A Dystopian America

The Mandibles:  A Family, 2029-2047     Lionel Shriver     (2016)

Hang onto your hat. The year is 2029, and Russia and China now rule the world. The economy of the United States has crashed spectacularly, because of the national debt run up by the Latinos who control the federal government. All savings and investments are worthless, inflation is uncontrolled, jobs have disappeared, and ordinary citizens have become scavengers and thieves to stay alive. Guns, though forbidden, are essential. Despite the dire situation, elderly Americans continue to be cosseted, through programs such as Social Security and Medicare, because they are reliable voters. (Somehow, voting isn’t disrupted.)

Caught in this maelstrom are four generations of the Mandible family, New Yorkers who used to be upper middle class. Over the course of the eighteen years that this novel covers, most members of the Mandible clan survive and eventually escape to a locale (I won’t reveal where) that has created an isolationist libertarian paradise, basing its economy on the gold standard, with a flat tax and no social services. In other words, Lionel Shriver’s book is not just an echo of Ayn Rand but a loud, clanging reverberation.

A “mandible” is a jawbone, and in this novel the Mandibles exercise their jawbones frequently to expound on political and financial issues. I grew weary of the ultra-right-wing screeds against the Federal Reserve and against non-white people. There were even snide references to Chelsea Clinton and someone named (ha-ha-ha) Krugman. Almost all the characters whom Shriver presents as reasonable and civilized humans espouse views that are economically untenable and, to me, morally reprehensible.

Yet I kept reading through to page 402 in order to follow the threads of daily life in Shriver’s dystopian scenario. As housing becomes scarce in the years after 2029, more and more of the Mandibles crowd into one home, inevitably creating scenes of interpersonal conflict. What do you do when there is no more toilet paper and very limited water supply? How do you stretch a cup of rice to feed a crowd? These conundrums of human existence in a sadly debased America are sometimes solved in clever ways. And some of the future language that Shriver injects into the dialogue is amusing, if flippant. For example, since the very aged Baby Boomers are pariahs, the word that replaces “crap” is “boomerpoop.”

A couple of the characters in The Mandibles are intrepid in the face of disaster. The hero of the Mandible family turns out to be Willing, who is thirteen years old in 2029 and comes of age as he teaches himself advanced survival skills. He’s the one who leads the way to the promised land of libertarianism. Another Mandible, Avery, who is middle-aged at the start of the novel, blossoms: “Things seemed to matter again. It seemed to matter how she spent her time and what she told her children. Why, it was tempting to wonder whether, while the likes of the Stackhouses were musing idly over whether to cover the footstool in taupe or mauve, folks on the margins were living real lives, and making real decisions, and conducting real relationships, full of friction and shouting and moment—whether all this time the poor people had been having all the fun.” (188)

But mostly The Mandibles is a book about ugliness. Kindly people die. Hard-nosed scammers prosper. The only African American character has advanced dementia and is kept tied up.  As Carter Mandible, an unemployed economist, pronounces, “It’s the decent people who always get fucked.” (125)

The Mandibles did prod me to consider the place of the Unites States in history. Shriver puts these same considerations into the mind of my favorite character, Florence, early in the book: “She didn’t think about being American often, though that may have been typically American in itself. She didn’t regard being American as especially formative of her character, and that may have been typically American, too. . .  For years now it had ceased to be controversial to suppose that the era of the ‘American Empire’ was fading, and the notion that her country may already have had its day in the sun she didn’t find upsetting. Plenty of other countries had flourished and subsided, and were reputed to be pleasant places to live. She didn’t see why being a citizen of a nation in decline should diminish her own life or make her feel personally discouraged.” (74)