Is a monetary crisis the real threat, and if yes, what will it look like ?
While climate change appears to be the one existential threat to civilization to some and mass immigration to others, it can be argued that the far more imminent one is monetary collapse. Lionel Shriver takes on this theme in her latest novel, ‘The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047’. In it she paints an in my opinion unusually realistic view of how a once wealthy family is reduced to poverty and famine as the value of the once mighty US Dollar evaporates.
Shriver’s trademark approach is to take on some current issue and frame it into a unique and often dark fictional narrative with character studies that leaves you wondering if you have to read the whole book again as it is not only that good, you are still ridden with a myriad of questions about each protagonist in the book. She has successfully taken on America’s ongoing healthcare trauma in ‘So Much for That’, obesity in ‘Big Brother’ and extreme school violence in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. The latter was turned into a movie with Tilda Swinton and the story leaves you wondering about the horrendous reservoirs of misery that the human mind can apparently sink to. Beyond depressing, but a captivating read. ‘The Post Birthday World’ on the other hand is far more upbeat and captures an extra-marital affair in minute detail, exploring two different outcomes: if a kiss had or had not happened. So my expectations for her latest tome, ‘The Mandibles’, were quite high and Shriver does not disappoint. On the contrary, she has taken her social commentary to a new level altogether.
It would be hard to describe the book and not give away its plot, but in short it comes down to the greenback losing its value and the countries that have so generously advanced money to the debt-addicted American nation now seek repayment by other means. The world’s reserve currency is now the ‘bancor’ and America’s first Latino president resorts to extreme measure to ensure that the nation’s debt can be repaid in order to avoid a looming war with, among others, China. As we have seen in real-life with Greece’s debt crisis, the pain of drastic monetary action falls on the citizenry and so it falls on the Mandible family whose journey we follow over a 25-year period. Again, what makes Shriver’s writing so compelling is the plausibility of her fiction. In many ways we have already and consciously started the downward journey to a world where the greenback is no longer valuable and where we have to find our way back to gold and other instruments, like bitcoin, that store and preserve value.
It is not hard to imagine a world without currencies and cash and just imagine if we did away with it all, would the physical world not look exactly as it is now? A house is still a house, with or without a mortgage contract, right? The Mandibles is almost a piece of basic economic theory explaining how the artificial monetary construct on which we have built our society is vital in sustaining our physical world and pretty much all relations that govern our lives. Once money evaporates, the world around us changes so much that our core foundations get uprooted to such an extent that everything around us falls apart and gets destroyed. Rip up a mortgage contract and your house will all of a sudden look very different, that is what Shriver’s book tells us.
So yes, although fiction, the book is a piece of social-political commentary that resonates deep in the current environment, something that Shrives alludes too when referring to the 2008 financial crisis. In her book, Keynesian budgetary policies are demonstrated to have outlived their usefulness and a tech empowered welfare state that is used as an outsourcing center for the world’s new economic powerhouses (China, India) stand out as examples of our near term economic prospects. The crowning piece however is a libertarian nirvana that has seceded from the United States. On close inspection however it is nothing less than a Darwinian struggle for survival where the absence of government supported healthcare and rampant crime are the inescapable side effects for those that seek to claim one of the last remaining pieces of freedom on planet earth.
As dry and haunting as this may sound, Shriver brings this dark vision of our future to life with some phenomenal protagonists that span four generations. The kids that are our current day millennials, the post-boomers, boomers as well as the last representative of the greatest generation embodied by the Mandible pater familias ‘Great Grand Man’ whose fortune everyone is after are condemned to each other and to figuring out life without the hoped for family fortune. As a consequence, each family member has to fend for his or her own interests. And Shriver dives right into her knowledge of self as she describes the impact of the economic crisis on the generation that ultimately carries the most guilt in our monetary undoing: the baby boomers. Obsessed by self-interest, health and eternal youth, these are the ones that have to fight hardest to accommodate the most to the unforgiving post-dollar world. One of them, Nollie Mandible, is the boomer that is able to redeem herself and is in all likelihood Shriver herself as she paints the way out of the disaster that has effectively destroyed the United States as we know it.
It did not take me long to finish the book, it was that riveting a read, blending personal fictional drama with a fairly plausible analysis of the world’s future if we keep borrowing and printing money. It is after all not that hard to fathom that at some point this century Indonesia will invade Australia, yet it takes some dark futurology to invoke it in a novel as an entirely logical outcome of a re-ordered world. Shriver does that, with both humor and substance, and has put down a book that we all should read and reflect on while we still have our hands on the monetary steering wheel.