Lionel Shriver riveted me in the world of “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047” when U.S. dollars lose monetary value and life becomes primitive in Brooklyn, Washington D.C. and the rest of the country. People move moral boundaries as they search for food and shelter in a dog-eat-dog environment.
At times, I lived this horror, which is a tribute to the author.
Shriver’s adeptness at creating this reality matches her skill at capturing the characters’ reactions to it. The Mandibles (mandible is the jaw by which the family figuratively gets eaten up) are four generations of a competitive American family (fourth generation, Elliott, was a Midwestern industrialist, who had made a fortune). Through them, the reader learns that although money means different things to different people, money is emotional. Therefore, aside from accommodating the scarcity of natural resources by washing dishes with gray water and going unwashed themselves, most of the characters also mourn a time when money did seem to buy everything.
Everyone has invested some of herself or himself in the currency of the past and in their possessions, except for Willing, the 15-year-old son of Florence, who lives with her and her partner, Esteban, in Brooklyn. Willing, unlike the others, understands and accepts the economic breakdown. He directs the family’s decisions. While trying to persuade his great-aunt Nollie to allow them to burn her books, which are available online, as firewood, he says:
“They’re only objects. . . .You’re confusing the objects with what they mean to you. With objects, you can take the meaning back. They return to being empty things. Cuboids. Heavy cuboids that take up a lot of space.”
Florence is a middle-aged Barnard College graduate who works at a homeless shelter. Her sister, Avery, a psycho-therapist, and her father, a former star literary agent, feel that her achievements are not up to par. Nevertheless, when Avery’s husband, an economics professor, waits for his back-pay from Georgetown University and grandad Douglas’ dementia-stricken wife burns down the house of his son, Carter, and his wife, Jayne, with whom they were staying after their swank nursing home kicked them out for lack of payment, Florence’s sister, grandfather and parents are relieved that Florence had bought her modest home, where they could all seek refuge.
Willing keeps the family on track when the family of 14, including children and a boarder who becomes family, crowd into his mother’s house. Jarred, Florence and Avery’s brother, had left the competition before the economic debacle by buying a farm in upstate New York. His trajectory becomes a thread in the story.
“The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047” pulls the rug out from under us. Suddenly, having a job, home and an inheritance do not guarantee food, shelter and safety. The frightening characteristic of this new world is that it is precarious and, dare I say, this is not new at all.
(Book cover by Courtney Carthy, 2016)