Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lionel Shriver's "The Mandibles": Book Review

After nearly 130 reviews posted [on Amazon US, where this appeared 9/28/16], mine will not rehash much of the story. I like Lionel Shriver's little-known novel on the North of Ireland and while her take on obesity in Big Brother was less successful, I admire her willingness to immerse herself, whether the theme is snooker, bicycling, tennis, or a child who is a bit of a problem. So, as a fan of dystopias, I wondered how she'd handle the near-future economic meltdown of the Renunciation.

Turns out she puts enormous paragraphs in the mouths of not only the put-upon Georgetown professor of economics, but a teen prodigy. They wind up having to explain theory and practice of the "dismal science" to the family, which grows as hard times fall and never ebb in 2029. Shriver tackles the misanthropy and growing chaos well, if from the perspective of a hard-to-like matriarch of a privileged clan in Manhattan. True, pity is needed for those who as the prof notes have more than one pair of shoes, and to her credit, Shriver moves the family tale along rather briskly.

But as the professor lets on early, his pontifications are hard to let go of, and other characters speak like educated folks on paper, with almost no distinction. Only a burst of "black English" by one client of the protagonist of the first 3/4 of the novel seems to come from another class or reality. Still, seeing a New York streetscape where the homeless do include nuclear physicists in fact and not fantasy, and where the street people have their pick of Posturepedic mattresses discarded as the system breaks down and selfishness gives way to brutishness seems to confirm Hobbes.

She gets digs in. No more worries about lactose tolerance, or gender dysmorphia. Or, obesity, in the harsh reality that replaces coddling or comfort.

Oddly, in the last quarter of the book, from the view of a particularly annoying if prescient person, the presumed religious backlash to the surveillance of the resurgent US government is absent. Shriver succeeds as many writers have in showing us the New American Order, but she shrinks from the rural reaction, and her observation of the world outside NYC does not convince. As she divides her time between Brooklyn and London as a longtime ex-pat, perhaps she is too used to reading about her fellow 'Muricans rather than roaming beyond the chattering creative classes she likes to skewer. True, mango-wood side tables won't rouse much of a reaction vs. a 5 lb. bag of rice in 2029 where "dial 2 for English" is the new norm. Her predictions may come true--I fear that of the "cuboids" of dead trees once known as books may be hastened, despite her dire estimation of Amazon itself in this brave new world. Anyone having read Huxley's tale may find The Mandibles an echo, if another uneven message.

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