The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver - reviewby Michelle Langstone
In Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, greedy Americans get it in the neck.
In Lionel Shriver’s taut, compelling new novel, it is 2029 and China is the most powerful country in the world. America, that Land of Opportunity, is barren, its economy shot, the nation bending under intense and unsustainable inflation. Water, fuel and food shortages threaten everyone, and people rob their neighbours to stay alive.
The Mandibles are a wealthy dynasty of five generations, expecting at any moment the death of “Great Grand Man”, the family’s 97-year-old patriarch. The heir to the fortune is a discontented son with three children each standing in line for cash: the first is the spoilt, moneyed wife of an economics lecturer and mother to privately educated offspring; the second a harassed yet practical woman in a useful but pedestrian job with a modest home and bright child; the third a son who everyone has always assumed will be a burden on family resources.
When the dollar falls and the Mandibles’ financial secrets are revealed, not only is the inheritance dissolved, but the still-alive elderly man and his dementia-afflicted second wife become the responsibility of the family. Along with the rest of America, the Mandibles enter into a game of fierce survival.
Shriver is known for her steely eye on the world. Her breakthrough novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin – the story of a mother trying to understand her role in parenting a boy who acted out a massacre at his school – came close in the wake of the Columbine tragedy and ahead of a spate of similar violence across the US. So Much for That, Shriver’s caustic attack on the country’s healthcare system, was published in the same month of 2010 that Barack Obama’s health insurance reforms hit the headlines. In The Mandibles, Shriver is mining another rich vein – economic uncertainty, the misuse of scarce resources and how mindless consumerism, greed and the throwaway nature of life in the 21st century can tip an affluent society into economic collapse. Shriver’s future is close enough to be possible, the factual shifts so slight it’s an easy reach to assume it’s already happened.
Tonally, The Mandibles sits neatly in the pocket of So Much for That. Shriver writes like a fearless terrier, jaws resolutely clamped around character and idea. It’s an uncomfortable read not only for its often parasitic characters, but also because Shriver has the precise measure of human behaviour, and the reader is forced at times to acknowledge that their own actions may align with any one of these people. In Shriver’s future, power belongs to those in possession of canny wits and a fierce survival instinct. The playing field has been levelled.
Some aspects of the novel jar slightly. The vernacular of this new age sticks out for the wrong reasons – “boomerpoop” is a common put-down; in fact, baby boomers get a bad rap all the way through the book and the blame feels laboured.
Popular or desirable things are “malicious”, and if you’re “immense” anything, it’s usually a criticism. But for all her seeming cynicism and brutal honesty, Shriver retains her wicked sense of humour and The Mandibles has many hilarious moments in its sly social commentary.
THE MANDIBLES: A FAMILY, 2029-2047, by Lionel Shriver (Borough Press, $37.99)
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