Destruction to Desolation: Shriver's Course of Empire

It's hard to classify Lionel Shriver's latest novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, as futuristic dystopian fiction if for no other reason than the present direction and momentum of the U.S. could bring us something like Shriver's vision in a decade or so. The upheaval and displacement summons up visions of the Russian revolution (think Dr. Zhivago and family losing all but one room in their house, and then finally the family is displaced. Or, the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath).

The novel also feels like a natural sequel to So Much for That, where a man whose plans to retire to a remote island are derailed by his wife's diagnosis of cancer. The man's wife with all the treatments not covered by their insurance causes a vast portfolio her husband acquired from selling his handyman repair company to disappear within months. The wife is diagnosed as terminal and the man is fired. Perfect title. The two novels should be filmed as season one and two on HBO or Showtime.

Shriver's opening in Mandibles is a little difficult to following owing to the extensive cast of characters which comprise the large Mandible family. Subsequent editions of the book would do well to include a Mandible family tree. Still, the narrative settles into a fast-paced rhythm.

Most of the family are struggling to some degree, awaiting for deliverance by the family's 97-year old patriarch (Grand Man) and inheritances from his vast fortune. But 100 years after the big crash, a second crash (a la Mr. Robot, Phase 2) wipes him out. A number of countries have issued a new currency, but exclude the U.S. The Mexican U.S. president takes drastic measures, one of which is to ban the new currency. So the Mandibles and many other Americans with worthless dollars face runaway inflation resulting in, for example:

• A head of cabbage selling for $20, later $30; zucchini, $24/lb.; snap peas, $31/lb. and shortages and bare shelves are on the rise.
• Government search and seizure of gold (hiding it is treason).
• Travelers cannot take more than $100 out of the country.

When "Grand Man" is evicted from his $27,000 a month luxury retirement home, one family member suggests Medicaid assistance. Ah, but they've changed the rules. This assistance is denied if any family members have any assets. A gut check tells me this one is coming.

Near the middle of the book, there are at least 10 family members living in a small house so that it takes on a "Shameless" vibe. But even this arrangement doesn't last long. There is a break 300 pages in, punctuated with a violent shocking climax followed by a jump to 2047. To say that the U.S. has recovered is to accept a desultory life of mediocrity with a re-branded IRS tracking citizens who are required to have chips planted in the backs of their heads which can track earnings, purchases, and movement.

Along the way, Nevada has seceded and is considered a kind of "free zone," a blank spot on any U.S. map, which Shriver presents as an acceptable libertarian refuge. Depending on your politics this may be off putting. One of survivors, Willing Mandible, instrumental in the family's survival 18 years earlier, decides to head there in search of an Uncle Jarred who had defected their years before. Willing, along with his 92-year old Aunt Nollie find Jarred. They are successful and establish a foothold where Willing to sends for other surviving family members. While it's not utopia, it's simply an "off the grid" place to survive where the main requirement is self-reliance. Nevada has its own currency and has a flat tax of 10%. No social security, no medicare. No public assistance. If you get sick you better have some caring family members.

Politics aside, Shriver's prose is compelling. A visual analogy for Part One (300 pages) might be Thomas Cole's fourth in a series of five paintings ("Course of Empire): "Destruction." Part Two may be compared to the final painting in the series: "Desolation" (the aftermath). Over this time period, China has annexed Japan. Indochina has invaded Australia. Finally Russia annexes Alaska. A U.S. Senator says, well Alaska is so far away anyhow.