Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles; A Family, 2029-2947, shifts us from familiar Shriver territory, chronicling America’s bleak present, to a satire of an even bleaker future. The dollar is in meltdown, the debt mountain has collapsed, and the once wealthy Mandible family are as bankrupt as everyone else in the country and no longer cushioned by the comfort of wealth. Like the US, they’re no one now they’re broke.
“We narrowly dodged a bullet in 2008,” said Shriver when I talked to her at The Books That Built Me, “but it’s still whizzing round the planet: all those rotten mortgages are mostly still there, but mostly I’m concerned about sovereign debt. This is a novel that, among other things, is about the United States defaulting on its national debt. It doesn’t have a reproving effect on the country.”
The Mandibles is a vast, highly entertaining family saga as well as a cautionary tale of economic armageddon, but it’s also about what we value – in particular, the value of the written word in a world where there are no printed books, where the internet has made everything available for free, and where, after the demise of newspapers, it’s impossible to trust what you read, piling another unnervingly prescient aspect to her dystopia. “I pretty much eliminated the written word in The Mandibles; that seemed dismal to me, not only because I like to read, but it would leave me out of a job. One of the things I’m really worried about is the end of professional journalism. I take it to an extreme in the novel, but it’s no longer an extreme when The Independent can no longer afford to put out a print edition and is now online only. One of the things that happens when a newspaper goes on line is that people don’t take it as seriously and [newspapers] can’t afford to take themselves as seriously because they can’t afford the staff to put out quality journalism, to do investigative journalism, and to fact check their own work. I’m actually much more worried about journalism in the near future than I am about literature – literature is an indulgence, a luxury, but I don’t feel that way about the newspaper I read every morning and it’s important to me that the information in it is true. We are starting to slide into a universe where you can believe whatever you want to believe and form your opinion first and then go out looking for information as back up, which you can always find because there is always someone else out there who feels the same way as you.”
One of the novel’s pivotal character is a writer – Nollie, a thinly veiled portrait of the artist. As Shriver says, “She’s obnoxious and opinionated and pushy and tactless. She’s been living in Europe – the main thing she brings back [to the US] is boxes and boxes of her own books, so she’s obviously something of a narcissist as well. You’re never quite sure if she’s any good as a writer, either. I figured I’m old enough and I’ve written enough books that I earned the inside job.”
For more about The Mandibles, and Lionel Shriver’s Books That Built Me, listen to the podcast