Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 1 (Gray Water)

You'll have to excuse the awkward post titles. There's an abrupt time jump about two-thirds through this thing at which point Shriver resets the chapter numbers, so this is the best I can offer.

Here's the sum total of what actually happens in this chapter: The protagonist/object of ridicule washes the dishes, talks about water shortages with her Mexican boyfriend, then her son watches the evening news.

If that sounds a little thin or dull, then this is merely a sign of your ignorance and lack of refinement. Perhaps a Plebian like you would prefer to read something by one of those pedestrian storytellers who think that novels should have action and drama and interesting characters and a plot. Any New York literary scenester will tell you that true literature eschews such primitive artifices in favor of having unrelatable characters lounge about, thinking about the world and making page-long speeches in an affected version of the author's own voice.

But maybe you'd prefer something by Stephen King. What does that prick know about writing, huh?

In novels like this which include a lot of worldbuilding, the opening chapter (or chapters) is usually for establishing the characters, setting and anything else the reader needs to know before the plot (*sneers*) kicks in. We don't learn too much about the world just yet, and certainly none of the spicy stuff you may have heard about. As with a lot of near-future works, The Mandibles starts off in a world that has the exact same problems as we have now - monetary troubles, economic woes, too many Hispanics, you know the drill. This is a world in which every wingnut doomsday scenario came true at once, but the consequences were delayed by a generation.

Speaking of which, in Shriver's future world, our own world is referred to as the "Stone Age" (or sometimes the "Stonage," depending on the character talking and how many shots of gin the editor had that morning). That's one of the many bits of future lingo used by the Kids These Days of 2029. They also refer to their elders as "boomerpoops," which...all right, judge if you must, but at least Shriver doesn't seem to think that she understands the Kids These Days. Puts her a few steps beyond Tom Wolfe.

All right, the characters. The star here is Florence, whom I guess counts as the protagonist even though the POV slides away from her a lot. She's certainly the most detailed and thoroughly conceived of the characters, probably because she's going to be the target of an awful lot of mockery down the line. Florence is our designated liberal sap, set to learn a series of harsh truths about reality. She's not addressed with a particularly subtle hand, either. Here are some selections from her extensive introduction:
After she'd scraped from one poorly paid, often part-time position to another, whatever wide-eyed altruism had motivated her moronic double major in American Studies and Environmental Policy at Barnard had been beaten out of her almost entirely. Half her jobs had been eliminated because an innovation became abruptly obsolete; she'd worked for a company that sold electric long underwear to save on heating bills, and then suddenly consumers only wanted heated underwear backed by electrified graphene...
...During the so-called "recovery" (Parentheses are redundant here - Ed) she moved out [of her parents' house] at last, sharing cramped, grungy digs with contemporaries who also had Ivy League degrees, in history, or political science, and who also brewed coffee, bussed tables, and sold those old smart phones that shattered and you had to charge all the time at Apple stores.
Stupid young people with their useless degrees and sense of idealism. Shame that they won't recognize that immigration is an existential threat until it's too late. Also it's passages like this that qualify the book as satire, so I hope you laughed.

Speaking of immigration, our next character, Esteban, is a second-generation Mess'can immigrant. He has a menial job in some kind of retirement home or assisted living center and he's good at sex (possibly, Florence speculates, because this is a "Mexican thing") and that's about all we learn about him right now. Oh, besides one other thing: Like every Hispanic character in terrible fiction, Esteban is fluent in English but will occasionally swap an English word for its tenth-grade Spanish equivalent. Shriver lampshades this as an affectation he adopted for the old folks, but he never stops doing it.

Finally there's Willing, Florence's son, and all we learn about him is that he watches the television news. Despite the hilarious description of THE FUTURE! that we'll be getting in the next chapter, ordinary television still exists, possibly because it:
...[provided] the open fire, the communal hearth, that a personal device could never quite replace.
This must be that engaging, insightful writing that I've been told about. It's certainly not an unexpected intrusion of Boomer nostalgia into a story that doesn't suit it.

To summarize: The first chapter is boring, with the kind of sluggish writing that would be immediately disqualifying in an unpublished writer. Almost everything we learn about the plot, characters and setting comes not through dialogue or action, but through what in the video game world we'd call "infodumps." It has no real hooks - another thing that would kill a manuscript by a new writer - and the "satire" is barely present. Plus it's boring. I'm now sorry that I ever complained about Agenda 21 being dull - at least the opening chapter of that thing had some tension.

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