Friday, October 21, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 10 (Setbacks Never Bring Out the Best in People)

A.K.A. Make Those Chapter Titles A Little Longer, Shriver, I Can't Wait Until They Break Across Three Lines

So let's talk a little more about that whole "most realistic dystopian novel ever" thing. I've been making a lot of hay out a line in some of the promotional materials that took a shot at Blade Runner. I did this not because I'm particularly fond of Philip K. Dick but because of what it says about the author and the community from what she hails. Until recently, Serious Authors sneered at the entire dystopian subgenre - not just the novels themselves but the authors who wrote them and even (perhaps especially) the people who read them. The notion of any of them stooping to write in such a common and - heaven help us - popular style was unthinkable.

Lionel Shriver approached the subgenre in a manner much different than that of most non-Serious Authors. A science fiction or mainstream writer tackles the future-imperfect style because it gives him a chance to build an interesting world in which he can explore some personal concerns about the future - concerns that can actually be better understood against an alien backdrop that washes away preconceptions. Of course, any respectable genre hack knows enough to make the story entertaining first, otherwise the reader won't bother to finish it. By contrast, when a more highbrow author deigns to write in this style, they do so in the same way they tackle anything else - draining all the joy and excitement out of it in order to better focus on their grand ideas and artistic manipulation of the language.

That's the best explanation of Chapter 10, which is basically the worst Thanksgiving ever (complete with an outspoken right-wing relative). It's certainly not exciting - nothing of note happens in the whole chapter, it's just people bickering and thinking about how much they hate each other and hate being in close proximity in a too-small house. I can't deny that it's more familiar than the type of seen you'd see in a yarn by Philip K. Dick, or Bradbury or Atwood or anyone else. If you wanted to call it "realistic," I wouldn't argue with you. I would, however, argue that this chapter proves why "realistic" isn't always a good idea.

In this chapter, Avery and her family move into Florence's house - a house that, you'll recall, already contains quirky aunt Nollie and impossibly nice unlawful subleased tenant Kurt. You could potentially make this setup interesting. Hell, a particularly skillful writer - one with a special skill for dialogue and characterization and subplot management - could make an entire story this banal work. But as that would entail fewer speeches, that's not going to happen here.

On the plus side, some of the characters are developing personalities, which is to say that they're turning into bigger assholes. Avery deserves some kind of award for developing a mindset that is superficially open-minded but is really just extremely obnoxious:
Long insulated from misfortune by a successful practice and high-earner spouse, she felt as if she'd thrown off a quilt in an overheated house. A mildness had suffocated most of her adult life, and suddenly the late November air smacked sharp against her skin. Things seemed to matter again. It seemed to matter how she spent her time and what she told her children. Why, it was tempting to wonder whether, while the likes of the Stackhouses were musing idly over whether to cover the footstool in taupe or mauve, folks on the margins were living real lives, and making real decisions, and conducting real relationships, full of friction and shouting and moment - whether all this time the poor people had been having all the fun.
If you've been lucky enough to have never met a person like this, then just know that it doesn't take too long to realize that they've merely switched from hostile and chilly snobbery to a smiley condescension. They're still looking down on you, but now they're seeing you as a raggedy squirrel rather than a blob of gum on the sidewalk.

Many of the other characters are likewise becoming dicks, which is at least understandable given the circumstances. Dueling precocious teenagers Willing and Big Pete are acting like actual teenagers for the first time in the narrative. Lowell is now your creepy uncle who doesn't really talk to anyone and may or may not be writing a manifesto. Little Pete is now amazingly whiny. Nollie now wants to start fights, which we're told via infodump that is something she does I didn't see much of that in Chapter 9.

The big event in this chapter involves Lowell, Florence and Willing going to the supermarket, where some jerk takes the last container of oatmeal out of their cart and Willing swipes it back. Thrilling stuff. In fairness, the market - with its thoroughly raided shelves watched over by security goons - probably constitutes one of the best settings thus far, not that that's a high bar. And, returning to the section at the top, it's undeniably realistic. If you've ever visited a supermarket the day before significant snowfall, you've no doubt seen harried shoppers (motivated by the hyperbolic SNOWMAGEDDEON that now accompany any day with more than a few inches of accumulation) clearing out already picked-over shelves. But does it make you want to keep reading?

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