Lionel Shriver is a bad writer who makes Ayn Rand sound like a good liberal. Like her ideological antecedent–I can’t dignify this lineage with the word “intellectual”–Shriver writes lousy novels that attract critical attention and Hollywood options because they make no sense. The more inexplicable the better, I suppose, because this lack of sense gives everybody all the more discretion in analyzing, producing, and consuming the available fictions. Until now, when the future intrudes on our thinking like the stupid burglar who cased the wrong place, as Donald Trump has done in hijacking the USA.
But there is no present like the one lived in dystopian science fiction, where the past stands in for the future precisely because what is to become of us can’t be known until it happens–until it’s written and remembered avant la lettre, before the fact, ahead of its time, as non-fiction or novels.
Shriver notes this chronological perversity in The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2042, her last readable novel (2016). The speaker is Lowell Mandible, a complacent Keynesian economist who has been furloughed from Georgetown as the US slides into chaos because the federal government has repudiated the national debt. Lowell is eventually rescued from his intellectual and political lethargy by his nephew, Willing, who plays the part of the old Randian mole, burrowing beneath our silly beliefs in anything but self-reliance, and who, accordingly, leads the Mandible family to Nevada, where the law of the jungle has been happily reinstated as the new Sharia–as if the Republican Party had won the West by harnessing evangelical Christianity to Social Darwinism. Oh, wait . . . .
Here’s Lowell explaining to his daughter why science fiction isn’t a prediction of anything but the present: “’Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all. The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown.’”
Soon enough Lowell’s liberal preachments–“‘The truth is, throughout history things keep getting better’”–are countermanded by his family’s eviction at gunpoint from their home near Prospect Park, by the neighbors. They camp in the park, tramp upstate, and then drive west, just like their forbears of the 1840s and 50s did, all headed for the outskirts of civilization in the hope of redeeming the pioneer individualism of the 19th century.
My review of Shriver’s novel is pasted below. I was reminded of its savage logic and quaint prose by a poignant essay in The Guardian this morning, in which the novelist Naji Bakhti writes of the present in Beirut, where economic crisis has overwhelmed both the state and civil society. Bakhti’s family is now making the decisions the Mandible family had to make back in 2031.
“Just a fortnight ago, prior to my father’s dismissal [from the American University in Beirut’s Medical Center], my hitherto middle-class family had a serious discussion about whether or not meat was necessary moving forward. Last month, a man shot himself outside a Dunkin’ Donuts on Hamra, a popular high street in Beirut. He left a note that reads ‘I am not blasphemous . . . a line from a Ziad Rahbani wartime song ending ‘but hunger is blasphemous.’” [Note: AUB is “the country’s most prestigious institution and largest non-state employer.”]
You might say, Lebanon is a third-world country, where power shortages and blackouts were everyday events before, during, and long after the brutal civil war of 1975-1990. It’s the profligate Greece of the Middle East, no wonder COVID-19 has shut it down. But then you would have also to acknowledge that Lebanon “crushed” the curve, as they say, and became an exemplar of how to contain the virus. The USA is the failed state, the banana republic, the less-developed area, where penury and antithesis now prevail as policy, not misfortune.
So you might say, instead, that the savagery of Shriver’s neoliberal conspectus is now inscribed in the words and the deeds of the political party that controls the Senate and the White House. You might also say that the end of capitalism is upon us because its defenders know no better than to grind the poor for fear that they won’t go back to work.
You have to say that Lebanon looks like the future. Our future.