Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 14 (A Complex System Enters Disequilibrium)

A.K.A. Nothing Says "Hostage Situation" Like An Academic Term From An Organizational Studies Textbook

Chapter 14 is the last chapter before the big fifteen year timeskip. That means we have just thirty pages to scoop up all of the fragments of plot and paste them into a coherent whole before starting our great expedition into the future of THE FUTURE! Does our fearless author pull this off? Well...kinda. It helps that the whole story has been designed (contrived, one might say) to lead to this very point. So let's try to clear this bastard out of the way as efficiently as possible that we might get to what I'm told is the really bad shit.

Since we've already established that Willing, in addition to being soulless, is also smarter than the rest of the cast combined, it's fitting that we start with him. It turns out that Willing has prepared a bug-out bag because of course he has. He'll also spend most of this chapter ordering everyone around - you know, I really didn't think I could hate the little bastard anymore, but here we are. He's even put together enough to crack wise with the hostage taker:
"Can't you shut [Luella] up?" Sam pleaded.
"Greater men than I have tried," Willing said.
Anyway, the plan is to head out to the Prospect Park homeless camp Kurt mentioned many chapters ago:
"Take warm clothes," Willing directed. "Wear multiple layers so you don't have to carry them. Remember to bring something waterproof. Fill the plastic bottles in the old recycling container with tap water."
What the blue fuck? What tap water, you little freak? There's no tap water! There hasn't been any tap water for 441 pages! The very first goddamn line in this book is about how there isn't enough clean water for three people, let alone thirteen! How do you forget this? What kind of hack...

...I'm sorry, I seem to have had a fit. I'm okay now.

All right, let's skim...Willing is basically psychic, we've established that...ah, the family makes one last attempt to take out the invaders:
Looming on the stoop in the open doorway, Carter raised both hands high behind Sam's back. As his blanket flew backwards, he plunged a gleaming foot-long implement into the interloper's shoulder.
For the record, Carter just stabbed the gunman with this:

He even cracks a joke about it:
"Asparagus tongs," Carter declared unapologetically, eyes wide and black. He nodded at the gun. "Go ahead. Make my day."
I'm sorry to say that no one gets shot in this scene. Each and every one of these miserable bastards will be alive at the end of the chapter.

So, the camp. This part is from Lowell's POV - I have no clue why, but once you've read far enough into any bad novel you quit questioning why your torturer does anything. I'm not entirely sure how long they stay here, but this section can't span more than a few days. There's a little talk about food and a lot of talk about defecation (because it's transgressive!). Savannah still isn't back and won't be returning. Then Florence - the one source of income - leaves her job after a man attacks her with a blow torch. In short, we've reached the Final Chapter.

Quick question - how many of you think that this book sucks so bad that the author would actually use the term "Final Chapter" in the dialogue? Would anyone reading this be shocked at all?
"He's right. You've done your part, Mom." Willing had reappeared. With an obscure glance at Nollie, he announced, "We've reached the Final Chapter."
I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed. Actually, I'm mad and disappointed, but not at Shriver. I save those emotions for the industry and the literary circles that prop up this garbage.

This isn't actually the final chapter, although I feel like it was meant to be. Like Agenda 21, my previous incursion into terrible dystopian fiction, The Mandibles has the feel of a two-volume set. The timeskip gimmick is so conceptually awkward that I don't believe at all that this was the original intention. We can explore that possibility further once we get to the other side of that barrier, but I wanted to put the possibility out there.

This is where it all comes together. A whole bunch of disparate points from earlier in the novel are now assembled and pasted together with generous amounts of serendipity and coincidence. Here's what goes down, in convenient bullet point form:
  • The new destination is Gloversville, home to elusive prepper Jarred and his farm (mentioned first in Chapter 2). Those menacing farm hands just left after awhile, so I guess I was right after all.
  • Willing trades one of the goblets (saved from the government goons in Chapter 6) for a gun (which he mentioned in Chapter 12). You know, it's funny that this armed stranger in this criminal urban nightmare didn't just rob Willing. It's also surprising that anyone in this situation would trade a utilitarian device for a lump of metal with no practical value. Whatever, I'm long past caring about small shit like this.
  • The people in the camp are building shutters to protect the things, so the Home Depot hinges that Avery was buying up back in Chapter 11 are suddenly tradable for food. Yes, really.
  • Savannah isn't coming along on this voyage, but everyone else is - thirteen people in all.
  • Oh yeah, almost forgot - this is the point where they're walking Luella on a leash. I must just be numb to everything because I'm not as shocked by this as I should be.
Here's where it gets tricky. The family had to abandon the car along with everything else when Sam et al stormed the house. That means that they're going to have to walk nearly two hundred miles to reach prepper Jarred's farm. Two hundred miles - that's not such a tall order for a single healthy adult or a small group. Perhaps some of you have hiked this far. But this is a far different scenario. There are thirteen people here carrying limited supplies and wearing clothing and footwear that are likely inappropriate for the journey. Several people in this group are elderly, including one man (Douglas) who's pushing one hundred. And with society in a state of legal and moral freefall, there's no telling what kind of monsters they could find out there. Sure, the unimpeachably brilliant Willing insists that everything's fine outside of the cities, but I'm not sure how his crystal ball extends to the interstate.

We're looking at a brutal, weeks-long trek into unknown territory. It's highly likely that several people will die along the way. This is shaping up to be sort of a weird contemporary urban Oregon Trail, and much like that game I'm sure that at least some of these people will shit themselves to death. For that briefest of moments, it feels like this novel and this writer could finally produce something interesting.

And then...


...it never happens. We skip over the whole thing.

You heard me. One moment, we're gearing up for a hazardous journey. Then it's fifteen years later and we're looking back over what happened.

466 pages. 466 pages of speeches about economic theories, dinner party chatter, off-hand discussion over things happening elsewhere, volumes of detail on characters voiding their bowels, and dozens and dozens of pages of internal monologue courtesy of a spectacular set of assholes. And just as soon as something interesting comes up, we skip over it.

Did I mention that this chapter ends in a murder-suicide? No? Well, that's because I initially missed it. Yes, it seems that our author decided that she didn't want to deal with Douglas and Luella any longer, so she disposed of them. Then the chapter ended. No mourning. No shock from the characters who just witnessed a gruesome act of violence by and against members of their own family. That's very appropriate, because I feel like the story just died here (even though it's going to lurch onward for another 150 pages or so) and I feel nothing.

A fifteen-year gap...you know, it occurs to me that I wrote a novel - The Fabulist - that has parallel narratives set fifteen years apart. Most of it covers a man's trek across a post-apocalyptic state (Illinois, in this case), often saddled with weaker people who slow his progress. There's violence, natural hazard, moral decisions, and personal discoveries. It took two years to finish up the final manuscript. Would that I could have approached it the Lionel Shriver way. Would that I could have made money by writing an account of Storyteller sitting in a bunker, watching him manage supplies, keeping very close track of his bathroom activities, and occasionally having him pontificate at length about how everyone else is less intelligent than he is - and then, once the vault opened, skipping ahead to the end of the grand journey and having him reflect on all those things I didn't show the audience.

Actually, no. No, I don't wish that at all. That sounds like it would be as boring to write as it would be to read. More so, even. Literary writers never seen like they enjoy what they do - oh, they derive some sense of self-satisfaction out of their scribblings and the literary community's reactions, but they don't find any joy in the craft, not like those littlebrain genre writers. I find it hard to believe that Shriver liked writing the previous 466 pages, not like she would have had she actually described the great journey that was about to unfold.

Tune in next time, when we'll find out what's on the other side of that time skip. Maybe we'll be surprised and it'll be great. The odds technically are not zero.

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