The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
As soon as I read the ad from Harper Collins about Lionel Shriver’s new novel, The Mandibles, I knew I wanted to read it because it’s a satire. I got to read an advance copy and I’m telling you, the book is on sale tomorrow; if you like satire at all, you must read it.
I wondered if the American-born but longtime-London-dwelling Shriver might have gotten the idea from reading about the UK’s pending decision about staying with or leaving the EU, with all the economic repercussions that would entail. I have no idea, though; perhaps the book is merely the result of her inventiveness.
The story itself is quite inventive, full of little imaginative touches like the “flex” which “had replaced the smart watch, smartspeX, smart phone, tablet, laptop, and desktop at a stroke….the diaphanous material would assume a screen size anywhere from a two-inch square to a fifteen-by-twenty rectangle, and you could fold a lower section onto a surface to become a keyboard.” In another off-hand remark, a character says “Thank God that, ever since the Shaving Cream Bomber, you can’t check luggage anymore.” Because the people of this future are supporting so many elderly baby boomers, one of their expletives is “boomerpoop.”
The fictional U.S. of the novel has already experienced a “Stone Age, as-in-bombed-back-into” when hackers took down the internet and put an end to online commerce. For the Mandibles—a wealthy, once-divorced grandfather, his sister Enola, his son Carter and daughter-in-law Jayne and their three children, Jarred, Florence, and Avery, who have children of their own, Willing, Bing, Goog, and Savannah—the end of the world as they know it comes when the American president and Congress pass an emergency bill declaring that American citizens cannot hold European currency and cannot trade abroad. Americans are forbidden to take more than $100 out of the country, and all gold is forfeit to the government, including wedding rings. As a last step, the U.S. declares all Treasury bills, notes, and bonds null and void. At first the family, like the rest of America, doesn’t see it as the end of the world, except for Willing, the youngest, who has already learned not to take much for granted.
In a conversation with his mother, early in the novel, Willing says “the president borrowed money from people and now won’t pay it back. That doesn’t seem careless. That seems kind of boomerpoop.” His mother responds:
“First off, this president borrowed hardly anything. He inherited the debt from other presidents, who couldn’t stop rescuing jerkwater countries that only ended up hating us for our helping hand. Also, most of that money is from the Chinese, who are big cheats, and the real boomerpoops, since they almost certainly knocked out our whole country’s internet five years ago.”
The satire is aimed squarely at people in my economic class. I love this particular description of Lowell, Avery’s husband, who is an academic (an Economics professor, for extra irony):
“Now, Lowell hadn’t always been well off. In graduate school at MIT, he’d lived on a meager stipend abetted with stints as a TA. Before his first proper academic appointment at Amherst, he’d done some down-and-dirty adjunct teaching—including at the odd community college—a wallowing in the trenches that had helped 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.
Accordingly, Lowell had never received a bill that he couldn’t pay. He had long unthinkingly relegated folks who kept no cushion in their accounts, who spent merely because there was cash in their pockets, who reached out for payday loans to cover their electric bills, who were chronically in arrears and lived in fear of knocks on the door, to a remote category of the hopeless, the irresponsible, the feckless. As for debt, an economic wheels-greaser that ideologically he was quite big on, Lowell promoted getting into hock as a splendid idea for companies and whole countries, but paid off his Visa bills in full. His avoidance of credit was emotional. He didn’t like the sensation of being beholden, of being in someone else’s pocket.
Which made him a sucker for the sad-ass Protestant values that most of the country had gleefully abandoned. The international economy had punished the frugal and rewarded the profligate for most of his professional life. It was an odd lesson for a man in his position to have failed to learn.”
When Lowell and Avery, now unemployed and being evicted, have to move in with Florence, Avery discovers that “the only intelligent option was to accept their purchaser’s derisory offer for ‘contents,’ since their realtor advised that they could instead be charged for removal of effects. Emotionally, too, it was easier to leave everything than to cling to one side table and let its siblings go.” However, she can’t just leave, in a grand dramatic gesture. She spends her last days in their house “tossing partially used cleaning products. Choosing the five best pairs of socks from a drawer of thirty. Remembering that despite the historic upheaval, they were required to keep financial records for tax purposes going back seven years. Canceling the utilities. Finally getting through to the Salvation Army, only to learn that charities were swamped with donations of household goods, and their kitchen implements, gardening tools, linens, Christmas decorations, and most of their wardrobes were destined for the dump.”
There’s a scene in Willing and Florence’s neighborhood grocery store, when Lowell, unwilling to believe what they tell him about food shortages, goes with them:
“He was accustomed to expansive American emporiums packed floor to ceiling with enticements, where the main challenges were to keep from overstocking because you forgot there were already six cans of tomatoes back home, to avoid chips and chocolates that would thicken your waistline, and to resist falling into a paralytic stupor while choosing between forty-five flavors of soup. But here, whole chunks of the displays were missing, the shelves bare. Remembering Willing’s remark that cheese ‘keeps too well,’ he picked up a pattern: dried pulses, grains, frozen foods, and canned goods—particularly cans with meat, like chili, Vienna sausage—were the sections consistently ravaged. For those products that were available—canned grapefruit ($19.99) did not seem much in demand—reprinting the shelving’s price tabs must have become too much trouble, and many of the labels had been scratched out and scrawled with ballpoint corrections half a dozen times.”
After a gap of a few years, during which the Mandibles lost the house Florence had owned outright and walked hundreds of miles to her brother Jarred’s farm, where they all pitched in to be able to eat, the novel rejoins the youngest family member, Willing, and we see the effects of the dystopian society that has sprung up in place of the old American economy.
Rather than use money, people now wear chips in their heads. When Willing gets one, he finds that “it registered direct deposits of his salary. It deducted the costs of any products he chose to buy. It debited his utility bills.” Most of all, “it subtracted local, state, and federal taxes, which totaled 77 percent of his pay. It communicated his every purchase to the agency known until 2039 as the Internal Revenue Service—what the item cost, when and where he bought it, and the product’s exact description.”
There is a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, and it is to keep Americans out: “the U.S. population was contracting for the first time in its history. The remaining public felt trapped, stranded, left behind. These were often the same people who had vituperated about foreigners piling across their borders. Now that outsiders didn’t risk their lives to reach American anymore, the native-born felt abandoned.”
Shriver really lays it on thick (in what I think of as her customary tone-deaf way, after Big Brother) in her description of social issues in the new America:
“Across the nation, Americans’ mental and physical health had vastly improved. Hardly anyone was fat. Allergies were rare, and these days if people did mention they avoided gluten, a piece of bread would probably kill them. Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia had disappeared. Should a friend say he was depressed, something sad had happened. After a cascade of terrors on a life-and-death scale, nobody had the energy to be afraid of spiders, or confined spaces, or leaving the house. In the thirties, the wholesale bankruptcies of looted pharmacies, as well as a broad inability to cadge the readies for street drugs, had sent addicts into a countrywide cold turkey. Gyms shut, and personal trainers went the way of the incandescent light bulb. But repairing their own properties, tilling gardens, walking to save on fuel, and beating intruders with baseball bats had rendered Americans impressively fit. Sex-reassignment surgery roundly unaffordable, diagnoses of gender dysphoria were pointless. If a woman leaned toward the masculine, she adopted lunging, angular movements and crossed her ankle on her knee; everyone got the message, and the gesturing was more elegant.”
Really, Shriver? God forbid a modern trans man isn’t elegant enough for you. And phobias really are all about whether a person has the “energy” to feel them.
Still, the dystopia in this novel is inventive and has a point, as Willing and his cousins—and then the rest of the remaining Mandibles—move to the free state of Nevada, where a group of Americans are starting over. They have learned that “anyone in a position of authority telling you something unpalatable is ‘temporary’ is a red flag.” As a final punch line of the satire, Willing’s cousin Goog applies and is hired as “the sole enforcement officer for the USN Revenue Service. His primary remit was to send out effusive yearly thank-you notes to taxpayers considerate enough to file, and generous enough to share the proceeds of their industry with their neighbors.”
I enjoyed reading The Mandibles, and it made me chew over (ahem) a lot of ideas about economics with which academics like me don’t often concern themselves. It’s a good satire, in that it encourages its readers to sit up and pay attention.