Two Different Ways of Looking at the Apocalypse, No. 2
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, by Lionel Shriver
“It has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” says Frederic Jameson. Lionel Shriver’s latest book, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 tries valiantly but unsuccessfully to imagine either eschatology. It’s 2029, and with much of the world’s economy in collapse, a new global reserve currency has been created, the bancor, backed by gold, oil and various other natural resources. And this obscure machination, barely a blip on most peoples’ radar, is where the fun starts. The US sees this as an act of economic warfare, an attempt to supplant the “almighty dollar itself” and refuses to trade in this new currency. In an instant, the US is an international pariah: nobody will trade with a state that has suddenly gone rogue; what was once the most powerful economy on the planet is sent into a death-spiral.
Not that the Mandibles notice, though. America’s middle classes are like frogs in that regard—caught unaware by the steadily increasing temperature of the water that they find themselves in. The various Mandible tribes have their comfortable jobs and houses—until they don’t—and they have Grand Man’s lucrative portfolio to look forward to—until they don’t. For the patriarchal pension pot is rendered worthless at a stroke, the US treasury bonds, formerly the safest investment in the world, reneged on, and all gold deposits requisitioned by the government. More blips. The price of cabbage spirals to thirty dollars apiece. Blip. Toilet paper becomes unobtainable. Blip. The army goes from house to house, ransacking citizens for their wedding rings. Blip.
Where The Mandibles excels is in its depiction of lives—and a nation—torn to shreds by these blips. Slowly but surely, as their descent from genteel poverty to outright deprivation continues, the entire extended Mandible clan descends on one house, all ten of them in a tiny brownstone. Shriver depicts with a scabrous wit and acute ear the dissolving psyches of the Mandible tribe and the nation in which they reside, not just the injustices writ large, but the minute psychic stress fractures that appear in the edifice of a middle-class family living in what increasingly resembles a siege.
Where Shriver convinces less is in her characters’ relentless attempts to pontificate on the roots of their crisis. One way or another, at least half of the Mandible tribe—from the aged patriarch to his ten year-old great-grandson—has a grasp of the minutest details of US Treasury policy dating back over a century, and none of them is afraid to show off about it. It speaks volumes that my local bookshop, Segrue Books, has The Mandibles shelved alongside economics texts, rather than fiction, under which the rest of Shriver’s oeuvre is to be found. Shriver herself gestures towards this, writing that “Goog’s know-it-all loquacity could abruptly get on [his father] Lowell’s nerves because he sounded just like him.” Lowell is, at the crisis’ outset, a professor of (what else?) economics at Georgetown—he might be happy to discourse endlessly on the ills of fiscal policy, but it’s rare that the mechanisms of apocalypse are as interesting as the sheer and bloody carnage of it all.
The Mandibles tries to imagine the end of American capitalism, and it very nearly does so. But in the end, it pulls back from doing so. For the problem with what Ruth Franklin, in an article on Shriver called “dystopian finance fiction” is that always comes back relentlessly to the structures (and strictures) of finance—from the paragraphs of jargon that are disguised as dinner-table conversation early on in the novel, or from hyperinflation making the dollar in your pocket nigh-worthless. It is, after all, easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is the end of capitalism.