In the midst of writing a dystopia of my own, it strikes me on an almost daily basis the degree to which society has come under the thumb of a very fickle dictator: money. Further, money within the context of an inherently unstable and unjust neoliberal capitalist system. For a searing criticism of the failures of this system, flawlessly melded with a scintillating story, I point you in the direction of Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.
The Mandible family has a sizeable fortune, but when a bloodless world war wipes out their millions they, like the rest of America, find themselves out of their homes and on the brink of starvation. Crammed into their poorest relatives’ house, the financial crisis brings out the best in some, and the worst in others. But, as society continues to devolve and culture breaks down, the choices ahead only get tougher.
The Mandibles is the first of Shriver’s books that I have read, but I certainly don’t think it will be the last. She is enviably articulate on the page, and manages to impart a huge amount of research and information about the financial system without ever making the reader feel as if it’s happening. What’s more, despite its 400 pages, the story is gripping from start to finish and absolutely slips by.
“With those where-were-you-then junctures – for people like his great-aunt Nollie, the Kennedy assassination; for his mother’s generation, 9/11 – it was all to easy to pretend to remember, to look back and impose the solid facts of what you learned afterward on the tremulous, watery past. So Willing resolved that later he would remember this night, truly remember-remember.”
Her characters are often archetypal – especially precocious, so-wise-for-his-age Willing – but that is part of the novel’s enchantment. We all know someone who fits in roughly with each character, but as they develop over the course of events, you start to realise the degree to which poverty and hunger can alter personality.
Most thrilling of all, The Mandibles is an incredibly believable book. There wasn’t a single moment where I didn’t believe this could actually happen; from Shiver’s deft depictions of race-relations in the US to the jargon she invents around events that have happened between now and the start of the book. It’s as if Shriver has attempted – and succeeded in – writing a history of an American future. Perhaps, even, a future of the world.
The Mandibles was published in the UK by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins. It is available to buy in hardback from The Guardian bookshop for £12.99.