2016, 402 P.
My local library has taken to labelling their fiction book collection as ‘Romance’ ‘Australian’ or in this case, ‘Humour’.**** Anyone reading this book for a chuckle would be sadly disappointed. Sure, there are spikes of satire and parody, but this dystopian novel could only be called ‘humour’ by someone who shares its libertarian, anti-Government, gun-toting politics. And that sure ain’t me.
[****And don’t get me started on my library’s determination to turn itself into a bookshop by grouping books into ‘Travel and History’ and ‘Mind and Body’ and leaving you to work out the category. Sheesh.]
In 2029 the Mandibles ( get it? jaw bone, consumers etc.) are a wealthy family, waiting on the elderly patriarch to die and allow the fortune to trickle down to his son, Carter Mandible, former newspaper editor, and his expatriate author daughter Enola. Carter’s children, Avery and Florence, and grandchildren are waiting on the inheritance too. Avery and her economist husband Lowell live an affluent lifestyle with their three children Savannah and sons Goog and Bing (get it? names of search engines). Living a more abstemious lifestyle, Florence works in a homeless shelter as a community worker, with her husband/partner Esteban from Mexico and son Willing (get it? I don’t know if I do. I tired of Shriver’s smartarsery with naming. He was the most competent one there, so perhaps Willing and Able?)
There had been rumbles of trouble brewing before 2029, when the book opens. In 2024 all internet-based infrastructure had failed, a crisis five years later known as the Stoneage or “Stonnage”. It was just a blip – although the government and power companies insisted that all payments to them be made by old-fashioned cheque – and by 2029 it was seen as a problem largely overcome. The real problem came in 2029 when a supranational currency known as the ‘bancor‘ (actually proposed by John Maynard Keynes in 1940) made the American dollar redundant in international trade. Mexican-born POTUS Alvarado defaulted on America’s debt. Deciding to go it alone, the American economy relied on the surrender of all gold reserves and the strict prohibition of the use of the bancor. Almost overnight the Mandible fortune had been wiped out, along with the middle-class professions which American’s indebtedness had made possible.
Margaret Atwood has famously said in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale that she only wrote about things that had already occurred somewhere in the world at some time. Dystopian fiction – especially in the near future – is at its best, I think, when it just extrapolates slightly from current events. In this regard, Shriver does pretty well. Our increasing acceptance of digital monetary transactions, the rise of China and Russia as world powers, the increasing Latin-Americanizing of the United States – all these things are happening now, and the book doesn’t demand a great deal of imagination to accept the scenario she is drawing.
But the scenario itself calls from her a great deal of explanation – too much explanation – much of which is carried through conversations at dinner parties and when the much-reviled economist Lowell and his smartypants son Goog and nephew Willing hold forth about the economy.
However, once the scenario has been established, the indignities and implications of economic collapse in our soon-present world mount up. What happens when the toilet paper runs out? How does a family deal with dementia when aged care is impossible?
Shriver squibs it a bit when she leaps from 2029 to 2047 in one jump. The establishment of a new, equally uncomfortable world order is glossed over, and here the politics of the book take over. It’s off to Nevada we go, with no Big Government looking into your bank account, with 10% taxation, with people taking responsibility for themselves. It’s no Utopia, as the Nevadan keep telling themselves, but it’s freedom. And at this point, my Australian lefty-ness starts to arc up and I remember that I’m not particularly enamoured of Lionel Shriver as a polemicist.
That said, I have found myself thinking about this book quite a bit since I finished it. When I first started it, I was also watching the excellent Years and Years on SBS On Demand, which I found a bit confusing as they both deal with near-future dystopias. Once I settled into Shriver’s book, and left behind the explanations and moved into the family dynamics, I was transfixed. I still don’t like where I ended up though.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library