BY MATTHEW HERBERT
There is a strong case to be made for not reading Lionel Shriver’s 2016 novel The Mandibles right now. It tells a story of catastrophic institutional collapse in America, and it is clearly composed to make you believe it could be describing an immediate future. So, I don’t know, maybe that cuts a little too close to the bone right now. A scenario of imminent institutional collapse is an all too believable present for most of us. Isn’t everyone’s anxiety level already high enough?
I mean, with heavily armed Schutzstaffel troops marauding in the streets of Portland, and a public health “response” to the deadly coronavirus so disjointed and incompetent that it feels like the expression of a national death wish–maybe you’re already maxed out thinking about the apocalypse that’s happening for real.
But then again, what is literature for?
It shows us who we are. And you should always face up to who you are. You might think of a way out.
So, courage! And on with The Mandibles.
It is 2029. The Mandible clan are waiting for their wealthy 97-year old patriarch, Douglas to die and relinquish the family fortune, but Douglas just goes on and on refusing to oblige. One day, over in Russia, Vladimir Putin and a handful of allies band together to create the bancor, the world’s new reserve currency. In so doing, they call out America’s longstanding lie that it ever intends to pay back its gargantuan national debt or could even dig up the necessary cash if it wanted to. Feistily, the U.S. president renounces the debt–just says, in effect, we are not going to repay a single cent: rip up the loan papers.
If it seems shockingly delusional for a debtor–any debtor, let alone a sovereign nation–to think he could simply erase his obligation to repay a loan, I believe that is because Shriver wants us to appreciate something hidden but of great significance about America. For several decades now, at least since Reagan’s Voodoo Economics, we have been in a stealthy, drawn-out process of renouncing our national debt. The president in The Mandibles simply punctuates this decision by articulating it at a particular moment in time and saying it to our creditors’ faces. The fact that in reality Americans have gotten used to a slow-motion debt renunciation over the course of decades should not obscure how outrageous it is that we have simply decided to live on waves of ever-larger loans, essentially kiting checks forever.
(Fun fiscal fact: The World Bank calculates that a country’s debt risks tipping into unrecoverable territory once it reaches 77 percent of GDP. Our national debt is 107 percent of our GDP. This year, the interest alone on our debt is $378 billion. The principal itself is $18 trillion. To date, the rest of the world smiles and nods as the Fed keeps telling the lie that we have the wherewithal to pay this back.)
If you think I’m getting hysterical about the morality of lying, see it the way Shriver sees it. She does no anguished clutching of pearls. The problem with the government’s fiscal dishonesty is not the moral harm of lying. The problem is that money is a shared fiction, and it only has value so long as most of the people believe its authors are telling the truth. If the issuer of a currency is found to be fundamentally not credible, the social consensus on which the currency’s value depends evaporates. It could vanish at any moment, taking the contents of our bank accounts with it.
In The Mandibles, the dollar plummets in reaction to Putin’s ploy, jobs disappear, and the U.S. economy goes into free-fall, with no sight of the bottom. Washington can secure no more loans. Douglas Mandible loses everything. Oh, he still has his stocks, but they are denominated in dollars, which have become worthless. The bancor has done its work. The Mandibles, and the U.S. government, are poor.
Like many great novelists, Shriver tells her tale through the lens of a family. Macroecononics, after all, is a pretty dull thing unless it’s ruining people’s lives, and the family is an ideal crucible for drawing out the human effects of impoverishment. As the locus for gathering and spending so many life-giving resources, the family is where macroeconomics comes home to roost, so to speak.
Douglas has three children, with families of their own. Oldest son Carter is a newspaperman who, at 74, has aged out of the profession but cannot retire to Montana until his dad takes the, erm, Big Retirement. Carter is a decent man, but feels he is owed something for his life of decency.
Carter’s daughter Florence is the story’s heroine. As the only Mandible who owns more stuff–a house in Brooklyn–than paper at the time of the collapse, she eventually has to take in the rest of the Mandibles, whose dollars, stocks and bonds have disappeared. Her aunt, Nollie, is an opinionated novelist who has been living in France most of her life. (No need to wonder who she is: Nollie is an anagram for Lionel, an opinionated novelist who’s been living in England most of her life.)
Florence’s insufferable brother-in-law, Lowell, is a Georgetown economist who, having lost his job, explains to the other Mandibles, and the reader, how things were supposed to work according to classic economic theory. Everything will correct, he says. He holes up in the basement and writes a platitudinous tract on this subject while the other Mandibles face the dreadful new normal, which includes armed grocery shopping, scavenging cloth for “ass napkins” (toilet paper is gone), and caring personally for (now) 99-year old Douglas and his dementia-stricken wife. As the only characters who have ever had to cope with a less-than upper-middle class existence before the crisis, Florence and her can-do husband Esteban lead the clan in keeping body and soul together. Shriver is a wonderful observer of how slightly off the world seems when women have economic power rather than men, and this theme comes out strongly in Florence.
The pivotal character of The Mandibles is Florence’s 14-year old son Willing. He understands the fictional nature of, not just money, but all the other conventions that hold society together. These include table manners, library cards, sales contracts, prohibitions on murder, and so forth. To Willing, the vaunted eternal truths of civilized peoples are just things we’ve made up ad hoc and sanctified with fancy origin stories.
At the depth of his family’s desperation, Brooklyn has become a frenzied lawless zone, ravaged by the desperate poor. The police, unable to cope with ubiquitous crime, fade away. Willing mugs a 10-year old for the groceries he’s carrying, not because he’s evil, as he tells his mom, but because only people who adapt get to eat.
While the family’s adults keep on thinking in terms of the society they are watching disappear–There’s gotta be a law against this anarchy!–Willing is several steps ahead of them, adapting to the new reality. One night, a formerly nice family from down the street comes, armed, to dispossess the Mandibles of their home. Willing, who has been thieving for several weeks to put food on the family’s table and is now used to thinking fast on his feet, quickly concludes that the house-jacking is a blessing in disguise. The city is falling apart, he reasons, and the thieves are doing the Mandibles a favor by expelling them toward escape. Packing his meager possessions at gunpoint, Lowell, the economist, rages at the injustice, that the “protection of private property is the primary responsibility of the state!” But Willing smiles to himself at this PhD’s blindness and soliloquizes, “Some people just couldn’t shift their paradigm.”
Paradigms: they are funny things. So weighty, and yet as light and wispy as our imaginations.
In his 1985 novel Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut paints much the same picture of the fragility of a paper economy as Shriver does in The Mandibles, but with a dark whimsy that is worth recalling. In Vonnegut’s future society, a million years hence, human brains have devolved and can no longer sustain belief in abstractions such as money. And thank god. People are back to spearing porpoises and trading coconuts, which has worked out well. The only famines in this new reality are good, honest ones in which the food has actually run out. The cause of the 1985 apocalypse in Galapagos was an extinction-level starve-off that turned out to be, in Vonnegut’s terms, “simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains.” The famine was caused by a financial collapse and thus was
as purely a product of oversize brains as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was all in people’s heads. People had simply changed their opinions of paper wealth, but, for all practical purposes, the planet might as well have been knocked out of orbit by a meteor the size of Luxembourg.
Vonnegut reminds us just how weak the foundations of social reality were back in the 1985 of Galapagos, when humanity was perched on the edge of financial ruin. He observes, “Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people’s actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence never would be. . . . [P]aper money could be traded for food, clothing and shelter in one moment and line the bottom of a birdcage in the next . . . .”
In Shriver’s novel of financial apocalypse, the heroes persevere and win their way back to a kind of normality. It is not much like the old normality, at least in terms of national wealth, but the bedrock institutions of society do come back into view, dimly. Starvation recedes, under an affordable supply of chick peas and grasshopper protein paste. The United States claws back a viable if much reduced economy consisting of mostly service jobs. Cash is abolished, and everyone is implanted with a digital chip that both enables and monitors all their transactions, including taxes. With such expanded monitoring powers in place, the police can do their jobs again, and do so with relish.
Willing chafes under this new regime of e-tyranny and in 2047 leads most of the Mandible clan’s younger generation to resettle in the United State of Nevada, which has seceded from the union. The USN promises its citizens lives of austere freedom and taxes them a flat rate of ten percent. A grizzled old booster summarizes the clean protestantism of the new life in 10 percent Nevada:
No Medicaid-subsidized nursing homes. No so-called safety net. Every citizen in this rough-and-tumble republic gotta walk the high wire with nada underneath but the cold hard ground. Trip up? Somebody who care about you catch you, or you fall on your ass.
Bracing, but one must think this Brave New Man has never heard of cancer or liver failure or diabetes.
What I like about Galapagos is that Vonnegut literally has his characters and the whole mise en scene revert to the state of nature. In his imagined future, there has been no reboot of the social contract, only a wiping clean of society’s slate. The reader gapes at the things that are missing: law, cities, armies, bottled drinks, all of it.
In The Mandibles, Shriver lets the reader observe the hasty regeneration of society and draw her own conclusions about what its foundations consist in. But make no mistake. The story-telling angle may be different, but the status of the “bedrock” beliefs that make up society are no less ethereal for Shriver than they are for Vonnegut. It’s all castles in the air. Looking back at the collapse of 2029 and the resurgence of institutions since then, Shriver has Lowell reflect bitterly on what has been lost. He “was incensed by how readily the rest of his crowd gave up on standard procedure. It was when you neither believed in systems, nor employed the tools of systems, that the systems broke down for good.” The systems–from banks to companies to colleges to money–have no objective reality. Although they determine almost everything of significance about our lives, they do not exist absent our belief in them.
On its surface, The Mandibles is a warning to Americans that our country could go broke the same way people do–gradually and then suddenly. It is a gripping, courageous, and occasionally humorous look at economic Armageddon through the eyes of a family that had every conventional reason to believe their slice of the pie was safe, despite cracks in the foundations spidering around them.
But on a deeper level, The Mandibles should remind us that money is only one of many shared fictions that stabilize society and safeguard the possibility of human decency. At the very bottom of these fictions is the most powerful one of all, from which all the rest of them spring. It is the Hobbesian social contract, the willingness of each individual to surrender his right to lethal force to a mutually recognized authority. You either have a war of all against all, or you have the police. You can’t have both. Society, with all its wealth and order and comfort, depends for its existence on our (admittedly risky) commitment to stop being savages.
But we Americans have always half-assed the social contract. We’ve never bought all the way in. We retain a romantic attachment to the idea that we each star in a heroic drama that may require us to shoot our way out of trouble. The trouble may come from bears, red Indians, street thugs, home invaders, or the federal government, but we reserve the right to an armed showdown with them. We have always said: Fuck the police.
In a recent essay for the New Yorker on the invention of another shared fiction, the police, the historian Jill Lepore gives context to the ongoing conflict between the police and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. The violence between the two sides is the result of an arms race that springs from our steadfast refusal to enter and abide by the social contract. Alone among “civilized” countries, we prefer the social fiction that life is best as an armed struggle over other social fictions in which the police are entrusted with a monopoly on violence. Lepore writes:
American police are armed to the teeth, with more than seven billion dollars’ worth of surplus military equipment off-loaded by the Pentagon to eight thousand law-enforcement agencies since 1997. At the same time, they face the most heavily armed civilian population in the world: one in three Americans owns a gun, typically more than one. Gun violence undermines civilian life and debases everyone. A study found that, given the ravages of stress, white male police officers in Buffalo have a life expectancy twenty-two years shorter than that of the average American male. The debate about policing also has to do with all the money that’s spent paying heavily armed agents of the state to do things that they aren’t trained to do and that other institutions would do better. History haunts this debate like a bullet-riddled ghost.
The Mandibles is a story about the fragility of all the conventions that make up civilized society. And money is a great attention getter. I can see why Shriver chose it as the focal point of her novel. Tell prosperous people they really could go broke over night, and they just may sit up and listen to the rest of what you have to say.
But the real message of The Mandibles (and Vonnegut’s Galapagos, for that matter) is how selective Americans are in their commitments to the whole range of bedrock social fictions, even highly useful ones. We have a state, which indicates at least a latent desire for the goods of the social contract, but we also have romantic vision of ourselves as armed guardians of our dreams. We want the social contract, but we also want an escape clause. The fact that we are witnessing the dissolution of our society on our streets should warn us to be careful of what we ask for. In Lepore’s hard, crystalline phrase, the savage commitment to all-against-all violence that expresses itself in our gun culture debases us all. It makes us unworthy of the civilization we purport to want. There are much better fictions we could have chosen.
As always, my review is a personal one. You may enjoy these reviews of The Mandibles by professional journalists and critics. To keep my thoughts fresh, I avoided reading them before writing my own review.