Reading The Mandibles while still in a post-Brexit haze was probably not my wisest Literary move. Lionel Shriver has never been one to shy away from controversial subjects (why stick with mass shootings and obesity when you can offend everyone about cultural appropriation?) and her latest offering is no different. Set between the years 2029 and 2047, the novel imagines the demise of America as we know it and follows the fortunes of the Mandible family as they try to navigate their way through their country’s economic, social and political collapse. The dollar is devalued to the point of worthlessness; American people are starving and homeless; and the Mexicans have built a wall to keep US immigrants out. Cheery stuff, especially given the prospect of President Trmp in the White House (and, while I was reading, the prospect of Farage/Boris getting a foot in the door of Number 10 – thank God that didn’t happen).
I was lucky enough to win tickets to a Guardian Live event back in May of this year where Lionel Shriver spoke about the novel and its position in relations to real-life events. Those of you who know me can probably already see why I decided to review this book for the blog; I recently write my Master’s dissertation on contemporary dystopian literature and spent the last couple of years obsessed with all things set in ill-fated future societies. It may seem gloomy but I am not alone! From classics such as 1984 and Brave New World to the more contemporary dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy and Dave Eggers’ The Circle, it seems that readers love a fictional dystopian society, even if it does verge on the depressing.
It’s often said that dystopias aren’t really concerned with realistic portrayals of the future and instead play on reader’s current insecurities. The Mandibles unashamedly ticks that box, playing on our paranoia over infringement of privacy and the collapse of the American dream. In the novel’s second half, all US citizens are expected to wear a device that tracks everything that they do. The punishment for failure to comply with the new rules set out by the state are severe, so remaining Mandibles comply out of fear, believing their every move is being watched (Bentham’s Panopticon eat your heart out).
A couple of years back I visited the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House and it was clear that this was the way that we are already going. Do we really need to collect so much data? And once we have it, what the hell are we going to do with it? There’s just too much. Despite claiming that personal data collection is meant to keep us safe, Shriver’s characters feel the way that many of us do – paranoid about being watched, contrained, and generally fearful of putting a foot wrong. The moment when Willing Mandible (Shriver’s protagonist) makes a bid for freedom and realises that he might have been conned all along was one my favourite parts of the book:
‘He had previously conceived of the central network as an omniscient all-seeing overlord, which sorted and stored every minute detail to perfectly reconstruct the infringements of each American citizen. but perhaps instead the data fed a bloated, overloaded behemoth choking on its own information excess and suffering from a sort of digital obesity.’
By controlling our data, the government (or big business, whichever way you look at it) are actually controlling our minds. It’s a terrifying thought, but one that I couldn’t put out of my mind long after I had finished reading.
There are so many close to home examples in the book that I won’t go into here, but let’s just say that a couple of passages sent chills down my spine. Some situations are so close to becoming reality that you can’t help but stop and reflect on the consequences of the choices you make as you go about daily life, whether related to the environment, your economic decisions or what you accept as the ‘truth’. While there are sections of the novel that delve deep into the ins and out of economics and can be a little dull, the dialogue is brilliant and most characters realistic (one of Lionel Shriver’s great strengths is that she is unafraid to portray flawed and unlikeable characters and she does that artfully here).
All in all, I’d thoroughly recommend this book, although you might find it difficult to remind yourself it’s just fiction for now!
Love dystopian fiction? Read on …
- If you are already a fan of 1984 you must try We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Published in 1924, it sets out a dystopian future where nameless citizens are known by a number and controlled in a Communist-like state.
- Another contemporary dystopian novel that I love is Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. I have re-read it several times and I still love it.
- If you have had enough of reading (what?!) then the new series of Black Mirror is out on Netflix in a couple of weeks. The previous series and Christmas special are some of the most uncomfortable pieces of television I have ever seen, but in a good way, of course.