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Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles is the smuggest dystopian novel this side of Ayn Rand

The Mandibles HarperCollins
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

It’s 2029, the dollar has collapsed, and America is on the brink of ruin. If only we had listened to the precocious libertarian children of the world and invested in gold, rather than trusting those elitist socialists who run the economy and the immigrants who run the government.

This is the world as described in Orange Prize–winning Lionel Shriver’s new dystopian novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. The book follows the respectable, upper-middle-class Mandible family as the economy collapses and the country devolves into chaos. The Mandibles are forced first to cram together into the modest Brooklyn home of elder sister Florence — the bleeding-heart liberal of the family — and then to escape New York City entirely and flee upstate to farmland.

The book is a fairly straightforward conservative libertarian nightmare. And while I personally don’t agree with its politics, I might still consider The Mandibles to be a well-crafted book, if it didn’t seem to exist almost entirely to congratulate itself on its political views.

Meet your new libertarian dystopia

In the near future of The Mandibles, Keynesian economics is revealed to be nothing more than “dodgy hocus-pocus” that has massively devalued the dollar. America’s national character has been diluted by the enormous political power of Latino immigrants who have, tellingly, changed the automated phone systems so that you have to dial one for Spanish and two for English.

You can’t trust anyone in power. University economics departments are filled with socialists who will tell you that “morally, your money does belong to everybody.” The president who defaults on the national debt was born in Oaxaca, and he only speaks Spanish at press conferences — so really, you can hardly be surprised when he confiscates the personal property of good, hardworking middle-class (and, it’s implied, white) Americans. The government has become a police state, and you can tell this not through its monopoly on sanctioned violence, but through its monopoly on gold.

Again, these are not my politics, but the fact that I disagree politically with The Mandibles doesn’t make it a bad book. The Mandibles could be brilliant, if it had something to offer other than its politics.

And there are occasional gestures toward that something else. Shriver is excellent at evoking the concrete physical discomfort created as the economy collapses. For instance, the Mandibles run out of toilet paper, so they have to rip up rags and use those instead. Then they start running low on cloth, so they have to find ways to launder and sterilize the soiled rags and reuse them even though they have almost no clean water. What a perfect mundane detail. What a compelling little piece of survivalism.

This is not a book that ever lets you doubt who’s right and who’s wrong

But those kinds of details are few and far between. Mostly, the characters of this book exist to have extended straw-man arguments about economic theory. And such is Shriver’s didactic use of adverbs that there is never, even for a moment, any ambiguity about who you are supposed to agree with. You are supposed to agree with the characters who speak “politely but firmly,” “quietly,” “carefully,” “reasonably,” not the ones who are loud and rude.

Not coincidentally, the polite, correct people believe in the gold standard, a flat tax rate, the right to bear arms, and American nativism. The loud people believe in financial regulation, gun control, and progressive immigration policy. They are wrong, and their wrongness and their loudness destroy America.

The closest The Mandibles comes to gesturing toward some kind of ambiguity in this binary is in the character of Florence. Florence is the kindest and most responsible of the Mandibles, a basically good person who has devoted her life to helping the poor, takes no interest in economics, and is constantly monitoring herself for insidious internalized racism. For this, the book considers her with a kind of pitying condescension: The poor dear, she means so well; it’s such a shame she doesn’t know better.

“You’ve been brainwashed,” explains Florence’s son Willing, a precocious self-taught economic savant. Willing is our hero, and as such we are meant to understand him to be pure of heart and unfailingly correct in his political and economic analyses. He, unlike his foolishly good-hearted mother, gets the fundamental and ugly truths of the world. Like how when people become useless to you — such as, for instance, one of the book’s only black characters, who has dementia and is mostly led around on a leash — that means they no longer have any intrinsic worth as human beings and should be put down.

In the end, Willing finds his salvation in the seceded free state of Nevada. Nevada’s on the gold standard, with a flat taxation rate of 10 percent, no social safety net, and a strict policy of isolationism. It’s a society that everyone describes as “not a utopia” in the same smug tones with which characters in the Narnia books will describe Aslan as “not a tame lion, you know.” The obvious clause is unspoken — it’s supposed to be better.

If you already agree with The Mandibles and its politics, this not-a-utopia may strike you as a worthy aspiration for America’s future. If you don’t open the book a committed libertarian, the not-a-utopia and the presentation of its politics may strike you as aggressively condescending and morally suspect. It’s unlikely you’ll find a middle ground.

No one is going to name a child Bing in 2019

To add to its myriad sins, The Mandibles fails to imagine a convincing near future for its dystopia. The characters all speak in absurd future slang, like “boomerpoop” for “nonsense.” (It’s a slur on baby boomers, because baby boomers, as the reader knows, are fundamentally an oppressed class.) Everyone wears heated electric underwear, of all things.

Most damningly, Shriver asks us to believe there is a 10-year-old boy named Bing in 2029. Which means that in the world of this book, Bing’s wealthy young mother thinks about Microsoft’s failed also-ran of a search engine enough to name her son in its honor three years from now. The engineer who designed Bing doesn’t think about Bing that much.

It may seem petty to carp on a single poorly chosen character name this much, but it’s indicative of a larger problem with the book. Namely: It exists to diagnose the social problems of modern America, but it doesn’t demonstrate a very sound grasp of what modern America actually looks like. “Bing” as a name is meant to parody the striving, tech-obsessed upper middle classes who conflate consumer tastes with life philosophy, but no self-respecting upper-middle-class striver has any kind of reverence for Bing.

Likewise, The Mandibles seems convinced that the resentment working- and middle-class Americans feel for the 1 percent is based on nothing more than a myth, and that the so-called “über-rich” don’t really exist — “über-rich,” seethes one of the characters we’re meant to identify with, being “apparently the only color rich comes in.”

There are only nice regular rich people, the book goes on to explain, and they deserve their wealth. And all of these nice regular rich people pay even more than their fair share of taxes, so what does the rest of America have to complain about? It’s an attitude that dismisses the very real and well-documented income inequality that has exploded across America over the past few decades.

So here’s what The Mandibles leave us with: flat characters who exist as mouthpieces for smugly condescending straw-man arguments on economic theory. Parodies that don’t seem to understand the subjects they’re parodying. A whole lot of conservative libertarian propaganda. And occasional flashes of a compelling survival story.

It leaves us with, in other words, all the makings of our next Ayn Rand.

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