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Novel hits all the tropes of economic crisis

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Towards the end of Lionel Shriver’s new novel, The Mandibles, Willing Mandible tells his novelist aunt that her books feel “like ancient history. It was hard to identify with the characters… They make decisions because they’re in love, or they’re angry, or they want adventure. You never know how they afford their houses. They never decide not to do something because it costs too much… you never find out how much these characters pay in taxes.”

Shriver’s book does the opposite. Set in the aftermath of a complete American financial collapse (the U.S. dollar has been replaced by a new international currency; all personal holdings of gold have been recalled by the U.S. government; the U.S. government has defaulted on all debts), Shriver’s novel and the characters who people it are fixated on thinking about money, inflation, taxes, and economics on both small and large scales. The Mandible family has been comfortably marking time, waiting for their patriarch to die so the next generation could inherit the family fortune. When the collapse comes their expectations evaporate and they must make unprecedented adjustments.

This family saga take on economic collapse means that The Mandibles is not a lecture on economic crises masquerading as a novel. It’s a novel whose central crises are economic. The difference is easily seen as the effects of the collapse begin to work their way through the Mandible family.

There’s plenty of discussion about family and national finances. But nearly always, those discussions are tied directly to evens that effect characters we have grown to care about. When, in a move reminiscent of FDR’s executive order 6102,  the government makes owning gold illegal and confiscates all gold coins and jewelry, soldiers are sent to search citizen’s homes for hidden gold. Willing Mandible and his parents stand by helplessly as couch cushions are sliced open, bushes are dug up, and the kitchen is destroyed. When no gold is found, the soldiers leave and Willing soothes his mother’s nerves by noting that, “They won’t come back… The government will figure out that they aren’t scaring enough gold out of people to pay the soldiers and policemen to do the scaring. The government can’t borrow money anymore. For now, that means they won’t waste it.”

This military invasion of their home is followed rapidly by the moment when Willing decides he will have to give away his dog Milo because while he can still afford to feed him now, “By the time we can’t, no one else will be able to feed their pets either, and you won’t be able to give any dog away.” Tying the economic crisis to these small moments of very human pain hooks us into the Mandible family’s story early on, and makes the thought experiment of Shriver’s novel come emotionally alive.

As the crisis continues and continues to deepen Willing’s skill with the economic way of thinking saves the family over and over again, by forcing them to confront difficult choices and abandon other possessions before they can no longer support them. In contrast to him, Willing’s Uncle Lowell, an economics professor and proponent of Keynesian theory, is uniquely ill-suited to weather the crisis. Having spent his time on the theory of economics, he is entirely unprepared for the challenge of grocery shopping during a time when inflation runs so high and fast that you must spend your salary the day you get it before prices rise beyond your reach. And when he finally gets his longed for back pay from the university and heads off to splurge on groceries he discovers that it amounts to pocket change in the current economy.

Shriver’s novel hits all the tropes of economic crisis. Currency is devalued and eventually becomes hardly more than carelessly printed scrip. Necessities like toilet paper disappear. Medicine becomes scarce. Care for the oldest and most vulnerable in communities vanishes. Good people turn to bad actions. Squatting and crime become epidemic.

To explain the ways in which Willing and his family come through the crisis would be to spoil the pleasure of reading a tense, funny, and heart-wrenching novel. Salvation comes, insofar as it comes, though Willing’s ability to think economically and through an unexpected bit of foresight from a surprising character. And the novel ends with a discussion of taxes. As Shriver would say, “Of course.”


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