At the first hint of the coming economic apocalypse, 13-year-old Willing reflects that “there was nothing astonishing about things not working, about things falling apart. … What was astonishing was anything that worked as intended, for any duration whatsoever.” It is 2029, and Willing is of the latest generation of Mandibles, a family of inherited wealth whose least successful members prove the most resourceful when disaster strikes.

Willing’s mother Florence, for instance, is a single mother living with a “Lat” (2029 slang for Latino, now the dominant population) and working at a shelter. But at least she owns her home in Flatbush, and when all the others lose theirs, she takes them in. When that too becomes untenable, the family is forced to turn to Florence’s younger brother Jarred, whose once ridiculous farm in upstate New York (“he’s taken a survivalist turn,” his sister Avery says) suddenly looks pretty good.

And why do things work — until they don’t? Florence’s brother-in-law Lowell, an economics professor at Georgetown (but not for long!), explains, “Because all value is subjective, money is worth what people feel it’s worth. They accept it in exchange for goods and services because they have faith in it.” And sadly the rest of the world has decided to put its faith in a new currency, the bancor, in a rejection of the American dollar brought on by the United States’ unsustainable debt (180 percent of GDP). Or something like that.

U.S. President Alvarado, in a national broadcast, characterizes this as nothing less than an act of war, a fiscal coup, outlaws the bancor in America, and declares “retaining gold in any form” a criminal offense.

Luckily, we have Lowell to tell us how this, running contrary to every economic principle he preaches, is silly; and Willing, perspicacious to the point of being oracular, to tell us (and all his unpleasant new housemates) what it really means.

If much of the speculative Dystopian future in Lionel Shriver’s “The Mandibles” seems wildly improbable — from its onset to the armed confiscation of gold to the population’s willingness to have transaction-monitoring chips implanted in their necks — it’s certainly fully realized. The book is thick with future slang and technology, grounded in a future recent history (the “Stonage” in 2024, “The Day Nothing Went On,” as Willing thinks of it) and rife with such ironic natural developments as the Mexicans putting up a wall to keep out fleeing Americans and the Chinese shipping their aged to America because it’s cheaper than taking care of them at home.

Because so much has happened, characters have to spend a lot of time describing the events to each other (i.e., us), with a wink from the author (“That’s a set piece,” Florence says at one point. “You’ve said it before.”)

Early on, discussing Jarred’s apocalyptic forebodings with Florence, Avery equates such obsessions with a fear of death. “It’s a failure of imagination, in a way,” she says, “an inability to conceive of the universe without you in it.” It’s a charge no one could ever bring against Lionel Shriver.


Ellen Akins is a writer, teacher of writing, and writing coach in Wisconsin and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

The Mandibles
By: Lionel Shriver.
Publisher: Harper, 402 pages, $27.99.