If you’re looking for a good summer read, I’ve just the book: Lionel Shriver’s, “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.” But first a warning: It’s not a feel-good tale.
The world economy has changed, and the United States’ economy has collapsed, a victim of excessive debt, runaway costs associated with ever-expanding entitlement programs, devalued currency and a world grown weary of American hegemony.
The Mandible family, all three surviving generations, copes with the decline in both the nation’s, and the their own, fortunes.
You have to have a taste for dystopian fiction actually to enjoy this work. The genre is the sociological equivalent of science fiction: imagine a world in which one thing we take for granted suddenly changes fundamentally. What would the future be like? In a dystopia, things get worse; they don’t improve, as things do in utopias.
So imagine, here, that the dollar has become so worthless that the world’s new leading economies refuse to use it.
I hadn’t intended to write a review of the book until I watched portions of the Republican and Democratic parties’ presidential nominating conventions. Donald Trump and Republicans stand accused of painting a picture of a dark and bleak future; the Democrats, by contrast, see a hopeful world, filled with promise.
Shriver’s work reads like it was written to support the Republican vision of the future.
She writes of a world that rejects the notion that we are a city on a hill. Indeed, one of the protagonists in the novel, Willing, a matter-of-fact third-generation survivor without illusions, is described as follows: “The abstraction into which he’d been drafted by dint of having arbitrarily been born here no longer seemed to have anything to do with him. He was American as an adjective. He was no longer American as a noun.”
Losing a sense of American exceptionalism turns out to be a gift for Willing Mandible. In a world without illusions about American prowess or promise, the moral pressure to come rushing to the rescue in every catastrophe is gone.
“His country did not help because it could not help,” Shriver writes. “It did not have the money. That was relaxing. This must have been what it had felt like to live in most countries, when the United States was sending bombers and ships and troops and airlifts whenever something went wrong.”
These lines came back to me as I listened to Trump declaim about our commitments to NATO. He drew fire from the foreign policy establishment when he suggested the United States might not be willing to come to the aid of a NATO ally that was unwilling, or even unable, to contribute to the cost of its own defense.
“If there was genocide in Madagascar,” Shriver writes of the days in which American power seemed infinite, its reach universal, “they didn’t beat themselves up for not doing anything about it in Argentina. That was better life. When Willing was young, it was common to despair that a person had ‘no boundaries.’ Friends who had ‘no boundaries’ were embarrassing. They had no sense of what to keep to themselves. So maybe one merit of being in a country at all was its boundaries. They drew a line around what was your business.”
It overstates things to suggest that there is a “Trump Doctrine” in foreign policy. As near as I can tell, Trump operates less on ideology that he does on instinct. Uncannily, Shriver’s book seems an apt analysis of the spirit of the times, the spirit Trump taps when he talks about walking away from post-war commitments.
It’s not “springtime in America”; a sense of gloom, even desperation that is no longer so quiet, pervades.
Shriver’s work hit particularly close to home in her comments about what drove the United States to its knees. We spent too much on entitlement programs. No one could say “no” to the elderly, so half the population labored to support the other half of the population that had retired. She called retirees, those of us over 60, “shrivs,” as in shriveled.
In the end, surviving members of the Mandible family regroup in the breakaway republic of Nevada. Life is grim there, but at least residents have a sense of agency, of being able to control how they react to things.
“Agency,” Willing says after a trying day. “That’s what I discovered this afternoon. That I could do something. In the United States, doing something generally means either shooting somebody, or going somewhere else. I’m a dropout. I don’t know much American history. Still, I do understand that a long time ago we ran out of new land, and the space program was too expensive. It’s never been the same here since there was nowhere to go. But it’s possible to get somewhere else by going backwards.”
Is this what underlies Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” — a general disengagement from a world suddenly too demanding, and too taxing, and a step backward, offering, at the very least, a sense of agency, or personal efficacy?
I somehow doubt that Shriver would be happy to see her book used as a primer to understanding the improbable ascendency of Donald Trump. Before publishing “The Mandibles,” she was already an accomplished and acclaimed author.
But dark visions of the future, dystopias, are as much snapshots of current collective anxieties as they are works of fiction. Shriver’s portrayal of a nation sunk by its own debt, exhausted by commitments it cannot honor, and finally content to find promise in reduced expectations resonates because it corresponds to a reality many Americans experience all too well — something is broken.
Donald Trump knows this. Bernie Sanders knew it, too. Hence this most unusual year of outsiders dominating so much of the discussion in presidential politics.
Give “The Mandibles” a read, if you dare. My hunch is it will read less like make-believe and more like a forecast of the world just now coming into view.