For as long as there have been disasters, there have been disaster stories. Sometimes they’re natural, sometimes extraterrestrial, sometimes militaristic. Sometimes a disaster story is only personally devastating—a sudden death, a fatal illness. And sometimes it’s national, or global, or even inter-planetary.
Catastrophes have long since been molded into narrative archetypes, such that any new movie or book or television show centered on the unraveling of human society after [fill in life-changing event here] can be easily folded into a pre-existing canon of work ruminating on those same hypotheticals. There is clearly something in us that experiences a perverse glee imagining the upending of everything, perhaps because such thought experiments cast in blissful relief the advantages and conveniences of a charmed life in the modern, real world.
But even in our imaginations, economic collapse ranks low on the list of fictional conjectures, somewhere between friendly aliens and symbolic single-symptom afflictions (see: mass blindness). The world’s somewhat recent flirtation with financial crisis has produced some emergent economic fiction, but it tends to focus on financial firms—who runs them, how, and whether they should be held accountable (see: Margin Call, Arbitrage, Money Monster.) Rarely is there a story centered on the machinations of an economic undoing as experienced by normal people; usually that kind of homey cast is reserved for plagues or earthquakes or the zombie apocalypse.
While I’m surprised to have found a rare exception to this thesis, I’m not surprised that Lionel Shriver is behind it. An author whose books I dole out to myself at a pace of one every few years (so there’s always some to look forward to), Shriver has what I consider an unparalleled talent for combining character-driven stories with contentious current events and beautiful, insightful writing. She has a way of assessing the world that is both shrewd and bemused, and there’s a fearlessness to the humanity of her characters—they’re realer for being hugely imperfect, for thinking the worst things and sometimes saying them.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 offers its characters many opportunities to think and say the wrong things. Set (as suggested by the title) in the not-so-distant future, the novel takes place in the run-up to and aftermath of a great economic collapse, during which the United States renounces its debt and is cut off from the rest of the world by a global refusal to acknowledge the dollar. Isolated from its allies and trade partners (in part by its refusal to acknowledge a new currency, the bancor), the US falls into rapid disrepair: runaway inflation, rising interest rates, no available credit, plus the widespread dismantling of the upper and middle classes and all the fallout that implies.
Caught in the middle of this ruination are the Mandibles, a well-to-do East Coast family cushioned (financially and emotionally) by an undisclosed inheritance, which is the elephant in the room around which most of the family dynamics revolve. The Mandibles are Douglas Mandible—the patriarch in whose hands the fortune rests—and his second wife Luella; Douglas’s children, Carter (and wife Jayne) and Enola; Carter’s children, Florence (husband Esteban), Avery (husband Lowell) and Jarred; Florence’s son Willing, and Avery and Lowell’s three kids: Savannah, Goog and Bing. As a family, the Mandibles (& Co.) represent a cross-section of American generations, ethnicities, financial means (family money notwithstanding) and ideologies. When the full force of the economic reckoning hits, it not only wipes out the money upon which so many of them quietly counted, but also upends the familial power structure itself. Decades-held opinions and resentments must be reexamined in the light of a new, less monied world order.
Shriver’s own views aren’t much couched in The Mandibles—an American who has primarily lived abroad, she regards the US with something of a sigh and a chuckle—but debate around the politics of the country’s undoing are for the most part left to her characters. In boozy conversations over dinner (at least, while dinner is still easy to come by), they argue about the cause of the collapse, and its implications. They wonder whether it’s a blessing in disguise, a reset button against out-of-control income inequality, the imposition of a level playing field on the heretofore untouchable 1%. And they bicker on a personal level, over each other’s ability to take the new status quo in stride. In forcing money to the conversational fore, Shriver highlights how bizarre it is that we’ve historically been so cagey about it. “It was staggering,” she writes, “how the enmity over who-would-get-what could survive beyond the point at which there was nothing to get.”
It’s difficult to predict the future without winking at the present, and The Mandibles has its fair share of winks—the names Goog and Bing chief among them. (Also see: Paul Krugman as chair of the Federal Reserve and Arnold Schwarzenegger as onetime presidential candidate.) Some of Shriver’s nods at the real world are silly (including those mentioned above), but others feels inspired. Among the latter: Spanish has supplanted English as the default language on customer-service calls, China has usurped the United States’ “1” country code, cool has become careless, very/totally has become immense and awesome is now malicious.
I haven’t said much about the caliber of Shriver’s writing (see: my review of We Need to Talk About Kevin), but in a book that deserves more compliments than I have time to outline, that somehow feels the least urgent. To be sure, The Mandibles is a pleasure to read, but Shriver’s way with story here trumps her way with words. As with school shootings in Kevin, adultery in The Post-Birthday World, and obesity in Big Brother, she excels at tackling subjects both universally relatable and generally avoided in polite conversation. In The Mandibles, Shriver’s insight is coupled with deep character development and, best of all, an unexpected suspense, a constant weighing of pages remaining against number of shoes left to drop.
In the age of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, of bank bailouts and auto industry prop-ups, of government shutdowns over debt levels and scandals over Libor rates, of a possible Trump presidency and an actual Brexit vote, The Mandibles feels like not only a great novel, but an important one. It may not have the fanfare of an alien invasion, or the bloody stakes of a zombie apocalypse, but economic collapse apparently can make for compelling fiction. At least if Lionel Shriver is writing it.
TITLE: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
AUTHOR: Lionel Shriver
PAGES: 402 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Big Brother
SORTA LIKE: Zadie Smith and Paul Krugman write a disaster movie
FIRST LINE: “‘Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!'”