Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 8 (The Joys of Being Indispensable)

So I have an answer to a conundrum we observed last time. Old man Douglas's digs were suffering from serious neglect, so I speculated that a month or two must have passed between chapters 6 and 7. Turns out that I was way off - a full year has passed in the narrative. Yes, it's now 2030, and I have no clue as to when this mini-timeskip happened, but here we are. I guess I should update my titles, but if the author doesn't care enough to keep a clear and accurate accounting of time, then I'm giving myself permission to half-ass it on my end.

Anyway, we're back with Avery and Lowell and their horrible children for this chapter, and the parents are calling a family meeting to announce some changes are coming. Business is off for both of them (Lowell's salary is overdue and therapist Avery finds that many of her clients are cancelling) and that means sacrifice. Big Pete and Little Pete will have to go to public school - depicted here, as it so often is in the upper-middle class worldview, as a den of vipers - and Savannah might have to get a job instead of going to art school.

Savannah doesn't take this well. I didn't mention this in her initial appearance (which was dominated by her dad perving over her figure, something he does here as well), but she's probably the most realistically rendered character in the entire novel. Unlike Willing and Big Pete, Savannah isn't just a little adult. Shriver depicts her as the entitled, sheltered teenager that she should be, with lines like:
"Neither one of you has ever believed in my talent. You never wanted me to get an arts degree. Now you think you can browbeat me into something practical, like a degree in Mandarin."
 "When you have a bunch of kids, you're not supposed to throw up your hands and say, 'Sorry, we can't make any money, you do it!' My art teacher says I'm immense talented, and you're not going to ruin my life!"
The other characters are depicted as amateurishly as ever. Big Pete continues to talk like a financial advisor, while his brother...you know how literary novelists are supposed to be beyond the petty clich├ęs that mar the work of their lessers?
It was [Little Pete] - cradling a crumple of bills, the allowance he'd been saving for a new violin bow. "I want to help," he said, offering his stash up to his father.
Yeah, I'm not seeing it.

We next get a section on Lowell's parents and...does it really matter? They were both scientists, they were both big frugal idiots, and they have names (Dave and Ruth) as does their other son (Aaron), so there's a good chance we'll be meeting these people later, too. Tremendous.

Cutting back to Avery and the kids, it seems like some anonymous stretch of time has elapsed - far less than a year, maybe a week, possibly not even that much. Is that lack of information annoying? Well, now you know what it's like to read and summarize it. This entire section is dull, merely an extension of the "family meeting" thing from the top of the post, and it's destined to become entirely moot once we cut back to Avery a few chapters from now.

I bring this section up for the sake of a single passage. You may recall that Avery's sons are not actually named Big Pete and Little Pete. This bit of 90's nostalgia is a personal gimmick so that I don't have to disseminate the awful names that Shriver actually gave them. But perhaps you are wondering - as I was - about the origin of these awful names? They remind me of Jennifer Government, a mediocre (if artfully marketed) near-future novel in which all the characters are named after the corporation for which they work. That's obviously not the case here, so why do they have such grating, awful names?
The boys when through phases of being close, but ultimately when she christened her two sons, Avery created competing search engines. (She was attached to their names, of course, which seems so fresh, quirks, and contemporary when she and Lowell chose them, and at this point she couldn't imagine the children called anything else. But perhaps it was the very products of trying too hard to be modern that were guaranteed to date...) (sic)
Oh for fuck's sake Shriver, you gave them those awful names. When they turn out to be grating and stupid and anachronistic and obnoxious, you don't get to pin the rap on a fictional woman.

We next take a brief stroll through the Washington National Mall circa 2029 2030, a zone of protests and graffiti. It's not terribly interesting, but there are some revealing moments:
Municipal authorities were unable to keep ahead of the graffiti that defaced...the border of the Lincoln Memorial's reflecting pool: THE BUCK STOPS. The abbreviated aphorism was chilling.
"This slogan I created is highly effective!"
The double-think reminded Avery of the Middle Eastern response to 9/11 when she was fourteen: the same Muslims who told pollsters the World Trade Center was toppled by the Jews also wore Osama bin Laden T-shirts in homage.
This is the kind of right-wing blogger mythologizing I've been excluding. The section preceding this was a throwaway set piece about stupid people protesting the rich. There's no connection between the two, it's just the wingnut author finding an excuse to remind us that the A-rabs are Bad Guys.

For our final segment, we follow Lowell to his job at the university and meet yet another character:
Ellen Packer was fat. Not pudgy or plump, but full-tilt, what're-you-lookin'-at fat, with a lack of apology that alone unsettled his expectations for this encounter. Of course, he'd never use the world fat in company, the judgmental adjective having joined the N-word...
All right, that's enough of that. Anyway, Chancellor Packer fires Lowell. You might wonder - as Lowell did - how it could be this easy to dismiss a tenured full professor. Ellen explains that tenure is an "anachronism" and the position's been eliminated entirely and if they didn't find an excuse to fire him then this tale of an upper class family's spiral into despair and destitution wouldn't work (I may have added one of those). Lowell has an understandably emotional response to this unexpected crushing blow:
"There are procedures for removing tenured faculty. But the protocol is elaborate - much more so than a single visit to the chancellor's office. Rare cases almost always involve accusations of sexual harassment or racial insensitivity."
Back in high school, a creative writing instructor informed me that the characters in my sci-fi/horror story were taking what was happening way too well. Yes, they were well-trained and hardened, but no one reacts that calmly and logically after discovering a bloody corpse. It's unrealistic behavior, and while an SF writer can get away with a lot of implausible or even outright impossible things, the character still need to act like actual people. Even at seventeen, I understood the one unbreakable rule of fiction - people need to act like people. They need to respond to crisis like people actually do - in ways that are messy and irrational and even unpredictable, but in ways that are understandable.

What I didn't understand, and wouldn't for many years, is that rules are for those filthy littlebrain commoners writing genre fiction. Once you've earned that "literary" label, you're free to have a character respond to a catastrophic setback by reciting verbatim a page from the employee handbook.

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