American Nightmare

The dust jacket warns the potential purchaser that “this is not science fiction”. Clearly the publishers of Lionel Shriver’s twelfth novel are worried that some of her fans may be put off by the future. They shouldn’t be. It’s true The Mandibles isn’t fully-fledged sci-fi, but it is in the tradition of speculative fiction, a tradition largely launched in the English language by women writers such as Aphra Behn, the Duchess of Newcastle and Mary Shelley (whose The Last Man, about an apocalyptic virus, languishes unfairly in the shadow of Frankenstein).

Daniel Defoe is typically credited by the English faculties with having sired the real novel, the modern novel, the realist novel, the novel of the rising middle class, the novel of capitalism and trade. Most of his characters, quasi-Defoes, are obsessed with acquisition and money, but one of the recurring themes in his books, which receives less attention, is the worry of once you have the money, how do you keep it safe? How do you hang on to the goodies?

The Mandibles
depicts generations of an upper-middle-class family enduring the pauperisation and disintegration of the United States and their own wipe-out. In the way that Orwell’s 1984 wasn’t really about the future but a weird version of the Soviet Union, The Mandibles is a spin on the financial crisis of 2008, when the ground moved alarmingly beneath everyone’s feet, except here the rescuers don’t get to work in time and everything falls apart, the US gets left behind and becomes a source of amusement for the rest of the world.

I’ve only read two of Shriver’s other novels, but The Mandibles struck me as much more comic. She’s having a lot of fun: “Now Lowell hadn’t always been well off . . . he’d done some down-and-dirty adjunct teaching . . . a wallowing in the trenches that had helped to further to convince him that he knew what it was like at the bottom. But he had never been at the bottom. He’d been at the bottom of the top.”

In Shriver’s ruined America, you don’t put your unneeded property into storage, you put your unneeded self into storage, by going into a coma for years, hoping things will be better when you wake up. There’s also a fast-food restaurant called Final Feast, although I find it hard to believe someone hasn’t already done this somewhere in America: “In reception, a five-year-old was whooping it up in a replica of an electric chair . . . The menu was designed around the last meals requested by inmates on death row.”

She also, I suspect, is teasing her previous readers with another odd teenager, Willing, who has a thing for guns. He turns out to be very different from the famous Kevin, however.

But The Mandibles isn’t a humorous romp. Shriver has obviously been reading autopsies of the financial crash, and we also get the conventions of future fiction: some gizmo action, fold-up computers, driverless cars, and some new slang.

However, being bewitched by your research is one of the dangers of novel-writing. Willing chips in to the conversation: “We could easily get along with a small, steady predictable rate of deflation. Inflation is a tax. Money for the government. A tax that people don’t see as tax.”

His comment works here, because it tells us something about Willing, he’s not your typical 14-year-old kid. Yet a lot of the economic debate in the pages of The Mandibles does feel like what it is: economic debate. As with most novels what works best is human nature, and Shriver does a good job with the family relationships in the Mandible clan.

As in many dystopian works, there is the “other place” to escape to, in this case a breakaway state, centred around Las Vegas, that the far-sighted Willing and his favourite aunt, Nollie, reach. The refugees from the failed United States are informed immediately on arrival that it is not a “utopia” but a place where there has been a return to the pioneering, independent spirit of the founders.

Fortunately for Willing his aunt, a once-successful novelist, has a secret stash of gold to help get them started. It may be the future, but even there, writers suffer. As Nollie is at pains to point out:

    This is not manna from the sky. I earned it by staying up late at a keyboard when my friends were carousing in bars. By reading the same manuscript so many times — in multiple edits, copyedits, first, second and third passes, and galleys — that I came to hate the sight of my own sentences. By appearing in public events and saying the same thing over and over until I was senseless with self-hatred.

For someone who has spent much of her life outside the US, Shriver seems to have a fondness for the hardcore American values of self-reliance, industry and dislike of government. Daniel Defoe would have approved.

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