Shriver, nobody’s idea of an optimist about the present day, delivers a dire vision of near-future America.
The collapse of the United States arrives in 2029, not via climate change or airborne viruses or zombie hordes, but international monetary policy: foreign governments establish their own currency, the bancor (a concept first proposed by economist John Maynard Keynes), and when the U.S. resists, it’s effectively locked out of global trade. America speedily goes into free fall, with rampant shortages and inheritances vaporized by high costs, unemployment, and human longevity. The Mandible family is just barely hanging on: Florence, who has one of the few stable jobs left (working at a homeless shelter), is forced to open her Brooklyn home to desperate family members, including a humiliated economist brother-in-law, a sister whose career as a novelist tanked along with all print media, and her once-wealthy grandfather who has only a silver service left to his name and whose second wife suffers from violent dementia. Almost gleefully, Shriver (Big Brother, 2013, etc.) catalogs how this upper-middle-class clan gets knocked off its perch in ways both small (toilet-paper shortages, overcrowding) and large (rampant theft and violence, starvation, zero health care, general erosion of humanity). Politically, this may be the only novel Mother Jones and breitbart.com can both take an interest in, though it might tire them both, too: the closing chapters, set in a scorched-earth 2047, are overly didactic on themes of individual rights, taxation, and citizenship. “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present,” as Florence’s brother-in-law puts it, and Shriver’s biggest fear is that, between numbing technology and nanny-statedom, we’ve lost our capacity to live by our wits. This novel is a bracing vision of what happens when we’re forced to, though the lecturing tone sometimes grates.
An imperfect but savvy commingling of apocalyptic and polemic.