'The Mandibles': A Utopia Running on the Gold Standard

On Lionel Shriver's witty new novel, an anatomy of 21st-century economics.

By Crawford Kilian 30 Jun 2016 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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'The Mandibles': new fiction from Lionel Shriver.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Damien Walter argues that science fiction is a form of "systems fiction" -- as are many contemporary literary novels by authors like Don DeLillo and Margaret Atwood. Walter writes:

"These books pick apart how the systems that keep society chugging along work: politics, economics, sex and gender dynamics, science, ideologies -- all can be explored through fiction, especially experimental fiction." It's not a very new idea -- Walter cites Tom LeClair as the coiner of the term "system novel" in the 1980s.

Lionel Shriver's new novel, The Mandibles, is certainly systems fiction, but its roots go back far before the 1980s. Half a century ago in his book Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye defined a genre that goes all the way back to Menippus in the third century BC. Menippean satire, which Frye also called "anatomy," ridicules the ideas of philosophers and other scholars, so lost in their own verbal constructs that they forget reality.

In its modern form, anatomy adopts the form of the novel but ditches novelistic conventions whenever it pleases. Frye calls it "a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern." Describing and understanding that pattern is more important than telling a good story.

Understanding The Mandibles as an anatomy of 21st-century economics helps to explain its flaws: the characters are pure cardboard, and they lecture one another incessantly. Plot is almost irrelevant; stuff happens when it's needed to illustrate some point about Shriver's single intellectual pattern. It's a successful right-wing political satire, partly because it also satirizes right-wing politics.

A family of consumers

Mandibles include human jaws, avian beaks, and insect mouthparts -- and the Mandible family is all about consuming. Descended from a rich manufacturing family, the family in 2029 is awaiting the death of its patriarch, who is 97 and living in an upmarket care home with his trophy bride -- who in her late 50s has sunk into early dementia. His children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren mostly take it for granted that they will inherit vast funds when the old man goes.

Then a Russian-Chinese plot creates a new international currency, the "bancor." Almost overnight the American dollar becomes worthless outside the U.S., and almost worthless inside it. The head of the Federal Reserve Bank, none other than Paul Krugman, keeps printing more money to keep the economy going, but it's a doomed effort. Inflation soars, the first Hispanic president defaults on the nation's debts, and anyone who's bought Treasury bonds is instantly bankrupt -- including the Mandibles.

So we follow the family as it tries to adjust to serious poverty. Almost everyone moves in with Florence, who happens to own a house in East Flatbush and has a job in a homeless shelter. Her teenage son Willing has a precocious understanding of the situation and explains it to his uncle Lowell, a professor of Keynesian economics at Georgetown University. Sacked despite his tenure, Lowell becomes a drag on the family while his wife Avery finally understands that the purpose of life is not finding extra-thick veal chops for the next dinner party.

Economics theory and robbery

Shriver has a lot of fun satirizing limousine-liberal academics and anyone else who lives in a prosperous past. Willing, the precocious realist, goes from lecturing his feckless Keynesian uncle to robbing kids with a blackjack -- a sockful of worthless coins -- so his own family will eat. His cousin Savannah becomes a hooker, survives the intense competition in the sex trade, and by age 35 is a prosperous "stimulation consultant."

Shriver vividly describes the stress of an impoverished U.S., where you don't make shopping lists but buy whatever happens to be in the store that you can afford -- and you conserve used "grey water" because fresh water could vanish in the next "dryout." She also invents some plausible mid-century slang: "treasury" means "utter bullshit." Her technology includes the BeEtle, an electric VW, and fleXt, a kind of fabric computer.

Farmers make a fortune until agriculture is nationalized. More ominously, by the 2040s the U.S. has finally given in to the global bancor economy and the "dólar nuevo" is an electronic currency that is about to end actual cash. Almost everyone must be "chipped," implanted with a tiny credit card that tracks everything earned and spent, and takes 77 per cent in taxes. When Willing is chipped, he feels he's been raped.

By that time Americans are also thinking about escaping to Mexico despite its electrified fence from the Gulf to the Pacific (Canada is somehow not an option). The alternative is defecting to the secessionist United States of Nevada, but your chip will explode your head if it detects you've crossed the border. And by 2047, American farms are slowly being de-nationalized, as if Stalin had forgiven the rich peasants he'd expropriated.

Articulating white middle-class anxiety

By now we get it. The Mandibles articulates white American middle-class anxiety far better than Donald Trump or the Republican Party ever dreamed of. Hispanics take power (Spanish is an official language), Chinese billionaires buy up everything in sight at fire-sale prices, and even the fantasy of upward social mobility has vanished, along with the dream of inheriting the vast wealth accumulated by the baby boomers.

But I have some bones to pick with Shriver. She ignores the rest of the world, which implausibly prospers despite the U.S. default. She forgets that during the Second World War, the U.S. imposed rationing that evened out the pain. And she forgets that in the Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. and Canada actively considered a range of options from communist to fascist.

The U.S. of the Mandible family isn't troubled with anything like that. No climate change, no disease outbreaks, no civil wars, no famines -- just years of terrible shopping and lousy jobs under a totalitarian government that everyone just puts up with.

Shriver may personally be one of Paul Krugman's Very Serious People who think salvation lies in austerity, endless budget cuts, and a return to the gold standard. She mocks supposedly entitled Keynesians, but she also saves her novel by mocking the gun-toting rugged individualists who hate to be taxed.

As a writer she sees folly in both ideologies, and gets some wry smiles out of them. Her characters start as prattling ideologues; they end no wiser after their years of suffering. If some of them think they've stumbled into a happy ending, Shriver's careful readers will know they've done nothing of the sort.

Still, her heart does seem on the right, and she has written an often witty and perceptive right-wing satire on some easy left-wing targets.  [Tyee]

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