Careful What You Ask For: A Review of “The Mandibles” by Lionel Shriver

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.

mandibles

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.

Vox

The New Yorker

The Guardian

The New York Times

The Economist

 

 

 

My Country Right and Wrong: A Review of “Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography” by David S. Reynolds

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I’ll be the the first to admit I can be kind of a grump in these pages. I’m constantly bemoaning how badly my country fails to live up to its ideals.

Just last week I was writing about how horrible it was that we adopted greed as our national ideology in the 1980s and school shootings became our defining trait in the 90s. I often contend that most Americans are too fatheaded to see how indecent our society has become. With the cheapest of bribes–junk food, reality TV, violent spectacle, gameshow religion, and so forth–the established powers buy our bovine loyalty. And they ensure  a generous supply of guns, drugs, and booze for the self-euthanizing of the weak, the useless, whoever can’t hack.

See? There I go again.

I think I make it pretty clear, though, that my scolding is done in the spirit of self-improvement. My critique is a measure of respect for our principles. If I didn’t care so much about our failure to live up to our ideals, I wouldn’t bother with all the anguished soul searching.

Still, here’s a thought: If you were in a relationship with someone who was constantly berating you for your moral failures and who was assuring you they wouldn’t be so critical if they didn’t love you so much, wouldn’t you want to hear their positive case for being in the relationship? Don’t we all need to hear a simple, heartfelt “I love you” now and then?

Well, America will get by with or without my professions of love. But still, I wonder sometimes why this part of the relationship is so much harder for me than the Maoist program of self-criticism. If I believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, that our union consists not just in adherence to a set of philosophical principles, but in “bonds of affection,” should I not feel that affection–a simple, untroubled fondness for my country?

Feeling are morally significant after all. Aristotle wrote that being virtuous is a matter of choosing the best action and doing so on the basis of good character. But that is not the end of the story. Having a good character should not just inform our choice of actions (like, say, an algorithm could), but should also implicate an experience of corresponding emotions, which Aristotle’s expositors call “proper moral affect.” For Aristotle, a true patriot would not just make patriotic choices based on critical study of right and wrong but would also feel the emotions appropriate to patriotism, primarily as love of one’s country.

Do I ever really feel this? Yes, I do.

The America that I love is the America of Walt Whitman. I was reminded of this this week as I was reading David Reynolds’s absolutely superb 1995 book, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. It tells in scholarly and loving detail how Whitman’s writings created a therapeutic image of a joyous, unified, benevolent America out of the elements of a fracturing society in the 1850s.

Whitman

The last time I read Leaves of Grass, four or five years ago, I was so overwhelmed by the feeling it exuded of confident patriotism that I forgot how deeply divided the country was as Whitman was writing it. As I read, I pictured America simply as the lush Arcadia was painting in his poems. But this was not the actual state of the nation. The country was in deep trouble, and Whitman was forging an overt, calculated work of propaganda to try to keep it from falling apart.

A little context is needed here. In 1854 Whitman was in the midst of preparing the first edition of Leaves of Grass for publication, to come out the following year. As events unfolded, the 1855 edition and the next two–in 1856 and 1860–would all be framed by America’s deepening political crisis and Whitman’s evolving attitude toward it. Whitman thought Leaves of Grass could be the thing to save America, but the damage was mounting fast, and the America that needed saving kept changing right in front of his eyes.

In May of 1854 Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which called for any new states admitted to the union to hold popular referendums on the legality of slavery. The law overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had said there would be no new slave states north of the 36°30′ parallel, period. Thugs from Missouri crossed into Kansas in November 1854 and March 1855 to vote for pro-slavery governments, paving the way for Kansas to become a slave state.

Things were coming to a head across the country. In Boston on July 4th 1854, famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned the U.S. Constitution after a court ruled that Anthony Burns, an escaped slave, must be returned to his Virginia owner in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act. Deploring the failure of U.S. institutions to stand up to the South’s power, Whitman agitated for something close to open revolt in the streets. In his notebook he wrote that the Fugitive Slave Act was “to be defied in all parts of These States, . . . by speech, by pen, and, if need be, by the bullet and the sword.” In his poetry, soon to be published, he wrote, “Agitation is the test of the goodness and solidness of all politics and laws and institutions.– If they cannot stand it, there is no genuine life in them, and they shall die.”

Whitman had very recently been a stalwart of the Democratic party and and advocate of orderly political participation, but as the country spun into disarray in 1854, he came more to believe in a free-flowing populism that would overthrow and replace party politics. He saw a potential saving power in the masses, “the tens of thousands of young men, the mechanics, the writers, &c. &c. In all this, under and behind all the bosh of regular politicians, there burns, almost with fierceness, the divine fire which more or less, during all ages, has only waited a chance to leap forth and confound the calculations of tyrants.” The citizens would be the heart and soul of his poem.

But the divine fire of civil liberation wasn’t the only spirit burning in America as Whitman was preparing the second, much larger edition of Leaves of Grass. In May 1856, Missouri ruffians again crossed into Kansas, and in Lawrence they kidnapped several free-state politicians, burned their houses, and destroyed the printing presses of two free-state newspapers. After Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner called the marauders the “drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization” and condemned his South Carolinian colleague Andrew Butler for serving “harlot slavery,” the same cause as the Missouri thugs’, Butler’s cousin Preston Brooks walked into the Senate chamber and beat Sumner nearly to death with a gold-headed cane. Two days later, in Pottawatomie, Kansas, the radical abolitionist John Brown hit back at pro-slavery forces, massacring five pro-slavery settlers with homemade broadswords. Kansas was bleeding; the nation had no political center.

And so in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman strained even harder to try to stop America from tearing itself apart. The new collection was, Reynolds writes, more scattershot in its approach–offering something for everyone–and more polarized in its content. In a new poem, “Respondez,” Whitman condemns the republic to the ruin he seems to believe it deserves after the infamy of the Burns decision, the caning of Sumner, and the bloodletting of Pottawatomie. “Let there be no God!” he writes; “Let all the men of These States stand aside for a few smouchers! Let the few seize on what they choose! Let the rest gawk, giggle, starve, obey. . . . Let the infidels of These States laugh all faith away. / Let the white person again tread the black person under his heel!” (A smoucher is a greedy-guts, usually with political connections in Whitman’s writings.)

But then in the same volume, Whitman swings to the other pole, trying even more earnestly to bring America back from rock bottom. In another new poem, “Song of the Broad-Axe,” Whitman proffers new, more soaring visions of popular sovereignty as a mystical force, capable of replacing politics. Going straight to the point, he writes, “I see the headsman withdraw and become useless, . . .” The masses in Whitman’s nation are competent to take charge and purge the old system. He sees an America where “the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases, / Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons, / . . . Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority, / Where the citizen is always the head and ideal, . . . ” Ordinary people built America, Whitman says, so let them run it.

But America’s downward spiral continued, even as disappointing reviews came in for the 1856 Leaves of Grass, spurring Whitman to form up for still another charge. By the time the next edition came out in 1860, events were making a political solution to America’s deepening crisis appear even more remote. In 1857 the U.S Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slaves were not citizens, based on their race, and thus were deprived of any possible legal protections of their rights. In October 1859, after relocating from Kansas, John Brown launched his doomed attempt to spark a slave revolt by seizing the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He was captured and hanged. Politically, there seemed no hope even for a clear, decisive contest between pro- and anti-slavery forces at the ballot box: four candidates crowded the field for the following year’s presidential election, virtually guaranteeing the winner would lack majority support. Indeed this came to pass. When Abraham Lincoln was elected, he won less than 40 percent of the vote, and he didn’t even appear on the ballots of ten southern states. Whitman didn’t like him. (Although he would come to revere Lincoln later.)

Through all this trouble and murk, Reynolds relates, Whitman tried to legislate the mystical unity of Americans by poetic fiat. (“What I assume, you will assume.”) And his words have such power, they almost pull it off. The America he describes in this most forceful, expansive edition of Leaves of Grass is the one I love. It overflows with natural beauty, material wealth, purposeful work, selfless affection, sexual freedom, marshal determination, artistic novelty, scientific curiosity, everything that can make a people bold, dignified and large-spirited.

So it might not be simple, but it is heartfelt: here is my “I love you.” I owe much of it to Whitman, and to his America, which Reynolds limns so expertly.

Before all other qualities, the America that I love is a written country. We have inscribed and printed everything that says who we are. Our Declaration of Independence is a letter to the world. The debate over how to put our independence into action and make it compatible with freedom is contained the Federalist Papers. Nothing less than the Constitution followed. The meaning of our revolution for the world is boldly set forth in Thomas Paine’s essays. Frederick Douglass’s autobiography indicts our besetting sin of slavery and demands our republic rid itself of it. The Seneca Falls Declaration proclaims the equality of women as inherent in our founding principles and deserving of constitutional protection. Whitman’s belief that a written work would be the thing to save the nation was completely in keeping with our best and deepest traditions as a country that was written into being. I would love America best of all countries for this quality alone. (And, I would add, Whitman’s poetry continues the writing of America.)

Second, my America guards the sanctity of conscience. Because it takes in people of all faiths, America encompasses all faiths. We share a broad, generous vision of ecumenism, where many countries have an established religion instead. This goes well beyond the polite tolerance of other faiths or the hyphenization of them as “American.” American ecumenism, for Whitman, is the very ur-ground of all religion, the center of man’s universal search for meaning. We contain multitudes. Whitman effuses, “I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god, / I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies are true, without exception.” Even further, Whitman holds up of an ideal of an American “[w]ho believes not only in our globe with its sun and moon, but in other globes with their suns and moons.” All new, as-yet uninvented faiths are also possible here.

As a liberal democrat, these are sacred pronouncements for me. They say to the whole world, come to America, because here your conscience reigns supreme. Your thoughts will not be policed; you may lead an inviolable life seeking whatever essential purposes you choose. I, Matt Herbert, might have hearty contempt for the particular articles of humankind’s religions (and I do), but I have the ultimate regard for the privacy of conscience from which they spring. When I stand up for your right to believe, I do so with the same, full affirmation as Whitman, adopting each of your theories, myths, gods, and demi-gods.

Third, the America I love is growing, dynamic and prosperous. In Whitman’s lifetime, the population of the United States grew six times faster than the rest of the world, Reynolds points out, reaching 30 million by 1860. Our national wealth grew from $8.4 billion in 1850 to nearly $50 billion in 1880. Whitman’s father was a carpenter in Brooklyn, where Walt spent most of his working life (for a while as a house builder himself), and where the family felt this growth rate personally. It was dizzying. Brooklyn’s population skyrocketed from 40,000 in 1840 to 250,000 when the first edition of Leaves of Grass came out in 1855. And while the city faced all the usual challenges that come with explosive urban growth, it evolved government institutions that met those challenges. Whitman believed then, and I believe now, that dynamic growth gives ordinary people the opportunity for adventure and purpose, grand enough for celebrating in poems. After the Civil War, large corporations drove growth on a new scale, which Whitman praised in his 1871 “Song of the Exposition”:

I raise a voice for far superber themes for poets and for art,
To exalt the present and the real,
To teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade,
To sing in songs how exercise and chemical life are never to be
baffled,
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
To plant and tend the tree, the berry, vegetables, flowers,
For every man to see to it that he really do something, for every
woman too;
To use the hammer and the saw, (rip, or cross-cut,)
To cultivate a turn for carpentering, plastering, painting,
To work as tailor, tailoress, nurse, hostler, porter,
To invent a little, something ingenious, to aid the washing, cook-
ing, cleaning,
And hold it no disgrace to take a hand at them themselves.

Finally, my America has an urban cultural core, which I cherish. Those of you who know me at all might wonder where this is coming from. I grew up in rural Missouri, 10 miles outside the closest town, which had 360 people. And when I felt like escaping that scene, which I assuredly did, I went west, to seek adventure under the high, arid skies of America’s desert and mountain wildernesses. The parts of America I still long to see are great, lonely spaces–Glacier National Park, Montana, the mountains of southeast Alaska, Wyoming’s Wind Rivers. Nature is and will always be restorative for me; my American heart will always beat somewhere west of the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range.

But the city fuels the life of the mind. Socrates taught in Athens, not on some god-forsaken rock outcrop of an island. I didn’t live in my first city until grad school in Chicago, and that happened late in life, at 29, but it changed me. Today I would not choose a hometown that lacked bustle or, more importantly, pedestrian access to the things that stimulate the mind–libraries, schools, theaters, museums, stadiums, monuments, bars, cafes, train stations, harbors, and, yes, businesses of all kinds. I’m a convert. My heart may beat in the big-sky wilderness, but my mind hums in the city. Americans in Whitman’s day certainly felt the pull of urbanization. Only 6.5 of Americans lived in cities in 1830, but 22 percent did by 1880.

The most fascinating part of reading Walt Whitman’s America is seeing how all the elements of our culture that Whitman would synthesize into a national poem came to him in our most vibrant city, New York. Everything he needed to fire his vision was within a short walk of his newspaper office. An archetypal image of Whitman that’s easy to muster is him striding across the whole of the country taking everything in, from prairie to bayou to mountaintop to metropolis. But this never happened. Except for a nine-month job in New Orleans, Whitman really only worked out of Brooklyn, frequently taking the ferry into Manhattan to go the theater or whoop it up with young roughs from the Bowery. From his urban cockpit, he drew in all things current and American: Quakerism, political oratory, hokey pop music, sensational journalism, daguerreotype technology, high and low theater, minstrel shows, tent-revival religion, the quackery of spiritualism, pseudo-science such as phrenology and harmonialism, new biology, the transcendental philosophy of Emerson, and more. Had Whitman not lived in America’s buzziest city, his poetic vision would have been that much less. City life made Whitman, and Whitman, in his way, made America.

I’d like to leave this “I love you” at that, but I can’t. There are too many caveats, and Reynolds does such a masterful job of helping us understand them that I cannot let them go unmentioned.

Just as America was changing rapidly right before Whitman’s eyes in the crucial decade he was writing and revising Leaves of Grass, it has continued to change. It still does, even faster. Some of the cultural sources that Whitman drew on in the 1850s to compose his vision of a harmonious, bountiful, self-confident America no longer exist. Much of this change has been for the good: who needs phrenology or Christian Science anymore? But there are other losses that ache. Since the America I love is basically Whitman’s America, I have to say I mourn some of the things now departed.

For one thing, labor is now thoroughly alienated. Jobs are not as meaningful as they were in Whitman’s time; nor are they likely to be as secure or subjectively satisfying. For most people today, work simply cannot form the basis of a compelling, dignified life narrative. Many of the physical tasks about which Whitman rhapsodizes–say digging or hoeing–are no longer invigorating parts of holistic professions but have been isolated for efficiency’s sake and made the focal point of shit jobs–jobs so hard, unpleasant, repetitive, or mind-numbing they will only be done by the most surplus of surplus labor. Think Caesar Chavez’s grape pickers. Others of us have bullshit jobs–organizational busy work (admittedly sometimes demanding and well-paid) that serves no discernably human purpose and leaves no mark on the world worth having. If your job is described primarily using buzzwords (say, “data-driven content manager”), chances are you have a bullshit job. Gig work, which may incorporate elements of shit- and bullshit jobs, presents symptoms of a grievous new pathology that designs maximal precariousness into work.

I’m not trying to berate anyone here for working for their living. The point is only this: Today, a much smaller portion of the laboring masses knows what their job is for or how it connects to a wider community or an essential purpose of humanity. These things were hardly mysterious in Whitman’s time. If you were a dairy farmer, you got milk from cows for people to drink. And significantly, you did the whole job, from raising the cows to contracting with a dairy to come buy the milk and take it away. Today, if you are one of the 1,200 employees of the country’s largest dairy farm, you’re either stuck in accounting, or you specialize in dosing the cows with hormones and antibiotics. Maybe you put on a hazmat suit and remove excrement eight hours a day–literally a shit job. Point is, your usefulness to wider society has shrunk to the same vanishing point as that of Henry Ford’s assembly-line drone who affixes doodad A to doodad B.

So why is this important? The saving power that Whitman perceived in ordinary Americans lay precisely in their work identities. Late in life, he even thought the great, engrossing work of professionals would be America’s crowning glory. He wrote of this in millennial terms:

A new worship I sing,

You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours.

[. . .]

After the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work,

After noble inventors, after the scientist, the chemist, the

geologist, the ethnologist.

Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,

The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

Even in Whitman’s simpler, bardic visions, he thought an America that was working purposively was united–“singing.” His choice of a working man’s garb reflected his faith that “beneath the ‘scum’ of social rulers lay the hearty goodness of average workers.” Reynolds also records how, when the young Whitman started learning the newspaper business in the 1840s, an editor ran the whole show, from the nuts and bolts of type-setting to reportage, to choosing a business model and selling ad space. This was how Whitman learned to work, as someone who saw the whole value of his job, to himself and others.

So that’s all gone. Or rather, meaningful work is now so unevenly distributed in complex societies that its social capital threatens to vanish altogether. The optimist in me says we can (in fact must) look elsewhere for the elements of our individual identities–the basis of political action. But I don’t feel optimistic. Right now my analysis of the future of work is pretty much the same as Yuval Noah Harari’s, who believes that technology will keep taking our jobs and depriving us of stable professions. Constant, frenetic “retooling” awaits us all. My main fear for my children’s generation is that they will lack the inhuman level of resilience and flexibility required to cope with the coming cascade of disruptions to the very idea of work. We sit on the edge of this deluge now. We are, at present, coming to grips with the prospect of having a growing class of useless people. In fifty years, the useless class will claim the large majority of us. What then? Americans, like everyone else, lack the wisdom to answer this question.

Which brings me to my second caveat. Whitman believed American society was so great that even the common man shared in the life of the national mind, by a kind of instinct, or possibly through the overflow of surplus genius. In his poem “Great Are the Myths,” Whitman claims that mere peasants have equal access to the guiding ideas of civilization, the same as the judge, the politician, the philosopher, or the master of industry: “Justice is not settled by legislators and laws, . . . it is in the soul. / . . . the great includes the less.” Reynolds’s analysis of this idea of socio-cognitive equality is illuminating. He writes, “Whitman’s emphasis on the common denominators of experience–the earth, sleep, work, sex, and the appetites–shows him trying to regain fundamental laws that are unarguable and sound.”

In fact, today there is a nearly hermetic barrier between the informed and the ignorant in America, so complete that it threatens to dissolve our bonds of social solidarity. It is Whitman’s idea of intellectual osmosis that has proven to be a myth. We are still a written country, and America produces an embarrassment of riches in all sectors of expertise, in history, economics, technology, and sciences hard and soft. The publication of books that present complex, trenchant and deeply informed analysis of vital issues (along with idle considerations of “mere” curiosities) is truly astounding here. The provision of a stupendously large body of knowledge in the English language is an unremarked glory of civilization (there, I said something nice). But provision does not mean proliferation.

The truth is, the “less,” who were supposedly included in the “great” in Whitman’s poem, have been even further demoted in the information age. They are now less than the less. In 1850 America outshone the whole rest of the world in literacy, and surging improvements in public education brought the dream of informed intelligence within any citizen’s reach. America published, sold and read more books than any other nation by far. Lectures were a popular form of entertainment for goodness sake. Crowds attended them.

Today there is a yawning informational class difference in America, which is abetted and reinforced by the political and financial elite. I am not just talking about Americans getting dumber, a statistical artifact of our having gotten smarter in the recent past. There is something diabolical afoot. The artful defunding of public schools, the provision of fake- and pro-regime news (along with, crucially, the deliberate, reckless razing of epistemological standards for distinguishing information intended to be true from schlock that is meant to be false), and the swamping of the American mind with aggressively stupid low culture–these are the main tools of the power elite for ensuring a large majority of our citizens either actively resist being informed or lack the capacity to understand any public affairs of significance.

When Whitman, a successful newspaper editor who never graduated high school, professed his belief that the “less” could join with the “great,” it was credible that the less literate–those who filled America’s one-room school houses and the city streets’ schools of hard knocks–were oriented on the same horizon of human knowledge that was heroically being advanced by (American) expertise. Today, Americans exercise the “freedom to choose” other horizons, which are not defined by overweening “experts.” And increasingly, they see this choice as a virtuous one, in line with an “American” conception of freedom. If you find this claim extraordinary and therefore in need of extraordinary evidence, behold, right in front of your eyes: a whole class of Americans so ghoulishly committed to the cause of ignorance they are flirting with mass suicide rather than taking simple steps proven to promote public health in the current pandemic. (I might have saved my breath and just said: see COVID-19 parties.)

One more thing needs to be said in the way of a caveat. Whitman got race and slavery entirely wrong, and to that extent, his genius has limited healing power for us today. Although he protested the Fugitive Slave Act loudly in 1855, his basic political cause was–like the early Lincoln’s–unionism, not abolitionism. In his later years, Whitman became more socially conservative and was unapologetically racist. In many parts of Walt Whitman’s America, Reynolds tries to portray Whitman as splitting a political difference that made sense at the time, recording, for instance, Whitman maintaining “a moderate course on the slavery issue.”

So this last caveat ends up being a good one. The America we have today says there is no moderate course on slavery or racism. We are all radicals now, thank goodness. The America we lost, Whitman’s America, was in many ways well and truly worth losing. We have not just kept the republic that Whitman wanted to hold onto, we have transformed it into something better, something closer to what we said it was in the beginning when we wrote our letter to the world proclaiming that all men are created equal.

Still, when I read Whitman’s poems, especially from Leaves of Grass, I can’t help feeling he remains a giant. He is still at the center of our country’s troubled spiritual life, as his friend John Burroughs felt when he wrote, “America–my country–I fear I should utterly despair of it. [Whitman] justifies it, redeems it, gives it dignity and grandeur, bears it all on his shoulders, as Atlas the Earth.” Whitman thought “every atom belonging to me as good as belong to you.” So if he once held up the country, dignified it, redeemed it, composed the vision of what it could and ought to be, that job now belongs to all of us, who are made up of his atoms. I think he would be happy with that.

As usual, I avoided reading any other reviews so I could keep my thoughts fresh. You may like these reviews by professional critics:

The New York Times

Publishers Weekly

The National Review

Review of “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

There were more than 80 school shootings in America in the 1990s. It was the decade when  school shooting became a fixed term in our vocabulary and the category of violence it betokened became a normal part of public life. Why did it happen then, not earlier, not later? Maybe for the same reason terrorism would soon put its indelible mark on us–because round-the-clock media coverage insured that each new killing produced a celebrity, and celebrity is the coin of our realm. Anyone could become famous instantly, which must have held a special appeal for beaten-down nobodies. Most of their grievances were commonplace–rivalries, bullying, girl trouble.

In the most heinous school shooting of the 1990s, the Columbine Massacre, the perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were simply angry that normal people existed. Life was shit, they thought, and people were dumb for pretending otherwise. Ordinary human attachments–to friends, families, hobbies, sports, other enthusiasms–were mere poses, delusions so hypocritical, the people who held them were mere sheep, worthy of slaughter in Dylan and Klebold’s apocalypse.

There is clearly an obligation to search for “systemic” or “structural” causes of the rise in school shootings. Before this hand-wringing duty, though, Lionel Shriver, in her 2005 novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, gives us a moment to sneer at the paltry nihilism of the likes of Harris and Klebold:

I did feel a concentrated dislike for those boys, who couldn’t submit to the odd faithless girlfriend, needling classmate, or doses of working-single-parent distraction–who couldn’t serve their miserable time in their miserable public schools the way the rest of us did–without carving their dime-a-dozen problems ineluctably into the lives of other families. It was the same petty vanity that drove these boys’ marginally saner contemporaries to scrape their dreary little names into national monuments. And the self-pity! That nearsighted Woodham creature [the Pearl High School shooter, who killed his mother and girlfriend] apparently passed a note to one of his friends before staging a tantrum with his father’s deer rifle: “Throughout my life I was ridiculed. Always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, blame me for what I do?” And I thought, Yes, you little shit! In a heartbeat!

In much the same way that Martin Amis’s Money: A Suicide Note was the English novel of the 1980s, Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin may just be the American novel of the 1990s.

The connection between the two books is more than literary. Novels portray societies. The America that produced Columbine and then stood by helplessly as school shootings multiplied to become one of our defining national characteristics was the same America that had so recently adopted money as its god. Under Reagan and his cipher, George H. W. Bush, the USA had just regained its self confidence and won the Cold War. The country’s cultural predominance, unprecedented wealth, and unchallenged military power made it the world’s hegemon. It was our rightful status, we thought.

The thing about that meteoric rise, in case you weren’t around to experience it, was how easy it felt. We did it all without really trying, or so it seemed at the time.

Greed was good in the 80s, right? The gospel went like this: Float enough money around, and people will become so sated with well-being, they won’t need anything as abstract as ideas or as imperious as institutions to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong. And who cared where the money came from? All that mattered is that it was there. rising tide of cash was lifting all boats, large and small. America had discovered a moral theory that floated on air. All you have to do was look out for number one, and everything else that mattered in life would take care of itself.

This was easier to believe at the time than it sounds. Free markets, as we could see right in front of our noses, led to free people–big, joyous masses of free people. The same force that was making you rich was deposing dictators, right in front of the world’s news cameras. Between 1989 and 1991, the Iron Curtain disappeared from the map, just stopped existing. What was it Vaclav Havel, a man of deep political acumen, said his countrymen wanted out of this epoch-making miracle?–more cafes and a candy shop on every corner. Better shopping, basically. Maybe he was right. Have you seen the lines outside McDonalds when it came to the former Warsaw Pact countries?

mcdonalds russia
First McDonalds opens in Moscow, 1990 (Image: Imgur)

Or look at the picture shown round the world of the Unknown Protester facing down the tank column in Tiananmen Square, China. He just wasn’t going to take the Party telling him one more day which shitty little apartment he had to live in in or what job he had to go to. If they needed tanks to make their case while all he had was a shopping bag, who was in the right here? Anyone who had eyes could see.

tank man
Unknown Protester, Tiananmen Square, June 1989 (Image: Jeff Widener, AP)

Wise men of every stripe were buzzily interpreting the global drama for us. They went on record telling us that American-style free-market democracy was driving these momentous changes. Greed was good. It could save the whole world if we let it. American power, we thought, had escaped the gravitational pull of history, just as American commerce had escaped that piffling thing, the business cycle. We had no real challengers left standing. Everyone wanted to be like us.

From the right, Samuel Huntington announced that, yes, there was a clash of civilizations taking shape, but it was a symptom of our demonstrably superior way of life, not a challenge to it. Show the world’s masses that they needed democracy to get rich, and no authoritarian would ever sleep easy again. From the left, Francis Fukuyama went even further. Humanity, he proclaimed, had reached the End of History, from which it would be impossible to turn back. No self-respecting human being, he rhapsodized, would choose to return to the swamp of ignorance and authoritarianism once they’d breathed the free air of enlightened democracy, as that idea was parsed by the think tanks in Washington. And if you wanted this already over-simplified gospel packaged in primary colors, there was Thomas Friedman’s airport tome about the magic of globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a remarkably stupid book even at the time. It basically said, America is coming to make you rich: rejoice.

All the self-flattery was true. Until it was false.

A caveat of history is that no one knows what happened to the Unknown Protester in Tiananmen Square. The smart money, of course, is that he’s dead, and he’s been dead for a long time, killed by the Chinese Communist Party as soon as he stood up to them in 1989. What we would want to believe is that his disappearance was an exception to history, a small martyrdom made negligible by the great waves of liberation that crashed in on former authoritarians everywhere else. But what if his disappearance was the real story and that, gloomily, Orwell was right, at least in China? The picture that won the day was not of the Protester and the tanks; it was the picture we didn’t see, of a boot stamping on the face of the protester–and, as Orwell would have it–all of humanity, forever.

This review contends that the most important information is often contained in the caveats, the secret histories, and the pictures we don’t see. It is certainly appropriate to debate the big, headline issues of America’s preeminence in the 1990s. Why did it happen? In what did it consist? Martin Amis’s Money: A Suicide Note is, in its way, a direct consideration of the headline issue of greed in the 1980s. (Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities tells the same story–jokier, but still training both eyes on the main argument.) We Need to Talk about Kevin, by contrast, tells a story that goes around the headlines to explicate the caveats of 1990s America. It renders a secret history of what America was becoming at home while, city on the hill that it was, it shined its beacon for the rest of the world.

One way to understand school shootings in America is as the tiny statistical anomaly that they are. Horrible things happen everywhere, but going to school is still a safe, fulfilling experience for millions of American children each day.  It’s easy to turn mountains into molehills if your country’s Human Development Index is high enough: America, with an HDI of .920, is clearly a better place to live than Yemen, which scores .463. (The gap between us and Yemen narrows dramatically on gun ownership. We outrank them only by one place on that score.)

But the statistics can be turned on their head. Something like 100 percent of American students are aware that a shooting could happen at their school; most schools are “resourced” to address this prospect, with corporations reaping the profits of these service provisions (greed still serves its purposes). And of course every parent in America either experiences some level of dread about school shootings or fashions an effective defense against thinking about them. Those stats hold true nowhere else in the world.

We Need to Talk about Kevin is no mere sociology tract, though. It doesn’t just make a “terrible indictment” of something deeply wrong with our nation. Even when novels make a political point, they must tell their stories from the private realm of the individual’s inner life. They must be credible. They must reveal secrets. Shriver succeeds brilliantly in doing all this. And once she has divulged all the facts she has to tell, the reader all too easily draws discomfiting conclusions.

Eva Katchadourian is a successful travel guide writer sharing a Tribeca loft with her Springsteen-loving husband, Franklin. After three years of footloose urban bliss, the Big Question knocks on their door: if life is beautiful, doesn’t it deserve passing on? Franklin wants kids, naively and greedily. Eva, though, hesitates at a paradox–if life is great, isn’t it intrinsically great? Must an individual’s life be made to serve the continuity of the species to be complete? Later, she reflects more prosaically, “What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it on this outrageous gamble of having a child?”

The skill with which Shriver describes the many ways in which parenthood fails to fulfill Eva is surpassed only by her moral courage in doing so with such honesty. After all, what’s true of Eva could be true of lots of the rest of us. Shriver describes full-bore, high-definition horrors that all parents have felt in some suggestive, inchoate way. Eva and her infant son Kevin fail to bond; Eva has postpartum depression. Kevin is listless and shuns intimacy or stimulation. He seems disaffected by life itself, “incensed that no one had ever consulted him about turning up in a crib with time going on and on, when nothing whatsoever interested him in that crib.” Instead of falling asleep, he screams himself to exhaustion, day after day.

Almost as if by choice, though, Kevin allows himself to be calmed by Franklin waltzing in at the end of the day. Franklin’s instinctive performance chides Eva: See how easy that was? Kevin seems to have a diabolical sense that he can use this rift between the mother who understand  him but can never gain his love and the father who believes successful parenting is effortless, not to be overthought.

In addition to not feeling the fairy tale with her new son, Eva is embittered at her loss of agency at the hands of motherhood: “Lo, everything that made me pretty was intrinsic to motherhood, and my very desire that men find me attractive was the contrivance of a body designed to expel its own replacement.”

Kevin knows preternaturally how to push Eva’s buttons; he is on to her sense of loss and knows how to exploit it. But to what end? As he grows, he sneaks his meals in private, denying Eva the pleasure of having provided him nourishment, and he learns childhood facts in secret, denying her the pleasure of having taught him anything. By the time Kevin is five, he knows the meaning of the word “trite,” but is still in diapers. This, Eva feels, can only be a conscious choice. Shriver builds up to the novel’s first really harrowing scene so expertly that, when Eva breaks down at having to change that last deliberately fouled diaper and hurls Kevin across the nursery, fracturing his arm, the reader knows why she did it.

Kevin
(Image: Amazon)

It is at a later point in the story–after 16-year old Kevin has executed an expert plan of mass killing at his high school–that Shriver reflects on the standard journalistic blather about school shootings: the gruesome details are so often called “unimaginable,” but in fact they are all too imaginable. And this imaginability is the dark, secret heart of We Need to Talk about Kevin. The myriad ways of failing as a parent (or as a child) are all too imaginable. Almost all parents have been tested up to a breaking point, which they can picture with horrifying vividness. The raising of children is an exercise in the responsible use of power, which wobbles in preposterous disbalance. In most cases, the parent’s surrender of power to the helpless child is repaid in intimacy and an enduring bond we call love. Shriver makes us ask, what would it look like if a child as selfish and informed as an adult were to use the leverage of our sacrifice against us?

In America, we have the power to give children almost everything. Kevin, though, is bored by the idea of getting things. He is disaffected by the condition of having parents, people intent on pursuing this fostering, providing relationship. Again, with great skill and courage, Shriver helps us imagine how deeply Kevin hates this whole setup. His only abiding goal is to frustrate Eva’s and Franklin’s power to raise him. When Kevin turns murderous, it is with the same pointless languor that impels Mersault to kill an Arab in Camus’s The Stranger. Neither character knows what life is for, and acts on that bewilderment.

It is possibly a nod to this connection when Eva soliloquizes to a dead-and-gone Franklin (Kevin killed him), “I seem finally to be learning what you were always trying to teach me, that my own country is as exotic and even as perilous as Algeria.” But unlike Camus’s stultified Algeria, the setting of The Stranger, America gives immense scope to murder-as-spectacle. We are replete with the necessary means.

This is the dark, secret rot at the core of our national character, this surplus of the raw materials of school shootings. The guns are there. Most school shooters get them from home. The ease of suicide is there. Two-thirds of gun deaths in America are suicides. The reality-TV pursuit of fame at any cost in dignity is there. With leering greed, we watch people in all states of humiliation, perfectly willing to stage their own pathologies for money and “fame.” And now, after Columbine, we have the most dangerous thing–the highly specific ideation of school shootings. The formula works as if by magic, and therefore it keeps happening. There is no bigger fuck you to society than the planned and staged murder of children by children in institutions set up with care to foster their growth as human beings. And those things we had with us in the 1990s. Add to them the capacity of social media to enable bullying and normalize feelings of envy, rage, contempt, and helplessness.

I was going to close by saying this review is not an attempt to read We Need to Talk about Kevin as a sociological tract, but I guess there’s no use in denying it. I have done Shriver the disservice of diverting attention from the artistry of her novel, which is outstanding. But, as I mentioned before, it is her moral courage, to say the unsayable, that captivates me. At the height of our political power Americans gave in to greed, a desperately cheapened version of life. School shootings are as much a result of that choice as are the various other things presently falling apart because we believed we could ignore them as long as the rich were getting richer–roads, schools, hospitals, libraries, railways, sidewalks, parks, and so forth.

There is no clear path out of this wilderness, where we pretend that individual preference is sovereign and there’s no such thing as public interest. But it is impossible to read a book like We Need to Talk about Kevin and not think we should look for one.

As usual, I avoided reading other reviews before I wrote my own. If you’d like to read some professional reviews of We Need to Talk about Kevin, which are shorter and more to the point, here they are:

The Guardian

Kirkus

Slate (film review)

Interview with Lionel Shriver in The Atlantic Monthly