Could the US collapse into debt and decay in the future?

BOOK REVIEW: Lionel Shriver presents a dystopian vision of an impoverished and impotent US in The Mandibles, but it's too far-fetched to be frightening.

by John McLaren
Last Updated: 12 Jul 2016

If you've never heard of Lionel Shriver, first thing to know is that he's a she. Her parents thought Margaret Ann had a nice ring to it, but at 15 she wanted to get more in touch with her masculine side and made the change. You almost certainly have heard of her big hit, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which amply proved that novels don't need snappy titles to sell.

The Mandibles are an extended family whose riches to rags story headlines this dystopian tale. By 2029 the US is crippled with debts and dominated by Latinos. President Alvarado renounces the nation's liabilities, banning dealings in the Bancor (a new international currency set up by the Chinese and Russians) and announcing that all privately held gold will be seized. As the dollar and US stock and bond markets crumble, paper wealth is wiped out. Soon we reach a level of hyper-inflation that Mugabe would be proud of, foie gras and loo roll exit stage left, and life becomes a basic struggle for survival.

Fast forward to 2042, and although taxes are wincingly high and service everywhere is terrible, things have, after a fashion, settled down. Infrastructure is dilapidated, but crime levels are low. The CIA is no more but the all-knowing 'Scab' exerts near total control via chips implanted in the back of the populace's necks, which monitor all movements. Almost everything in the US is now owned by foreigners, and the cowed, largely uneducated Americans are so grateful for any work that it is cheaper to use humans than robots. The 'K' and 'I' in KFC and IBM are now Korean and Indonesian. Super-successful Mexico has built a wall to keep the Yanks out. The chronically underfunded US forces have quit their role as the world's policemen following their latest disastrous intervention, apparently in New Zealand. (Such a pity we're not told what happened - perhaps a 'Bay of Sheep' fiasco.)

Nevada, sticking to its reputation as 'the land of the free', declares independence. Many are tempted to migrate there, but are terrified that if they try to cross the border their embedded chips will fry their brains. Eventually some of the Mandible clan decide to take their chances. They find that Las Vegas has closed its doors, and life in Nevada resembles the early days of the US, with self-reliance essential, taxes hardly existing, and hard work bringing just reward. The Mandibles are back in business.

This theme of hankering for long-lost simplicity recurs. Even when painting the grim portrait of what America has become, the author cannot stop herself commenting that, although all gyms have closed, Americans are slimmer and fitter, thanks to all the toil growing vegetables and fixing up their houses.

Futurist novelists always face a challenge with language and technology. Shriver makes a big effort inventing colloquialisms like roachbar, yunk and shriv, but her very token efforts with technology are limited to a rollable screen called FleX, a domestic robot, and an autonomous car (the fuel for which on the journey to Nevada starts out as hydrogen and morphs to natural gas, so engineering may not be her thing).

Having long been force-fed so many disaster and dystopian movies and novels, we're familiar with the convention of seeing events through the spectrum of one couple or family. The characters here aren't especially compelling, but nor do they outstay their welcome. Shriver also shows an impish side, ruminating about how splendid it will be when Caucasians become such a minority that 'white studies' becomes a legitimate academic field.

A decent yarn overall, but not one that conjures up any scary future, partly because there's no bad guy or proper nastiness, but mainly because it's not set in any faintly realistic context. The only real people mentioned are UK Premier Ed Balls (!) and, later, President (Chelsea) Clinton. There's no Elon Musk (who will be 58 in 2029) or Bill Gates (74) trying to come up with solutions - all gumption simply vanishes. The notion that the US could renege on its debts and basically collapse without Europe or Asia at least catching a bad cold is preposterous, but they sail serenely on. And when major countries invade each other, it's like moving chess pieces, and is apparently accomplished instantly and bloodlessly. After the success of Kevin, doubtless The Mandibles will be made into a film, but it will be more of a 'U' than an '18'.

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is published byThe Borough Press, £16.99

John McLaren is chairman of the Barchester Group and Eagle E-Types, a non-executive director of several companies, and a novelist

Photo credit: Beverly & Pack/Flickr


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