A new novel by Lionel Shriver attracts attention for more than one reason. Not only is she the acclaimed author of We Have To Talk About Kevin, but she also achieved overnight notoriety in September 2016 by delivering a scathing speech on cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. Shriver was at pains to explain that writing about cultures other than your own had allowed for some great, influential literature. She dismissed the idea that writing about what did not belong to you was problematic in any way. She said it was the symptom of a culture of “super-sensitivity”.

Effectively, Shriver was dimissing the concerns of, among others, coloured, queer, trans and otherwise marginalised cultures that their stories were being stolen and repackaged for profit. Michiko Kakutani, revered book critic at The New York Times, tweeted Shriver’s speech, twice endorsing her message. The book world was divided.

I dredge this up because one of the first characters introduced to us in her latest novel, The Mandibles, is Esteban, a Latino man without a college degree, who is pronounced to be a good lover and a good man who helps around the house because he is Latino. The thoughts of his partner, a white woman named Florence, often return to his Latino identity. In one of many passages of the kind, Florence thinks,

…she found Esteban’s nut-coloured complexion, silken black tail braid, and wide, high cheekbones irresistibly sexy. In his otherness, he enlarged her world, and granted her access to a rich, complex American parallel universe…

If I wasn’t reviewing this book, I would have closed it at this point. Not because I am super-sensitive but because this is a superficial observation about a character. In the first few pages of the novel, we have been told that people of colour occupy a parallel universe in the States. In the course of the book, Esteban is one of the characters we see the least of. The only black character in the book has dementia, is force-fed, and is depicted as violent.

By contrast, When I began reading Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, I didn’t stop till I was done. It was an engrossing, honest and original book that deserved the fame and wide readership it received. But while that novel spent time understanding its characters at an almost atomic level, the people in The Mandibles are stand-ins for real people. We have a woman working at a homeless shelter, a novelist who wrote a tell-all books about her parents, a child who deeply understands the economy, an ageing patriarch, a teenage girl driven to prostitution, and several others.

A (sad) family portrait

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is a dystopia set in the not-so-distant future of an American, middle-class, white family. There are no zombies, gangs or desolate landscapes. The dystopia is a financial one – the US dollar is melting down and US national debt has grown beyond the point of ever being realistically repaid. The price of produce is so inflated that cabbage at $20 a head is the most affordable option. Showers are allowed once a week. Dishes are washed in unclean water. The members of the family have been impatiently waiting for an inheritance that is now worthless. The book is a warning about the untenable way in which Americans use and value money today.

The family doesn’t know how to relate to one another now that the money is gone. But as they can no longer afford individual houses and their diminishing real estate is partly taken over by squatters, they are slowly forced to inhabit a common physical space. The Mandibles depicts the struggle with their new circumstances. As Florence puts it, “Everyone adapts effortlessly to coming up in the world, and improved circumstances always seem well deserved. But going in the opposite direction feels unnatural.” Her grandfather proclaims that “being robbed is an emotional experience. One much more intense than suddenly not being able to buy a boat.”

Lionel Shriver | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

And it’s all downhill

What we are allowed is a view of the lives of those who are smarting from the loss of good fortune. We get very few glimpses into what life has turned into for those who didn’t have much to begin with. In the few instances where we do meet the people living on the streets or squatting, they are shown to us as little more than criminals. We have throwaway remarks about mental illness. We have trite observations on world affairs such as “there was finally a Palestinian state, and nobody cared.”

What is frustrating about The Mandibles is how difficult it is to sink into it. The book starts out slow as we are introduced to four generation of family, many of whom are quickly forgetten. The middle is the one truly engaging section, as we watch the family scrimp, squirm and settle into their new, cramped life. We are allowed to spend enough time with individuals in that initial period of moving in together to feel something like sympathy for their plight. Shriver tries to expose everything wrong with America’s relationship with money in a book that is replete with financial terms and arguments, but it becomes all too improbable to a reader who doesn’t trust her understanding of her own characters.

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, Lionel Shriver, The Borough Press