A couple of times during our chat, Lionel Shriver leans forward and utters a phrase that will put a twinkle in any journalist’s eye: “I know I shouldn’t say this, but . . .”
Well, “leaning forward” may be a tad dramatic. We are in the HarperCollins/NewsCorp canteen-cum-observation platform in the Baby Shard, with the expanse of the Thames, the City, and the rest of London spread out before us. We have been designated a couple of somewhat wobbly rocking chairs and any movement may be involuntary.
We are talking about Shriver’s 13th novel, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 (The Borough Press, May), arguably her first Great American Novel in the sense that it is a state of the nation story. Set in the near future, the titular Mandibles are an extended family led by a 97-year-old patriarch, whose offspring—upper-middle-class Avery, down on her luck Florence and expat author Nollie—are depending on the old man’s sizeable fortune when he dies. But disaster strikes in the form of a sudden economic crisis that wipes out the finances of most Americans. It is the end of the US as a world power and as the country descends into chaos, we follow the Mandibles as they try to survive.
This is a book tackling some of the weightier problems of the world today: economic stability, immigration, white privilege, climate change. The nub of the idea came to Shriver when she read Edward Luce’s Time to Start Thinking, a study of the US in decline. She says: “It got my imagination going and intersected with my general perception of [the economic downturn of ] 2008—I feel we dodged a bullet but that bullet is still whizzing around and we never know when it’s going to hit us between the eyes.”
One of the hot-button themes of the book is immigration. In The Mandibles, Latinos are ascendent in the US, with a Hispanic president who makes his speeches in Spanish. Shriver pauses for a long time before stating that her views on immigration are “emotionally conflicted”. She adds: “The classic immigrant story is always sympathetic. I‘m also sympathetic with people who are suddenly inundated by foreigners who are abundantly there breaking your laws. Many [immigrants in the US], or at least their parents, broke the law [by illegally immigrating]. This was in cahoots with the US government, which has its own interest in not enforcing the law. This is the kind of thing I’m not supposed to say, but the experience of being taken over, is not that different from a military takeover.
“Some people will celebrate the end of white hegemony. Maybe that is great. But I am ‘one of [those white people]’ and it’s hard to celebrate with my heart and soul. And one of the things that is lost is a certainly harmony. I mean, look at the US election—it’s a horror show. What tends to be the case with waves of immigration is reasonable mainstream people who are generally not classically xenophobic or bigoted get upset when [immigrants] move in. Because people are upset, they feel powerless and go to some idiot like Donald Trump.”
Shriver is all too aware that topics such as this are difficult, as the debate on immigration is “rarely rational, but that’s what makes in interesting”. She adds: “I know what I’m saying can be easily misconstrued or taken out of context, or even heard in context, you may not agree with me. Maybe I’m not being misunderstood. Maybe the problem is being understood. The trouble is that humans naturally lump into groups and we like to stick up for the interests of our groups.”
For all its look at troubling issues, The Mandibles is Shriver’s funniest book to date, with a lightness of touch that makes it more a well-observed scabrous satire on people than a dark musing on economic theory. Shriver obviously had fun with the details of creating her near- future world—to be ultra-modern, Avery names her children after online search engines—and imagining how incapable the upper-middle-class might be in surviving a world meltdown: with food and water scarce, Avery spends the family’s ration book on a crate of “tart, surprisingly supple Cabernet-Shiraz”.
The best laugh-out-loud moments are in the characterisation of Nollie, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Shriver: a fitness-fanatic expat American writer who has had one massive, prize-winning hit. “That was fun,” Shriver laughs. “I thought I was old enough, with just enough work behind me, that I wouldn’t completely humiliate myself for putting a self-parody in a book.” Shriver reveals that all of Nollie’s books are “the real crummy working titles of my books. The original title for We Need to Talk About Kevin was ‘Cradle to Grave’ . . . If I’d chosen that, we would not be speaking here today.”
Kevin was indeed the turning point for Shriver. She had published six novels between 1986 and 1997, but could not find a home for her seventh. She wrote Kevin, but it was turned down by almost 30 houses before being snapped up by Serpent’s Tail. It, of course, went on to win the 2005 Orange Prize and has earned more than £5.2m in the UK across all editions.
Shriver was seriously considering giving up writing novels had Kevin not been published. She laughs that her secondary career choice would have been journalism, “which would have been a catastrophe” given the current state of the industry. The Mandibles certainly has a pessimistic view of the future of writing: in the book few people buy books and journalism is a completely dead profession. Shriver says: “I am concerned about the professional future of generations of authors coming up behind me. Writers are getting paid less, they need other jobs to survive and there is a quality of work that is very difficult to produce without doing it full-time. Yet the bigger fear is not the disappearance of the novelist, but the journalist. That is a much more dire prediction. Look what has happened to the Independent: that’s just a canary in the coal mine.”
Born in North Carolina, the former Margaret Ann Shriver informally changed her name to Lionel in the 1970s because she felt tomboyish. The world seems to have caught up with her in the current vogue for gender fluidity, but Shriver is hardly celebrating: “The whole obsession with gender bugs me. I thought the liberation of women from their tradition roles would mean true gender fluidity, which in my book doesn’t mean fixing yourself on a continuum of gender identification but of not giving a shit about the whole thing, of getting beyond it. We’re not getting beyond it, we’re getting obsessed with it. It’s the wrong direction. Whatever you think of my name, I don’t believe that my gender is the most important thing about me.”