A bitingly prescient novel that lacks any real drama
Fiction: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, Lionel Shriver, Borough Press, hdbk, 400 pages, €22.50
The inner workings of a slightly dysfunctional family are a rich literary seam to mine: one blithely operating on the assumption that they will inherit a vast fortune, doubly so. Dystopia, too, makes for a satisfying read; from 1984 to The Handmaid's Tale, it gives the author an opportunity to creatively unfurl, and be a bit mischievous with quirk and detail. Add all these elements together, and what's cooked up is a delicious stew of a story.
Lionel Shriver, the author of the Orange Prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin, is the doyenne of the salient, unsettling, onyx-black read. She has already pointed her high-powered acumen at the healthcare system (So Much For That) and the obesity epidemic (Big Brother).
This time around, she is tackling the global market crisis. Also trying her hand at a dystopian tale, she delivers an epic that's as archly funny as it is bitingly prescient.
In Shriver's mid-21st Century, the American dollar is under siege from a new international currency, the dastardly bancor (pun intended, presumably), leaving millions of families in financial ruin. Among them are the Mandibles, a motley crew of colourful characters on the same brittle family tree. At the heart of the clan is Carter, and his sister Nollie, who has returned to the US after several decades in France in self-imposed exile. Carter is forced to look after his stepmother Luella after her nursing home fees become too much to bear after the death of the family's patriarch, Douglas. Carter's middle child Avery is all but a slave to her middle-class lifestyle.
They've little in common, save for their occasionally sanguine approach to "following all that economics drear", as Florence says.
The family - well over a dozen of the sprawling clan - is forced to descend on the cramped townhouse of Carter's daughter Florence. Needless to say, it's a pressure cooker of emotion and frustration. Though Florence has tirelessly worked in a homeless shelter for years, nothing can prepare her for the strays on her doorstep.
The only one remotely prepared for financial ruin is Florence's teenage son, Willing, an intellectual powerhouse weighing 85lbs. Economics have been a staple of the youngster's education; more so, perhaps, than even reading or writing.
Their future, ultimately, lies in the young prodigy's hands as law and order continues to fall into the sea (why he'd want to use his cunning to save half of them is anyone's guess. But anyway.)
Shriver has most certainly done her homework, and in laying bare the seriousness of financial collapse, she leaves no stone unturned; no detail spared in the system's inner workings. It becomes not the device that sets the family on the road to rack and ruin, but a snarling creature in its own right. Reading the inner workings of the economy in forensic detail can be wearying, not least when there's the business of a sniping family to attend to. There have been comparisons made between Shriver's 12th novel and the Oscar-nominated film The Big Short: the latter was a clever, quick-paced film which had a similar tug-of-war between plot and action (and action, sadly, lost out). In the quest for veracity and thoroughness, Shriver lets the myriad dramatic possibilities of a dozen family members living in a cramped house slip through her fingers.
Yet, in other ways, Shriver remains true to form: moving from the interiority of one family character to the next, the story is challenging, disconcerting and hefty. Shriver has an ear for zesty dialogue, and her vision of the future is similarly vibrant; where mobile phones are bygone antiques, loo paper is rarer than hen's teeth and even the art of putting pen to paper is lost on youngsters. Some of her other predictions (houses running on digital management systems, a workforce displaced by robot workers) seem within reach even today; something that makes the Mandibles' unthinkable situation seem that bit more plausible.
Depending on your viewpoint, and indeed your affection for each Mandible, their lurching from one indignity to the next is either ticklishly humorous or downright anxiety inducing.
No one can say that Shriver hasn't thought long and hard about where American society - by turns vicious and fragile - is careening, and her attention to detail is mighty. Alas, as Shriver lays bare her economic musings, the drama and pacing of The Mandibles evaporates into thin air, the chance to flesh out some intriguing characters lost on the wind. You've been warned, in many more ways than one.