The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (Lionel Shriver)

I’m a sucker for apocalyptic fiction.  Probably, similar to many doom-and-gloom conservatives, deep down I see myself as bestriding the Apocalypse like a colossus, Bible in my left hand and short-barreled AR-15 in my right.  Of course, intellectually I realize that actual apocalypses are very, very bad for everyone involved, so my self-image is buried deep in my id, not a goal I have set for myself.  Moreover, my strong belief is that, while it may not be evident yet, the era of apocalyptic fiction is ending, to be replaced by a new literature of optimism and pursuit of excellence.  A few months ago, I thought that switch would be quick and smooth.  Now, I suspect it will happen slowly over piles of bodies, with the only question being how tall those piles will be.  In the meantime, though, we can enjoy The Mandibles, Lionel Shriver’s excellent, and mostly pessimistic, book about the near future collapse of America.

Really, this is a cautionary tale.  It is a fairy tale, like Hansel And Gretel, though here the witch is the economics of smoke and mirrors, especially involving money, and the gingerbread house is the belief that we can spend money we don’t have, endlessly receiving something for nothing.  The nature of cautionary tales is that they are didactic, of course, but Shriver does an excellent job of avoiding the shrill tones of, say, Ayn Rand or once-praised sixth-rate writers like Barbara Kingsolver and Annie Proulx, whose books are merely tedious vehicles for their various odious ideologies.

Shriver satirically narrates the economic collapse of America, occurring in 2029, when her book starts (although apparently things have been going downhill since the “Stonage,” i.e., “Stone Age,” when the Internet was brought down for three weeks, probably by the Chinese, to the economic detriment of America).  The book profiles an extended family—the wealthy elderly patriarch, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all living in either the New York or Washington, D.C. area.  Final economic collapse occurs when the United States currency, a fiat currency untrusted by other countries due to America’s stagnancy, consuming ways and lack of production, is replaced as the world’s reserve currency by the “bancor,” a new global currency backed by gold and commodities.  Global debtors demand repayment of dollar-denominated US debt in bancors; the US, under the leadership of a race-baiting Latino president, responds by cancelling all government debt (that owed to US citizens as well) and cutting off the US from the world financial and trading system.  The President then forcibly confiscates all the gold in the country and hands it over to China to prevent China attacking us.

Most of the book covers the subsequent slow slide into total American collapse.  As all non-hard assets lose their value, and those who produce nothing and offer no goods or services of actual value (such as academic economists and financial experts, and most members of the upper middle class) begin to starve, the government prints money and tries to keep the underclass from exploding.  Each of the family members reacts in different ways, mostly clueless, and they fail to realize that this time really is different.  The book follows this collapse into utter penury of the entire family, now forced to live together in a tiny Flatbush apartment and forage for food.  It then jumps ahead nearly twenty years, when the United States, a shadow of its former self, has stabilized as an ultra-high tax state (with every transaction recorded by, and taxes deducted by, chips in everyone’s head) devoted exclusively to funding healthcare of old people—if you can make it to sixty-eight, you’re on Easy Street.  The only possible exception is the seceded and semi-mythical state of Nevada, cut off from the rest of the states and a black hole, where crossing the border is rumored to explode the chip in your head.

The book is not perfect.  There are several incorrect usages that an editor should have caught—for example, the gum disease is “gingivitis,” not “peritonitis,” which is an abdominal infection.  And there are lacunae suggesting Shriver’s urban background (although apparently she grew up in North Carolina), especially involving guns.  Shriver does not really understand how guns work, and does not seem to understand that in any American slow collapse, crime would be a trivial problem, since everyone would be continually armed to the teeth, and not slow to use their weapons.  Moreover, I doubt very much that Americans would sit still for mass gold confiscation, or for a racist Latino president confiscating guns by, as Shriver relates, “re-interpreting” the Second Amendment.  Maybe they would—but Shriver, perhaps, is overly pessimistic about the moral fiber of Americans outside the chattering classes and the underclass.  Similarly, almost no mention is made of the rest of America, where my bet is that an economic collapse would have very different effects than in New York and DC.  But these are minor issues, and they don’t detract from the book as a whole.

Shriver, a self-identified libertarian, has gotten in trouble recently with today’s cultural commissars.  She gave the keynote speech at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival, where she attacked the concept of “cultural appropriation.”  Given that “cultural appropriation” is an unbelievably stupid and incoherent concept, you’d think that would have been unexceptional.  But no—Shriver’s point that authors are supposed to put themselves in the shoes of others was met with drooling, snarling rage from the usual suspects, including the festival organizers, who, as usual, couldn’t even semi-coherently say why she was wrong, but she was SO EVIL AND STUPID AND RACIST AND AWFUL DAMMIT!  To her credit, Shriver was having none of it, and simply rejected the criticism out of hand, noting that “[I]f you submit to the amount of criticism that’s out there every time you say anything, eventually you don’t say anything.”  And when asked in an interview, “In writing the speech, do you feel as if you neglected to have empathy for the side with which you disagree?,” she responded “I have no empathy with that side. So, yeah.”  Awesome.

And The Mandibles is even educational.  It functionally covers much the same ground as Peter Schiff’s How An Economy Grows And Why It Crashes, using the same hard-money, libertarian frame. But while that book is not very good at its declared purpose, being simultaneously simplistic and opaque, Shriver’s book offers education by showing how and why an economy could actually collapse as people forget that if you don’t produce value, you don’t own any value.  That’s something most of America has forgotten, and reading this book is valuable just to remind people that, ultimately, there is no free lunch.


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