A Perfectly Good Family made me realise that my family are not the worst ever, (although I do believe that all families are somewhat dysfunctional). Big Brother made me question how much can I do for my own family, in terms of leaving them to manage (or mess up) their own affairs.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2027-2049 is similar to other books I’ve read by this author, in that the dynamics of a family are at the heart of the story.
The story starts in 2027, when the younger generation of the Mandible family have been waiting for some time for their expected inheritance. Sadly for them, their 97 year-old patriarch, Douglas Mandible shows no sign of dying and when the US economy fails, everything the family expected to inherit is lost except for the family silverware and a few trinkets. A new global currency called the bancor became the almighty in place of the American dollar, and the American people, including the Mandible family, are suffering.
Douglas divorced the mother of his children many years before the story started, and married a much younger woman, Luella. Douglas’ daughter Nollie is a best-selling author who no longer writes because in 2027, nobody buys books – blame the internet. Nollie had been living in France but after the US economy crashed realised that Americans abroad were no longer safe, so returned to New York to move in with her niece’s family.
Douglas’ son Carter was in his 70’s and hanging out for his inheritance. He and his wife Jayne were financially comfortable, at least in 2027 when the story started, but they wanted to live in absolute luxury before they were too old to enjoy it. Carter and Jayne’s retirement didn’t go according to the plan, as Douglas and Luella were forced to move in with them once Douglas’ money was gone. Luella’s dementia adds an additional strain to the household.
Carter and Jane’s children, their son and daughter’s in law and their grandchildren make up the rest of the characters and by and large, most of them were also mad-keen to receive their inheritances. Willing, one of the youngest of the family, was the only person besides Douglas who understood from the beginning what was happening to the US economy, and who realised that they would need to lie and steal and cheat to enable their family to survive the hard times that were coming.
In an attempt to repair the economy, the US government wiped out their National debt, deemed Treasure Bonds worthless, and compulsorily acquired gold from US citizens – not just shares or actual ingots, but wedding rings and gold fillings, which meant that rich people were hit very hard by the measures while poor people’s debts disappeared overnight.
Tourists began coming from other countries to the US to enjoy five star dining and life’s luxuries for less than the price of a soft drink at home, however the US eventually became an unsafe destination because so many visitors were mugged.
Spanish became the main language used in the US and a Mexican-born President is in the White House for most of the story. There are ongoing water and food shortages due an event which happened sometime between our present and this story’s version of 2027 which the characters call ‘Stonage,’ when the US’s electricity (and internet) were wiped out by terrorists.
Lionel Shriver has invented some hilarious slang for the future, including ‘Boomerpooper,’ as in; thanks very much Baby Boomers, because what has happened to us is all your fault, ‘Karmic-clumping;’ where if one thing goes wrong, then so will everything else, and ‘Shrivs’ for old people. There are no people in this version of the future with lactic or gluten intolerances, because people can’t afford these ‘indulgences’ anymore. There are no books, or print journalism, because anybody can say what they like on the internet. The lack of toilet paper is a serious problem. I’m considering stockpiling just in case…
I would be happier if the events in this novel don’t actually happen, but as one character says,
“Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all.”
I skimmed over some of the character’s conversations about economics, but in some ways, not being interested in or understanding economics is the whole point of this novel. Those of us who can’t be bothered with or don’t understand finance trust other people to manage our country’s money for us, while we assume everything our governments and banks do is right and good. In this novel, the American way of life as we know it has ended because unsustainable financial practices used now have made the dollar in this version of the future worthless.
I did enjoy the irony of this plot, but struggled reading so many mini-essays about finance and economic theory. As always though, Lionel Shriver left me with plenty to think about.