There’s a danger to hero-worship, as I have ranted about in a previous post, and I am dangerously close to it with Lionel Shriver. I picked up We Need To Talk About Kevin as a grumpy, disillusioned teenager who spent her time reading about murders and mayhem; what can I say, it spoke to me, and it continues to be one of my all-time favourite books. The Post-Birthday World and So Much For That make the list, too, but her pre-Kevin offerings didn’t inspire me as much.
I remember the feeling after I read So Much For That was almost transcendent. I drank the book in one huge gulp, and was thirsty for more. Yet the following novel, Big Brother, despite being on an issue I have an almost obsessional interest in, didn’t quite hit the same spot until the second or third reading.
It’s difficult to decide how I feel about this latest offering. The Mandibles is a dystopian satire about the eponymous family set during and after the crash of the American economy, focusing mostly on the events unfolding on Willing, who is aged twelve when the book begins. As with all her books, there is a central grievance with the modern world, but this one seems more chilling than the others.
I have to admit, I wasn’t taken with her characters at first, partly because of Shriver’s tendency towards quasi-unusual names (it comes as no surprise that Lionel Shriver is her chosen, not given, name). I liked Goog and Bing, harking back to the search engines of their mother’s youth, but the disconnect with some of the other names – a little too ‘future’, almost Katniss in nature – made it hard to fully connect until about a third-to-half of the way through.
Or perhaps her characters just weren’t that likable this time round. The collapse of your country as you know it does not bring out the best in people, as it turns out. Even the do-gooders such as Florence, Willing’s mother, weren’t as compelling. The largely absent Jarred, Willing’s uncle, isn’t fleshed out until very late on, which I found jarring.
So, aside from the characters, the storytelling is… hard work. The first third reads more like an essay in the economic history of the USA, told via conversations between precocious teenagers and their exasperated parents. However, once you get past that and into the meat of the story – the quest for the Mandibles’ survival – it’s another thirst-quencher of a novel.
And then there’s the ending.
One fault I do concede with Shriver is that endings seem to be an afterthought (with the exception of Kevin, whose ending is just right). She tends towards a wrapping-up style of finish, which isn’t something I particularly enjoy but others might. I prefer the story to end mid-story, in a way, as opposed to summing up what happens to each and every character to complete their individual arcs.
I maybe wouldn’t mind if this one hadn’t seemed so rushed. Such-and-such lived to this age then died, so-and-so did this until this, and then… it goes on. The characters’ depth drips away in the final few pages as they become caricatures of themselves, doing exactly what you’d predict would happen if you’d been asked after reading the first ten pages – their growth just isn’t demonstrated. And there is growth, so much of it, which I feel isn’t honoured by the flailing final chapter.
Having said that, the final two sentences are a complete sucker-punch, and will either make you laugh or despair, depending on your disposition.
With all the Brexit nonsense going on – I’m writing this on the day of the referendum, and am yet to see the results – we’re thinking more and more about how the decisions we make now will impact on our futures in a very real way; this is something that Shriver has excelled in capturing. You believe it, all of it, even the most absurd events, and you feel their desperation.
Although this isn’t my favourite of Shriver’s, and it may be quite some time before I do my usual re-reading, I finished it twenty-four hours ago and still feel a little unsettled by it. If you take the first third as it is, which is the very necessary world-building needed for such a complex subject, and persist all the way through, it’s a rewarding read. I just hope it’s wrong.