Review: The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029 – 2047
Mandibles – I find myself thinking of grasshoppers, preying mantises and greedy human jaws chomping on excess. There is a US$100 bill on the cover; beneath is the statement 'In God We Trusted'.
Clearly we shouldn't have, and clearly we are in for another bumpy Lionel Shriver joy ride!
This, the prolific writer's 13th novel, begins with hand-washing in reused water (complete with floating cabbage scraps) and showers restricted to once a week, and proceeds to the total collapse of the almighty greenback and the entire American way of life.
Various Mandibles have been banking on a share of the sizeable family fortune coming their way when 97-year-old patriarch Grand Man Mandible finally dies. But America's soaring national debt can never be repaid, a rival Russian-backed currency — the 'bancor' — emerges, the dollar collapses, and the savings of millions of American families is wiped out.
Generous Florence, the only Mandible who still has a job (in an overcrowded shelter for the homeless, no less), is forced to take increasing numbers of her family into the home she shares with Mexican partner Esteban and brainy son Willing, who has taught himself economics.
The Mandibles are suffering from shock, disbelief and disappointment. One sister, Avery, cannot cope with not being able to buy olive oil. The Grand Man himself complains that, as his luxurious rest home collapsed around him, the only drink remaining was 'orange peel macerated in gasoline'.
The Grand Man brings with him his formerly glamorous and much younger second wife — who is in a state of appalling, dishevelled dementia. Caring for her adds strain to an already high-stakes situation.
It is so like the cool and sly Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Big Brother) to make the one person in the book who is savvy enough to understand the situation, and do something practical about it, a precocious young teenager.
Willing could almost be obnoxious if it wasn't for the loving parenting he's had from Florence and Esteban. The way he 'rescues' the family is both entertaining and a little unsettling.
The details of the financial meltdown are intricate and convincing, if a little didactic at times. Other details are delightfully 'Shriver-ish' – Mexico has to build a wall across its border to keep starving Americans out, Indonesia invades Australia, but the Mandible silver service set survives!
As one Mandible remarks, "Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present". This novel is a funny and rather frightening glimpse into the decline that may await the United States all too soon.