Set in near-future America, ‘The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047’ by Lionel Shriver follows four generations of an American family who had been waiting to inherit the fortune of 97-year-old patriarch Douglas Mandible. However, a total fiscal meltdown in the form of a cyber attack has wiped out the economy along with the Mandible’s wealth and all communications including the Internet. After the “Great Renunciation” when the President of the United States defaults on the country’s massive debt obligations, the Mandibles are all forced to live together under one roof in order to survive.
In her previous novels, Shriver has confronted controversial and topical issues such as high school shootings in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and obesity in Big Brother and explored the possibilities of “what if” scenarios in The Post-Birthday World. Her latest book published in the UK this week successfully brings both of these elements together. Shriver has clearly done a painstaking amount of research into the economic crisis and the speculative elements of the story are both satirical and chilling, especially as thirteen years in the future is close enough for most aspects of the world to still be recognisable.
There are some notable developments though. The Mexican economy is booming, Ed Balls is the British Prime Minister, newspapers no longer exist and by 2047, all citizens of working age are microchipped and cash has been abolished. However, analysing the potential likelihood of the specific details in Shriver’s imagined future would be slightly missing the point here. As Lowell explains to his teenage daughter Savannah: “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all. The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown.”
Shriver incorporates a lot of technical detail about the economic crisis and there are parts in the first half where there is far too much dinner party conversation between characters about the finer points of capital controls and gold reserves. The story becomes much more engaging and accessible when Shriver starts to explore the family dynamics in the Mandible household more deeply, particularly in the second part of the story set in 2047 when the family leave New York. Carter’s sister Nollie is the most interesting character and must surely be Shriver’s alter ego: an expat author born in the same year whose name is an anagram of Shriver’s adopted forename (something I only spotted after I was more than half way through the book).
Like Shriver’s other recent novels, the ending of ‘The Mandibles’ is unnerving but it didn’t have the same impact of surprise as her previous work – the genre of speculative fiction doesn’t really allow for this so much in a world where anything is possible. Darkly humorous and frighteningly plausible in equal measure, ‘The Manidbles’ proves that Shriver is still one of the sharpest and most versatile authors writing today.