Early on in Lionel Shriver’s merciless, unceasingly sharp new novel, a family saga set in the USA between 2029 and 2047, a father tells his daughter, ‘Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present.’ In Shriver’s acid satire, everything bad that could happen – short of a nuclear war or a Trump presidency – has happened. To take the pulse of America is to take the pulse of a cadaver.
This is because, a hundred years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, America’s national debt has become unsustainable. With the dollar close to worthless, an upstart international currency (the Bitcoin-esque Bancor) is humanity’s only hope. Shriver depicts the USA in the grip of a fierce post-capitalist meltdown, a country where money is as baseless as Prospero’s dreams: at one point, dollars are printed on paper so thin they turn to Kleenex in the pocket. Money as a concept is over. It has become purely notional. No bailouts or quantitative easing will provide the solution this time. ‘They could raise taxes. But the rich already pay high taxes. And now their investments are gone. The rich aren’t rich … What else is there to do? Photocopy the money?’
At the centre of this maelstrom are the oddly named Mandible family. Sisters Florence and Avery live very different lives: while Florence works at a homeless centre and is married to a Latino careworker, Avery is the spouse of Lowell, a feckless economist who ‘vaguely associated benevolence with idiocy’. When