Review: The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

By Tom Jackson

Book CoverWith The Handmaid’s Tale, science fiction readers who inclined toward feminism got to see what the tools of science fiction would look like in the hands of a skilled mainstream writer, Margaret Atwood.

Libertarian science fiction fans who have wondered what an equally skilled mainstream writer could do by taking a stab at science fiction now have their novel, too: The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver.

Shriver is best known for her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly and also was awarded the Orange Prize in 2005. Her novel So Much for That was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing her novel, Shriver says, “I am first of all trying to tell a good story, and in this case a plausible one. I wanted to put together a sequence of future history events which made economic sense. The focus of the novel is the implosion of the economy as a consequence of overloading of U.S. sovereign debt.”

Greece seems like a current example of what Shriver is talking about. Michael Grossberg remarked to me in an email that reading The Mandibles reminded him of what “just recently has been happening in Venezuela, once the richest (and much free-er) country in South America, and now an impoverished socialist disaster where people are starving, can’t get bathroom tissues to wipe their ass (a specific issue in Shriver’s novel that’s also very plausible) and fighting each other over scraps — just as The Mandibles foresees.”

There are many libertarian elements, which it would be unfair to the reader to reveal in a review. Shriver, who I am sorry to say I had never read before, has a literary style that is clear and sharp, filled with wit. (In her future history, the Mexican government winds up behaving more sensibly than the profligate American one, and winds up building a wall to keep out desperate Americans seeking opportunity in a relatively free country.)

The idea of implanting a chip so that the government can monitor its citizens is not new, but Shriver’s skill gives the idea a new freshness.

I won’t reveal many more details but will suggest that libertarian readers interested in either mainstream fiction or science fiction will likely be interested in this book.

I will, however, answer the literary hit job put out on Shriver by Ken Kalfus last year in the Washington Post’s “Books” section. Apparently offended by Shriver’s irreverent treatment of current Democratic politics (one of her future Democratic politicians presiding over a ruined nation is Chelsea Clinton), Kalfus complained about the book’s “racist characterizations” and offered this example:

“The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrives in Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the streets of lawless New York, she’s held at the end of a leash. If ‘The Mandibles’ is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.”

This paragraph is clever in its maliciousness. It is a textbook example of how you can write something that is technically truthful (thus warding off a possible libel suit) but mislead the reader.

The Mandibles in fact makes a point of telling the reader that Luella was intelligent and charming when she was a healthy woman. At the time when the novel takes place, she is suffering from dementia. With the collapse of the government, the safety net that would have allowed families to deal with people such as Luella is completely gone, and the members of the family go to an enormous amount of trouble to take care of her, change her adult diapers, etc. This is depicted as a heroic effort by family members unwilling to abandon her. In the novel, the option of locking away dementia sufferers in secure nursing homes is gone. The leash that Kalfus references is what the family has to use to keep them from losing her. How did Kalfus miss all this, if he actually read the novel that the Washington Post assigned him to review? Did he skim it, looking for something to complain about?

And what should we make of the fact that Luella is “the single African American in the family,” as Kalfus puts it? How many white families have even one African American? The family patriarch, Lionel Mandible, married a black woman in the novel’s past. Why is this evidence of the novel’s racism?

And how did Kalfus manage to miss the fact that the most unsympathetic characters in the novel are all white? Gore Vidal used to complain about reviewers who, he alleged, didn’t actually read the entire book. I wonder if Shriver would have a similar complaint here.

(Tom Jackson is a journalist and a board member of the Libertarian Futurist Society. He blogs about the work of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea at RAWIllumination.net.)