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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Mandibles

Lionel Shriver

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To purchase The Mandibles

Title: The Mandibles
Author: Lionel Shriver
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016
Length: 402 pages
Availability: The Mandibles - US
The Mandibles - UK
The Mandibles - Canada
  • A Family, 2029-2047

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Our Assessment:

B : quite enjoyably spun-out vision of the American future, but too focused on its details (and message) over story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B+ 14/5/2016 .
Financial Times A- 22/4/2016 Alex Preston
The Guardian . 8/5/2016 Stephanie Merritt
The Guardian . 18/5/2016 Jane Smiley
The Independent . 28/4/2016 Lucy Scholes
Literary Review . 5/2016 Jude Cook
New Statesman . 27/5/2016 Hannah Rosefield
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 17/7/2016 Ruth Franklin
The New Yorker . 30/6/2016 Alexandra Schwartz
The Spectator . 7/5/2016 Suzi Feay
Standpoint . 6/2016 Tibor Fischer
Sydney Morning Herald . 3/6/2016 Peter Craven
The Times . 7/5/2016 R.Douglas-Fairhurst
TLS B- 11/5/2016 Michael LaPointe
Wall St. Journal . 20/6/2016 Mark Kamine
The Washington Post B- 12/7/2016 Ken Kalfus

  Review Consensus:

  Some clunky exposition but still packs a punch

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Mandibles is not perfect. Too much exposition and fact-heavy dialogue blunts its Orwellian bite. But what remains is a powerful work investigating the fragility of the financial world. Prescient, imaginative and funny, it also asks deep questions." - The Economist

  • "Thereís a rather Victorian feel to Shriverís impressively sweeping, futuristic family saga, a Trollopian wish to delve deeply into the appurtenances of everyday life to show the way weíll live then. (...) It is a shame, though, that so much of the information is doled out to the reader in long expository speeches. Dialogue should never be the principal method of conveying the facts of a novel and, while Shriverís grasp of economics is impressive, I found myself wishing that sheíd had the confidence to allow her research to lie lower beneath the surface. (...) The second half of the novel, which surges into the future, following the family as they leave New York and battle to establish themselves in a dramatically reshaped world, is surer-footed." - Alex Preston, Financial Times

  • "(O)nce the premise has been established as all too chillingly plausible, the novel revs up into a multifaceted family saga where marital, sibling and inter-generational relationships fracture in the face of increasingly punitive sanctions and shortages. (...) Shriver presents this future with her familiar undercurrent of black humour and a sly nod to the reader; having gone to so much trouble to make the storyís economic foundation solid, she also reminds us now and again of its artifice. (...) The Mandibles is a profoundly frightening portrait of how quickly the agreed rules of society can fall apart without money to grease the wheels. I finished it and immediately started stockpiling toilet paper." - Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian

  • "The energy of Shriverís style counteracts the remorselessness of her vision. (...) The author and I donít agree about the seminal causes of the impending dystopia: I think failure to address climate change when it was first understood in 1968 and the rapacious greed of corporations is what will destroy us; Shriver is more wary of the government, at first inept, then intrusive, and always demanding higher taxes. She makes an interesting case, however, and manages to twist the plot over and over so that unexpected events happen all the way to the end." - Jane Smiley, The Guardian

  • "Although convincing in its vision, the end result is equally alienating, not least because the novel thus tends towards huge swathes of exposition. Forgivable perhaps when it comes to explanations of Keynesian theory, but less excusable when it results in the strange omission of what purports to be the most exciting and interesting chapter in the familyís struggle for survival: the events of the years 2029-2047" - Lucy Scholes, The Independent

  • "Different characters react to catastrophe differently but the way in which Shriver moves between so many of them and has them make so many difficult decisions in difficult circumstances makes her engagement with each feel cursory. She creates a whole world but not quite whole human beings." - Hannah Rosefield, New Statesman

  • "(H)er searing exemplar of a disquieting new genre -- call it dystopian finance fiction. (...) Itís probably already obvious that Shriver isnít the kind of writer who lets her themes rise gently to the surface. She seizes them with an almost animalistic ferocity and interrogates them for all theyíre worth. Her smart, satirical fiction is old-fashioned in that it serves as a vehicle for investigating political and social questions, but itís also almost uncannily of its moment. (...) But The Mandibles suffers from a common flaw of speculative fiction: Virtually every detail of the narrative serves to communicate some expository element, giving it a didactic tone. The characters sometimes feel less like human beings than figures in a modern morality play. (...) I donít remember the last time a novel held me so enduringly in its grip." - Ruth Franklin, The New York Times Book Review

  • "No zombies, explosions, or sentient robots: this dystopia is served up wonk-style, and whether your heart sinks or sings at the sight of the passage above may depend on whether you, like me, are a person who must Google "gold ETFs" before you can fully decipher it." - Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker

  • "The effect is rather as though Dickens, instead of dramatising the plight of the hapless Court of Chancery litigators, chose instead to have the characters of Bleak House sit around endlessly discussing the iniquities of the legal system. Not that Shriver doesnít have some stand-out scenes, especially when civilisation goes feral; itís just that the exposition far outweighs the action. (...) Her intricately constructed modelling is as intellectually impressive as it is dramatically inert. If only theyíd leave off their prating and kill each other, you find yourself wishing. For all that, The Mandibles is a scary, depressing and convincing horror story, akin to reading about teetering on the edge of a precipice while actually teetering on the edge of a precipice." - Suzi Feay, The Spectator

  • "The Mandibles isnít a humorous romp. Shriver has obviously been reading autopsies of the financial crash, and we also get the conventions of future fiction: some gizmo action, fold-up computers, driverless cars, and some new slang. However, being bewitched by your research is one of the dangers of novel-writing" - Tibor Fischer, Standpoint

  • "Much of this writing is deft, much of this story is arresting, but the upshot comes across as a rather slow moving fictional hybrid, the dominant quality of which is a kind of intellectual self-satisfaction of an author too pleased with herself to breathe sufficient life into the interplay of character and narrative." - Peter Craven, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The familyís diverse outlay seems designed to register societal changes on a broad scale but, with a very few exceptions, the reader doesnít perceive how the macro-historical forces come to bear on the individual. (...) The Mandibles arenít characters so much as theyíre time-travellers, jocularly reporting back to the reader about this topsy-turvy futuristic world, rather than actively or emotionally engaging with it. (...) It succeeds in eliciting the occasional caustic laugh, but finally comes across as a catalogue of topics for a newspaper column, rather than a compelling family history." - Michael LaPointe, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, full of discussions of economic policy and the efficacy or not of the gold standard, nevertheless contains Jane Austen-like dissections of class distinction and grandly satirical swipes at foodies and oenophiles. Itís also a provocative and very funny page-turner (.....) The future is grim, but Ms. Shriver with characteristically sardonic humor keeps things from getting heavy-handed." - Mark Kamine, Wall Street Journal

  • "Shriver is, nevertheless, an engaging writer. Even with their speechifying and the tediousness of the story, her characters solicit your sympathy, much more than they usually do in genre science fiction. And also, as in good science fiction, you often have to look up from the page to remind yourself that you donít live on the planet thatís being described." - Ken Kalfus, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Mandibles begins in 2029. The United States has already been hit by a major crisis, when the internet went down for three weeks in 2024 -- when: "our vital internet infrastructure was cataclysmically paralyzed by hostile foreign powers", as the president put it. The country recovered from this 'Stone Age' (or Stonage, as it's now usually called), at least to the extent of once again being electronically connected, well enough, and pretty much everyone relies on a fleX -- a device that: " had replaced the smart watch, smartspeX, smart phone, tablet, laptop, and desktop at a stroke". But apparently the US has been in steady decline for a while, before and after Stonage: among much else, China is the world's biggest and leading economy, The New York Times (and pretty much all newspapers) have closed shop, and the water supply to New York City is spotty, leading to high prices and a much more sporadic shower-schedule. And things are about to get much worse, with a bona fide financial crisis that is of an order of magnitude considerably greater than the 2007-8 one.
       The novel revolves around the Mandibles, a family that, at the start of the story is far-fung: novelist Nollie has long lived abroad, in France; Avery is married to tenured Georgetown economics professor Lowell; her sister Florence has a house in Brooklyn; their brother Jarred, who has: "taken a survivalist turn", has bought a farm in upstate New York. Pater familias Douglas Elliot Mandible -- known also by the shorthand (for 'Grandfather Mandible') of Grand Man, or now also Great Grand Man, is in his nineties and lives in a very fancy "assisted-living facility" with his trophy second wife, the much younger but dementia-addled Luella. The elder Mandible sits on what is apparently quite the family fortune -- though he never reveals quite how big it might be -- and his children Carter and Nollie, and the grandkids, Carter's kids Avery, Florence, and Jarred, are, to varying degrees, counting on getting their slices of it at some point.
       The long-dependable American system, so well underwritten by foreign purchases of US Treasuries, turns out to be fragile after all. A "financial putsch" led by a still Putin-led Russia and newly super-empowered China but with many supposed US allies also jumping on board, sets new terms -- and offer up a new reserve currency, the 'bancor' (yes, the name Keynes once suggested) -- with the elder Mandible noting that however annoying this is:

You do realize that without the bancor lined up as a replacement reserve currency, the fall of the dollar would plunge the entire world economy into a Dark Ages ? We'd be buying eggs with rocks.
       The US could buy into the bancor too -- but that's only possible: "by ponying up real assets to back it", which the US won't do. Events have exposed the obvious: that the dollar is only backed by that rather empty 'full faith and credit of the United States'. The president takes radical (and somewhat hard to believe) action, most notably and dubiously declaring all Treasury bills, notes, and bonds (which the IMF, similarly dubiously, had insisted had to be redeemed in bancors) null and void. The government also confiscates everyone's gold -- and demands citizens turn over any household gold they have lying around, institutes currency controls (people aren't allowed to take more than a minimal amount of US currency abroad), and declares using or holding bancors illegal. Shriver's leap here is the least realistic part of the novel, and it's hard to imagine that legal and economic counsel wouldn't have pointed out how problematic these supposed remedies would be -- but it makes the jump to full-fledged dystopia all the easier.
       Whatever fortune the Mandibles had quickly disappears. Home-owning Florence provides a haven of sorts, as more and more of her family flock there as their own little worlds collapse. Tenure isn't enough for Lowell to keep his job, and he and Avery soon can't afford to pay their mortgage and have to decamp with their three children, and Great Grand Man and his demented wife can't pay to stay on in the fancy retirement home either. Adjusting to the new lifestyle -- not just crowded, but increasingly limited in what's available to eat and buy -- makes for considerable comic potential here too, and Shriver has a good wry touch that makes much of this entertaining. Often wallowing in the down and dirty -- dealing with body waste, given the limited water supply and then toilet paper shortage, is among the adjustments she expounds on with particular relish -- Shriver's depiction is darkly humorous, but rarely truly depressing. And even a heart-tugging scene like giving away of the family dog is neutralized by the sensible arguments explaining it.
       For all that, the Mandibles find themselves reduced but hardly in conditions that are unimaginable. Many of the basic comforts have gotten a great deal less accessible, but it's not end-of-days catastrophic, certainly not in the early days. As Florence's longtime partner Esteban reminds some of the complainers, when he grew up: "only ten people in a two-bedroom house would have seemed palatial". So too, there are real-life contemporary examples of similar economic breakdowns and everything that comes with them, on smaller and larger scales -- including nationwide-ones such as, currently, in Venezuela.
       The most sensible voice in the family is that of Florence's smart son, Willing -- a coldly-calculating realist perhaps not by design but adopting that attitude because the times now demand it. He stands in most obvious contrast to (former) economics professor Lowell, who remains stuck in theory, unable to accept that reality isn't playing out as it should.
       The first part of the book takes the Mandibles from 2029 to 2032 or so, by which time things have gotten considerably worse and it's clearly time to leave the city. Fortunately, they even have a place to go -- Jarred has been off-scene for essentially the entire narrative so far, but that farm in upstate New York is the only kind of refuge where the Mandibles might have a chance, and so that's where they head.
       From the beginning of the journey -- coming with a dramatic send-off twist -- Shriver abruptly cuts and jumps ahead to the second part, which begins some fifteen years later, in 2047. (While subtitled: A Family, 2029-2047, this doesn't reflect either the arc or the time frame of the novel: there's a big gap in the middle, and the novel continues beyond 2047 (indeed, the final mention is of 2064).) There has been some normalization -- but these are days of Big Government, the country definitely totalitarian, with the rebranded IRS -- now the Bureau for Social Contribution Assistance monitoring every -- even the smallest -- financial transaction (and always making sure to get its cut). Health care is the biggest employer, and the old are doing reasonably well, as: "Together, Medicare and Social Security consumed 80 percent of the Federal Budget;. And there's a Big Brother element too, as (almost) all citizens are very closely monitored by the central power in a particularly creepy and invasive way.
       There's a wall between Mexico and the US now -- but you can guess which side is keeping immigrants out. Yet even within the US there's an island of hope -- of sorts -- and it is Jarred who is again the trailblazer, with most of this part of the novel having Willing working on joining him, and getting the rest of the surviving family to join them. Shriver gets even more heavy-handed here, wearing her politics and her economics on her sleeve, while the leap across the years requires a fair amount of fill-in summarizing that is reasonably well integrated into the narrative but still bogs the story down some. Here, too, discussion tends to the heavy and ideological -- and is too often too simply black and white, with Willing the sensible realist and, for example, cousin Goog the Scab-boob ('Scab' being the preferred acronym for the renamed IRS).
       There's lots of sharp observation here, as Shriver has a great touch with the (almost-)asides, and she nicely judges how close-to-home to twist her dystopia, the tight family focus -- there's some but ultimately rather limited interaction with the world beyond -- fairly effective, especially in her use of all too familiar family tensions: everyone can relate, and it makes the story all the more unsettling.
       Brisk and held together by Willing's matter-of-factness, The Mandibles is both entertaining and engaging -- but it's also a programmatic novel, and Shriver's program is all too clear. That might be fair enough but for some of the leaps she takes: Big Government (including a Chelsea Clinton administration, late on ...) remains conveniently shadowy, and quite too many of the policy decisions seem far too unlikely (both in concept and execution). Shriver shapes government to her (fictional) needs: it's as bad as she wants it to be, without convincing explanation. In this sense, it is uncomfortably close in its obviousness to Ayn Rand and official Soviet fiction of yore (though better written than either of those).
       Is it giving away too much to say there's quite a happy end ? Belatedly and somewhat clumsily returning to the idea of a 'family novel' that's what she makes of it in the end -- a heartwarming conclusion in which about as much works out as can in this new age -- a wrinkle that's so almost too-good-to-be-true wrinkled that the whole story (and its message) wind up seeming all the more fairy-tale-like.
       Ultimately, The Mandibles is kind of frustrating, the work of a very good writer, with a lot on offer, and yet not entirely fitting or coming together as a novel. It still feels like a story built around an idea (and the promotion of an ideology), too obviously a construct, with a message to pound home, rather than a truly convincing story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 July 2016

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The Mandibles: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Lionel Shriver was born in 1957.

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© 2016 the complete review

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