Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 5 (The Chattering Classes)

Shorter Chapter 5: Ungh.

Longer Chapter 5: Unnnnnnnnngh.

Sorry for that, but I'm going to have to stretch this post a little bit. Chapter 5 details a dinner party with authorial mouthpiece Avery and some of her insufferable faux-intellectual friends. There's still no plot, but there's also no worldbuilding here. Chapter 5 is complete filler.

Go figure, I didn't think I'd ever have cause to use that stupid little banner again.

Insofar as anything happens, this chapter introduces a whole bunch of completely forgettable characters. First we've got the children, starting with Savannah:
Savannah was one of those girls who managed to make brown hair seem exotic. He trained his eyes away from her long bare legs; she was a knockout, she had powers...
This is from her father's POV, by the way. I'd say something about that, but I won't because it's obvious that the shock artist...sorry, "transgressive literary novelist" wanted me to have a reaction and I'm not giving her the pleasure. Ditto a line a few pages later about his ten-year-old son being "ideal prey for pedophiles."

Speaking of which, we also have the two sons...ugh...Goog and Bing. Seriously, those are the kind of "clever" names that a high school NaNo writer would dream up after too much chronic. In fact, I'm not using those names anymore. You'll never see them again, not in this series. Until further notice they are "Big Pete" and "Little Pete" because if we're going to have pointless pop culture references in this thing, then it'll be on my terms, dammit. Not that it matters since they basically share a personality and are addressed as a single contiguous unit most of the time.

Next up are the party guests, each of whom gets a paragraph-length intro so unfortunately we'll probably see them again. Here's a capsule summary because I can't bring myself to care about 3/4 of this group:

  • Ryan, the token pointy-headed liberal academic. He'll be the one setting up smashes for Avery. Beyond that I have nothing to say about him.
  • Tom, a lawyer with the Justice Department and the fiscally conservative counterpart to Ryan. In lieu of a genuine voice, Tom has a Maryland accent, so occasionally Shriver will follow his dialogue by transliterating some of his words into their unreadable accented equivalent (i.e. "tear-ble, criminal bidnessmin").
  • Belle, an oncologist who doesn't say enough for me to have an opinion on her.
  • And finally my personal favorite, which is to say the one that made me cringe the most:
Half-Chinese, Lin Yu Houseman had reaped the best of both worlds - with the smooth, purified lines of a classic Asian face, but a Westerner's slender nose and wide eyes...Barely thirty, she combined that hint of the orient that fifty-ish men like Ryan found sexy...Intellectually as well, she'd melded the diligence of an Asian upbringing...with the earnest political passion of the East Coast liberal.
That's obviously truncated, but you get the idea - Lin Yu's entire description focuses on how very Asian she is, as thought you couldn't guess from the name (curious for a woman born in the United States with a Western surname presumably inherited from her father, but that's a small thing). It's nowhere near as inflammatory as the content about blacks or Hispanics, but it took me aback all the same and those of you who've heard me talk about my life can probably guess why.

This is the kind of trope that makes me deeply uncomfortable and just a little angry, which is a shame because it's pretty common. A lot of older white male authors have a latent Asian fetish that they work through by introducing nubile Asian women that their self-insert protagonists can bang. Literary authors are not immune - I'm looking at you, Paul "Marco had at last set foot in China" Auster. This being a female author, the purpose is not sublimated fetishism but appears to be twofold: Conventions of the form (which absolutely exist even in the mushy world of True Literature) and for the utilitarian purpose of having someone to talk about China, because we clearly need a Chinese character to do that.

Did that seem pointless and overlong? Well, it was, but in my defense I am really reaching to find things to highlight here. The whole chapter is just six self-important assholes arguing over economics using the same talking points you've seem dozens of times in comment sections, plus a few especially dismal strawmen (Ex: The liberal characters arguing that "your money does belong to everybody"). This is a chapter made to be skimmed. Which isn't to say there aren't any chunky bits in here. For example, this passage, spoken by a newcomer to the scene. See if you can guess who said it:
"Alvarado is playing a game of brinkmanship...He figures if he can deprive even American allies access to the US market, he can strangle the baby currency in its crib. But the American market is smaller comparatively than it used to be. So the question isn't whether we can live without them, but whether they can live without us."
If you guessed that this was said by the fifteen-year-old Big Pete, then congratulations, you're obviously familiar with the skillful hand that many well-regarded authors use to characterize teenagers. Shit, this is starting to give me White Noise flashbacks.

There's one other thing, and it's been bothering me for a while. Here's what started me thinking about it:
"Yup, all smuggled goods are impounded," Lowell said. "I gather these confiscations of cash are getting immense (sic) emotional, too. Fainting. Shouting matches..."
"...But what gripes me is that hundred-dollar limit. You can't get a taxi home from the airport with a hundred bucks." 
In light of the new restrictions on capital, business types are now resorting to taking briefcases full of cash onto airplanes like they're doing drug deals.

Because that's the best way they can think of to move large quantities of money.

If you're familiar with Fred Clark's Left Behind series (which I assume is all of you), then you'll know that one of the most enlightening aspects is the analysis of ways in which the LaHaye and Jenkins dystopia a) isn't all that dystopian and/or b) makes no practical or narrative sense. Clark might point out something like this: The Mandibles is set in THE FUTURE! No one has books anymore because it's THE FUTURE! All the cars drive themselves because it's THE FUTURE! No one smokes cigarettes because it's THE FUTURE! And yet, in THE FUTURE! people conduct all transactions with paper money and checks, which is why all these rich guys and gals are hiding money by moving cash around film noir style and using bills to pay for presumably driverless cabs.

Oh, there's an excuse: Shriver frequently refers back to the "Stone Age" to explain why people either don't trust electronic transactions or even aren't allowed to make them. But come on - this is a novel about international finance, are we supposed to think that it's being handled with ledgers and postal mail? Of course not, and the narrative even acknowledges this. We know that firms still carry out high-volume trades over networks. For that matter, while people apparently no longer trust point-of-sale technology, they do trust ATMs, which are mentioned several times. And yet the Masters of the Universe can't think of a way to hide their assets without shoving it all into their coat pockets and walking onto commercial flights while whistling.

This is supposed to be The Most Realistic Dystopian Novel Of All Time - far more plausible than anything that genre hack Philip K. Dick ever dreamed up. Hell, Shriver even takes a shot at other dystopia and science fiction writers in this chapter:
"Because when [2001: A Space Odyssey] was written, 2001 was in the future. Like 1984 - which seemed far away when Orwell wrote it, but then the real 1984 came and went, and it wasn't nearly as horrible or alien or sad as he predicted. (For fuck's sake, Shriver - Ed) Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present."


  1. You said this stuff could be found in any comment section: Douthat and McArdle have taken to making up fantasies in which conservatives are juuust about to regain former glory and liberals are doomed to defeat any moment now. I guess if you string together enough conservative supremacy fantasies you can fill up a book.

    1. Except this book isn't nearly that optimistic. The one character who thinks that the glory days are coming back is clearly meant to be delusional. The Mandibles really has the feel of a secular Left Behind, where they tried to warn us BUT WE JUST WOULDN'T LISTEN.