Lionel Shriver takes glee in being a ‘mischievous, scandalising provocateur’

Author Lionel Shriver is about to release her newest book, The Mandibles. Photo: Suki Dhanda Lionel Shriver. Photo: Mediaxpress
Nanjing Night Net

In the fifth chapter of Lionel Shriver’s new book, The Mandibles, there’s a knowing reference to the dystopian fictions of George Orwell and Arthur C.Clarke. “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all,” Shriver writes. “The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown. The truth is, throughout history things keep getting better.”

This pep talk is delivered by Lowell Stackhouse, an economics professor at Georgetown University and the most blinkered of the many complacent liberals in Shriver’s novel, so we’re clued in not to take it at face value. A full-scale breakdown of the social order is underway. Things will get much worse and may never get better. The speech serves as a nod from author to reader: this could happen to you.

The Mandibles is set in a near-future United States of America in which the government has defaulted on its debts, the US dollar has been usurped by a rival international currency and the stock market has crashed, wiping out fortunes. Soldiers raid houses to confiscate gold, cabbage costs $20 a head and a shower lasting longer than four minutes is an impossible luxury.

Shriver presents two and a half dystopias: an imploding society in which money is worthless and behavioural norms no longer apply; the terrifying, totalitarian taxation state that follows; and a hard-scrabble libertarian republic in which you are on your own, with no safety net, but free to do as you please.

“I think my fears are widely shared,” Shriver says, without fear of contradiction. Conservatives have been warning about inflation and out of control Social Security spending for decades. The Mandibles is a Fox News fever dream about what could happen if the government keeps running up colossal debts and printing more money at the first sign of trouble.

In her imagined USA, rampant political correctness means people now dial 1 for Spanish and 2 for English. The country’s first Latino President, Dante Alvarado, conducts press conferences in his native language. Unchecked immigration followed by precipitous decline. Shriver says one hasn’t got anything to do with the other, and is upset that The Washington Post called her a racist.

“I did not have a Mexican-American President destroy the economy of the United States. It is something that happened from the outside… Things do go to hell on his watch, but they would have regardless of who was president. It’s not his fault,” she says. Although she is adamant that The Mandibles “is not exclusively an attack on liberal America,” she enjoys ridiculing left wing cant and does it very well.

Her summer house (she lives in London nine months of the year) is on a pleasant cul-de-sac in novel-writing, latte-sipping, Obama-voting, John Maynard Keynes-believing Brooklyn. “Most novels are written by people of an identical political persuasion in this country,” she observes. “I’m actually only one of the only voices of departure in the entire literary community. So if I don’t at least introduce a political note that clashes or offers a counterpoint to the prevailing shibboleths, then who’s going to? It’s like my job.”

Shriver had written seven novels, six of them published, before finally finding success with her eighth. We Need To Talk About Kevin described the relationship between a troubled child and his ambivalent mother, and asked whether she should be blamed for his psychosis. It won the Orange Prize for fiction, was adapted into a hit movie and made Shriver rich after more than a decade of striving.

“I have a tendency to be a little nostalgic about being a failure,” she says, pointing out that in the 12 years that she worked as a reporter in Belfast and wrote novels in her spare time, she was never interrupted by interviews or book tours or literary galas. “It’s probably a nostalgia made possible by success. I enjoyed writing my books. But I did not enjoy getting rejection letters or selling  360 copies in hardback of my fourth novel.”

She is drawn to awkward subjects. So Much For That examined the disastrous consequences of for-profit healthcare in the USA. Big Brother tackled obesity. In Game Control, a character proposes murdering two billion people as a solution to overcrowding and scarce resources. “I like to craft characters who are hard to love,” Shriver once told Bomb magazine.

This appears to include her own persona. In interviews and photographs, she sometimes plays along with the notion that she is stern. I found her to be charming – but smart, opinionated women often acquire a reputation for being intimidating, whether they deserve it or not. I suspect she quite enjoys it.

“I’m always talking to journalists who have formed some preconception of me as ‘scary’ – which I find absurd,” she says. “I don’t think I’m very difficult to talk to… I don’t think I’m harsh, in person, and mean to people. I sure hope I’m not. It is never my intention.”

Shriver has written herself into The Mandibles, in the form of Nollie, an expatriate American author in her mid-seventies, living in France off the proceeds of her one hit novel. Although the line between public image and self-image, between self-parody and self-congratulation, is a tricky tightrope for any author to walk, she clearly had fun up on the wire.

Nollie tosses out “perceptions that for any halfway intelligent person constituted run-of-the-mill dinner party fare, but that scanned to her band of pumped fans as life-altering revelations.” She gets bad reviews and publishes books that no-one reads. She is “wildly opinionated” and fanatical about her jumping jacks. Shiver, an extremely sporty 58, does the interview in hot pink running shorts and a blue t-shirt, having just got up before noon, with a game of tennis planned afterwards.

Nollie has given up writing, citing book piracy and diminishing financial returns. She arrives at the brownstone that will soon be home to the whole Mandible clan laden with crates of her novels, and is persuaded by her teenaged grand-nephew Willing, who understands the gravity of the financial crisis long before any of the adults do, to burn them for heat.

“The whole character’s supposed to be a wink and a nod to the reader,” Shriver says. Nollie is an anagram of Lionel. The names of the books tossed into the oil drum – Better Late Than, Virtual Family, The Stringer, Cradle To Grave – are all working titles Shriver abandoned.

“I had originally intended to take the mickey out of myself, and I hope I successfully did so – mercilessly, in some instances. The thing is, I grew rather fond of her. She became an independent character and not just a caricature of me.” But you made her the heroine! Shriver sighs. “Yeah, I couldn’t help myself. I liked her relationship with Willing. I thought that inter-generational relationship had something going for it.”

Without wishing to give too much away, Nollie turns out to be the one Mandible with any tangible, portable assets. Towards the end of the novel, she reminds Willing that she came about them the hard way.

“I earned it,” she tells him. “By staying up late at a keyboard when my friends were carousing in bars. By reading the same manuscript so many times… that I came to hate the sight of my own sentences. By appearing in public events and saying the same thing over and over again until I was senseless with self-hatred.” I put it to Shriver that this is nakedly her own voice. Fair comment, she says.

In common with many self-made people, Shriver regards high tax, socialist systems as unfair and inefficient. She advocates a flat tax – “that’s often called un-progressive,” she admits – but scorns arch conservative Senator Ted Cruz even more than she derides Donald Trump. In the novel, Jarred Mandible turns left, left and left again, and ends up on the right. This sounds like an ideological journey Shriver might be familiar with.

The Mandibles is dense with economic theory, but there are enough laugh out loud moments. As the USA declines, the reputation of Americans abroad improves. “In Paris, it had grown fashionable to invite lively American raconteurs to dinner parties, much as one might previously have invited the Irish,” she writes.

When I ask if she gets into rows at parties, she answers “yeah, I do” instantly. “And the thing is that I like arguing, as long as it’s good-natured. I don’t like getting into arguments where it gets very personal. “I had an argument about Brexit shortly before I left London, and she just went crazy.”

You were arguing that Britain should leave the European Union, I bet, I say – a contrarian position in upper middle-class London. “Right. And she went crazy. The only thing that was interesting about it was watching somebody lose it and wondering whether I get that way. It was like ‘note to self: don’t do that. This is not effective. Keep your cool’.”

Nollie never loses her cool. I doubt Shriver does either. It takes some nerve to describe oneself as a “mischievous, scandalising provocateur” in print, but she has earned that right, too.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.