Lionel Shriver @ Manchester Literature Festival

Photo Credit: BBC World Service

Photo Credit: BBC World Service

Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 maps out a thirteen year period in a dystopian future, At a packed Manchester Literature Festival event in the city’s central library, Shriver reads from and discusses this new novel with broadcaster and Guardian journalist Sarfraz Manzoor. The passage she reads works well as an introduction to the novel and to the discussion, giving us a taste of the kind of cunning inter- and meta-textuality she employs throughout the novel. With a referential nod to both her predecessors in dystopian imagination as well as to the artifice of her own work (as pointed out in a Guardian article by Stephanie Merritt), a dialogue between one character Lowell and his daughter references 1984 as one example of the apocalyptic inclinations of writers and who attempt to imagine the future. “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present.” Lowell explains to his daughter. “Throughout history things keep getting better, but [they] keep predicting that everything’s going to fall apart. It’s almost funny.”

Indeed, in the novel Shriver taken her fears about the present day and run wild with them, explaining, “I threw in a kitchen sink of everything that worries me.” At the forefront of these anxieties is the instability of the high-debt US economy. “I think we dodged a bullet,” she says of the 2008 financial crisis, “and that bullet is still whizzing around the planet.” In The Mandibles, Shriver posits a situation where we aren’t so lucky and that bullet rips through the soft  global underbelly. As the novel points out: “Complex systems collapse catastrophically”: the US defaulting on its loans sets in motion a chain reaction towards economic and social meltdown. The dollar collapses, prices inflate so cabbages are 20 dollars a head, the government recalls all private gold (and no, you can’t keep your wedding ring). And that’s just for starters. Before they know it, the Mandible family have lost the fortune which four generations have been waiting to inherit from the 96 year old family patriarch – yet to shuffle off this mortal coil due to increased life expectancy. It’s a scary proposition, and Lowell’s reminder that 1984 didn’t turn out to be so bad after all does little to dispel our unease.

In the passage she reads, I am struck by the subtle distinction between playful and gratuitous imagination in writing a world of the future. Although Shriver mentioned being conscious of this fine line, expressing her anxiety to “not overdo it”, the extract felt uncomfortably bloated with attempts to furnish her future landscape with appropriate technology, media and language. Some ideas were nice touches – like the Mojo household management system which doesn’t quite function as it should, misordering copious quantities of groceries as well as spawning a Netflix series about a Mojo gone on a haywire murder spree. Other features, however, seem jarringly awkward and artificial. “Careless” means “cool”, while today’s “crap” has become “roachbar” or “treasury”, coined after the failures of an experiment in Hershey’s confectionary and the US monetary system. (Both things that are crap, if anyone missed that).

While some features described above were a source of mild irritation, Shriver’s anxieties regarding the rapid ethnic transformations taking place in the US left me with a rather more nasty taste in my mouth. Despite acknowledging that her concerns about the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the US are “morally negligible”, she admits feeling a sense of “encroachment” at the prospect of whites becoming a racial minority. This sentiment surfaces in the book, for example when a white character in a predominantly Hispanic US resents that English has been demoted from the first to second option on automated phone calls. She calls for giving Trump voters a break, saying it’s a “primitive” instinct to feel protective of one’s territory. I’ll just leave that one hanging there.

Funnily enough, Shriver seems to fail to sympathise with ethnic minorities who similarly feel their culture being encroached upon – through its appropriation by those who have historically oppressed them. Manzoor boldly turns the conversation to that speech Shriver gave, and she doesn’t hesitate to again totally dismiss what she refers to as “this cultural appropriation nonsense”, as well as bitterly referring to the event as “a rather obscure writing festival”. Her attempt to explain that the lens of intersecting identities is “not the way [she prefers] to think of people” smacks of white people who smugly proclaim themselves “colour-blind” without considering that often it is only as a white person that you can have the luxury of not having to think about racial issues. Holding that “writers should not be limited to their own story”, but acknowledging that by doing so you necessarily open yourself to criticism, it shouldn’t really surprise Shriver that so many have come out to tell her that her comments are offensive. Manzoor must have got a similar impression throughout the interview, maintaining a not overbearing but nonetheless firm pressure on Shriver to answer for the controversial opinions she regularly spouts, as well as openly expressing incredulity at her assertion that the EU must be going “off the rails” if it is considering Albania as a member.

It has been pointed out that the treatment of current issues in Shriver’s novels exemplify her astute sensitivity for that which defines our time. If only such astuteness extended a little further than her own privileged white America.