An American dystopia with no cash and seemingly no escape is a fictional nightmare too far – or is it, asks Allan Massie
The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver | The Borough Press, 406pp, £16.99
Set aside for the moment the possibility that prophesies may be realised, and there are few things more exhilarating than a good fictional dystopia. This is what Lionel Shriver offers in The Mandibles, sub-titled A Family, 2029-2047. She presents us with a future which is already within sight, one in which the American Empire is on the skids, US government debt is astronomical, the dollar in free fall and being battered by a newly-created international reserve currency, the bancor. In response, Washington battens down the hatches, the government confiscates all the gold in the country, and American citizens are forbidden to take more than $100 out of the US.
The Mandibles are a grand and very rich family. All of them have been counting on inheriting wealth when their patriarch, 97 year-old Douglas, dies. But as the American Dream turns to nightmare, certainties vanish and horrors become realities. Wealth and savings evaporate. The beleaguered state turns fierce and dictatorial. The Latino president’s response to the crisis makes things worse. Foreigners buy up real estate and businesses. The families of Douglas’s granddaughters, do-gooder Florence and socialite psychotherapist Avery, may find themselves on the streets, social failures like millions of others.
Shriver is indignant and has a lot of fun with her indignation. The government and the Federal Reserve Bank have been debauching the currency for generations, buying prosperity with borrowed and invented money. Avery’s husband is an economist who argues that if the government holds its nerve, the party can go on for ever, retribution permanently postponed. He couldn’t be more wrong. Only Florence’s teenage son, Willing, understands what is happening: America has gone feral and the doomed family must escape New York – even if this means surrendering Florence’s house, where they have taken refuge, to a man with a gun. He is one of the two strong characters; the other is his great-aunt Nollie, a once-successful novelist, long resident in Paris. She still carts her manuscripts about with her, but nobody buys books now. Content is free on the web, and there are no printed books, no print newspapers.
Things have stabilised by the 2040s, but America is now a police state. Cash has been abolished. Everyone of working age has a chip embedded in their neck, so the successor to the Inland Revenue Service keeps track of every individual financial transaction. Willing has reluctantly consented to being chipped; it makes him feel as if he has suffered rape. Is there a way out? Perhaps to the breakaway independent United State of Nevada? But this is known to be hazardous, said to be impossible. The word is they will zap you by means of the chip if you make the attempt.
The novel rattles along. Shriver writes with brio and intellectual zest. She is fiercely intelligent, but she has the qualities and virtues of the classical novelist. The ideas are fascinating, and the characters are thoroughly imagined and convincing. This makes her novel different from, say, Huxley’s Brave New World where the argument is fascinating and the people of little interest.
This kind of novel invites the question: is the vision of the future credible? Well, the US is not alone in running up national debt and paying for ever higher public spending by creating money. Ask your parents or grandparents what a pound would buy when they were young. Here the Chancellor preaches austerity and the debt rises and the deficit does not disappear. Can we go on like this? Shriver gives us a lively picture of a grisly future in which the answer is no longer “yes, we can” but “no, we can’t”. The horrors she imagines may be averted, though much that she imagines is already upon us. Much is all too credible – if only when you are in a black mood. However, her gloomy vision is so brilliantly depicted that her novel is wonderfully enjoyable. If we are going to hell in a handcart, she makes the journey great fun. Incidentally, in the 2040s oldies with death in sight are known as “shrivs”, short, I assume, for “shrivers”.