The Mandibles. Lionel Shriver.

Shriver, Lionel. The Mandibles. HarperCollins London 2016. F;6/20.

Most fiction, at least what I read these days, is written from a left-of-centre point of view. In keeping with my mostly imaginary political stripe – centrist, or pragmatist – I have been unimpressed with ideology-oriented fiction from that side of the divide (Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club for example) even when it’s not-badly written. Shriver is as unabashed as any feminist or African-Studies professor about her orientation (it’s right-wing libertarian) and her writing is for me only fair. Two strikes so far.

It’s a collapsing-America dystopia that focuses on a wealthy family in 2027 and then 2049. The senior Mandible is filthy rich and most of his family is waiting around for their inheritances. In 2027 the US president is a Latino who has dealt with his country being excluded from a new world currency by defaulting on America’s national debt, triggering demotion of America to third-world anarchy. The Mandible family members take a variety of points of view as they suffer increasing predation from nothing available in the stores to armed home invasion and takeover, all of them moving in with one of the daughters (Florence, who by virtue of luck and common sense temporarily remains employed). Willing, her teenage son, is a common-sense prodigy who learns to steal and defend himself as society’s fabric breaks down. Nollie is probably author-autobiographically an older aunt of Willing who arrives from England and has published some books (and PLOT ALERT hidden away a large number of bars of gold END PLOT ALERT) and who ends up travelling with him to Nevada in the 2049 section of the story.

The United States of Nevada where they escape to is a right-wing paradise: flat 10% tax, mean uncontrolled cops, no social safety net, guns everywhere, and a good-old down-home every-man-for-himself attitude that makes for renewal of a happy cheerful life.

I should say that my idea of good conservatism includes a certain humorous righteousness about some left-wing absurdities, and Shriver occasionally lights up in that way:

So maybe when white folks were a minority, too, they’d get their own university White Studies departments, which could unashamedly tout Herman Melville. Her children would get cut extra slack in college admissions regardless of their test scores. They could all suddenly assert that being called “white” was insulting, so that now you had to say “Western-European American,” the whole mouthful. While to each other they’d cry, “What’s up, cracker?” with a pally, insider collusion, any nonwhites who employed such a bigoted term would get raked over the coals on CNN.

Lionel (she changed her first name from Margaret) Shriver wrote in obscurity until 2003 when she published We Need to Talk about Kevin, a novel featuring a 15-year-old boy who massacres other kids at school. The success of Kevin launched Shriver into public prominence so she now sells her fiction successfully (independent of its merit more or less) and gets to hold forth in public media on political subjects as though she knew better than the rest of us.

Strike three for me is Shriver’s smugness, matched only in its over-entitlement by the kind of nonsense that goes on in arts faculties of universities today. Independent of any of that (which diehard readers of my reviews will be all-too familiar with) this is mediocre fiction and will maintain your interest only if you are a libertarian conservative keen on set-story cuteness and hungry for a celebrity who shares your views.

Otherwise, steer clear. 6.8/7.2.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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