Sunday 25 September 2016

Shriver's sharp take on a family in freefall

Fiction: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, Lionel Shriver, The Borough Press €17.99

Justine Carbery

Published 13/06/2016 | 02:30

Lionel Shriver's latest novel The Mandibles is a dystopian family saga, which she describes as a 'gleeful exploration of catastrophe'
Lionel Shriver's latest novel The Mandibles is a dystopian family saga, which she describes as a 'gleeful exploration of catastrophe'

Lionel Shriver has never shied away from tough subjects; teenage violence in We Need To Talk About Kevin, obesity in Big Brother and the US health care system in So Much for That. In her new novel The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, she casts her sharp eye on the world economy, imagining a worryingly-near future with the dollar in free-fall, a society teetering on the edge of complete financial meltdown, crippled by national debt.

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Shriver herself, in conversation with Pat Kenny, described The Mandibles as a 'gleeful exploration of catastrophe' and admitted she had great fun, creating a world where the US is no longer a world power, where a wall would be erected between it and Mexico. (She came up with this eerily prophetic idea long before a blustering presidential candidate mooted it but in her case it was to keep the Americans out of Mexico, rather than the other way around). The President makes speeches in Spanish first, then English, and the price of imported commodities is rising at a scary rate.

She creates an Atwoodesque society where people are displaced by robots, voice-activated household management systems, self-driving cars. Education is a luxury, toilet paper too. Children are no longer able to write with a pen and paper but are experts on international fiscal policy. The Internal Revenue is in control and exercising an Orwellian level of economic surveillance, implanting the citizens with micro-chips. Speculative, yet chillingly plausible. (According to Shriver there is already an office in Scandinavia which has indeed implanted microchips into its staff!).

The book follows the fortunes of the Mandible family, starting with the affluent patriarch, Douglas, a 97-year-old former publishing tycoon now living in a luxurious retirement home with his second wife, Luella, who suffers from dementia. His eldest child Nollie, a once-successful novelist, living in Europe, feels forced to return to the US because of antagonism towards Americans. Her brother, Carter, is a successful journalist with three children and several grandchildren.

All are waiting for Douglas to die and allow the eagerly anticipated inheritance to trickle down through the generations. But when President Alvarado defaults on US debt obligations and nationalises the country's gold, the Mandible family wealth is wiped out and they find themselves all living together in a cramped house in Brooklyn, arguing about the family's - and the nation's - fall from grace.

This dystopian future is flawlessly realised and convincingly imagined, but the earlier chapters are slow to gather momentum, with intricate scene-setting and heavy-handed delivery of tedious economic information, however once the scene has been set in all its cataclysmic detail, the plot ignites and we follow the sweeping family saga with interest.

Shriver imbues this work with dark humour, gleefully playing with language. But for all its cleverness it lacks the intimacy that made We Need to Talk about Kevin so powerful. Nonetheless, this is an important and thought-provoking read.

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