Shriver's future-looking fiction carries heavy currency
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/07/2016 (2229 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Lionel Shriver does not take life lightly. The American-born, London-based novelist tackles big issues in her books, and does so in an unflinching, unsentimental way that is unsusal, sometimes off-putting, but always a conversation-starter.
Shriver jabs at our insecurities and hypocrises, often in a way where it’s hard to tell where devil’s advocacy leaves off and lecturing begins.
In her best work, she strikes a balance between incisive commentary and gripping plot/character development. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) is a frighteningly equivocal look at school shootings and whether sociopaths are made or born; 2010’s So Much for That is both a scathing takedown of the American medical system and a reassessment of the view it’s the job of the terminally ill to go out fighting.
Her last book, however, 2013’s Big Brother, was a hectoring jeremiad about obesity featuring cardboard characters that felt more like fat-shaming than a commentary on our outsized appetites.
The Mandibles falls somewhere in the middle. The characters — four generations of a family living in near-future America — are not as much fleshed-out people as they are mouthpieces for the different ways people understand the economy and the varied interactions we have with money.
However, Shriver creates such a plausible future world, it feels less like science fiction and more like inevitability.
The Mandible family members fall at very different places on the economic spectrum. Florence — who has one son, Willing, and a partner Esteban, a “Lat” (as Hispanics are called in this posited future U.S. where the Latino population is the majority) — reuses grey water to do the dishes, living paycheque to paycheque. Her sister Avery, married to econmonics prof Lowell, is an airy-fairy therapist with three kids who doesn’t worry about, or even look at, the price tag on the bottle of Pinot. Their father, Carter, is a journalist who gets a job at the New York Times only after it’s no longer respectable; he worries constantly about retirement.
All of them are loath to admit they’re just waiting for Douglas Mandible to die. Carter’s father, a retired publisher in his 90s, is fabulously wealthy, heir to a diesel-oil fortune that he is (in the younger Mandibles’ opinion) pissing away in an exclusive assisted-living facility.
However, when world powers unite against America to make the U.S. dollar worthless, adopting an alternate currency called the bancor, the question of inheritance becomes moot.
The U.S. returns to the gold standard — everyone is forced to cede all their precious metal to the government — cancels debt (which is great for those who owe, not so much for those who are owed) and refuses to acknowledge the bancor or allow citizens to hold it.
Those who thought they were being shrewd — following the market, making wise investments — find themeselves unable to make the next mortgage payment. Investments become worthless because they are in a currency the rest of the world won’t recognize.
All of a sudden, it becomes clear: money is only an idea; it works only if we all simultaneously hold that idea in our heads and agree upon its meaning.
Shriver doesn’t dumb down the discourse and, while her grasp of the topic is impressive, it’s almost impossible to imagine real people having these kinds of elevated conversations about the global economy. It often feels as if the characters are puppets for the philosophies she wants to convey.
However, the ideas are fascinating — her imaginings of future technology and slang aren’t aways subtle, but they feel genuine — and if Shriver’s characters don’t inspire much emotion, their relationship with money does. When Florence talks about her attachment to the “downy older bills” in her wallet, she says, “They were primitively associated with her earliest experiences of agency, reward and sacrifice. In grade school, exchanging a cherished sheaf of ones for a Walkman was a seminal assertion of will.”
The Mandibles might not stir your heart, but it will make you think about what’s in your wallet.
Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor who has amassed more than $100 in coins and bills picked up off the street.
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.