Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 9 (Foul Matters)

We're coming up on the halfway mark of The Mandibles, which seems like a good time to say that I completely understand what Shriver is trying to do here. The dull family scenes, the plodding narrative, and the lack of a plot are all done to make the book feel more real to the intended upper-middle class urban audience. The notion that this book is at all "realistic" is absurd, but I can hardly deny that it is much more familiar than the works of a Phillip K. Dick or George Orwell or any of the recent popular dystopian novelists.

There are even a few moments where she pulls it off. It happens in Chapter 9, in fact. Sandwiched in between the usual ponderous speechifying, we get an interesting little scene from Adelphi, the shelter at which Florence works which is now packed well beyond capacity. Seeded throughout this scene are little touches that would have a lot of cachet with those privileged literary types:
Rats and roaches scuttled through the halls. Toilets overflowed. Drains backed up. Meal portions in the cafeteria were stingy. Fights broke out over dinner rolls. And still they came. Yet who arrived had changed. The slept-in clothes were from L.L. Bean. The strollers were wide-bodied, with snap-up plastic covers for inclement weather and expandable side pockets for shopping and snacks; baby blankets were cashmere.
That's an effective piece of imagery. One of the biggest problems faced by the dystopian novelist is that the real world is often more horrifying than anything they can dream up and make plausible. Here, Shriver sidesteps that problem by appealing directly to the reader - this is certainly not the worst of all worlds, but it is a situation far worse than anything that the audience could tolerate.

But maybe what makes it stand out is that this is a scene based on a character's observations. We're seeing this through Florence's eyes which is something of a novelty in The Mandibles. All of the action, the worldbuilding, the interesting moments that would normally be the heart of a novel all take place somewhere else while the main characters sit in one of a few predetermined sets and idly chat about economics. The result is that The Mandibles really feels like it takes place in a very tiny world, tiny and boring.

The Mandibles has a lot of problems but this is easily the biggest. I was drawn to this for the politics and the racially insensitive content, but the narrow focus is way worse. There are a lot of great writers who were racists, anti-Semites, misogynists and scumbags in their personal lives and who let that filth seep into their novels, and yet we still applaud those books because they're artfully written. In the end, the only unforgivable sin in literature is neglecting the craft.

With that out of the way, let's return to this boring-ass chapter, shall we?

Chapter 9 gives us our first face-to-face meeting with Kurt, Florence's unlawful tenant. Kurt is one of the few characters (outside of Savannah, Nollie, and I guess Luella) to have a distinct personality. He is the nicest, most understanding and most accommodating person on the planet, a cluster of traits that really set him apart given the jerks that we've been dealing with thus far. Of course, there's a reason for this - Nollie, now back in the States, wants to move in, and Shriver is going to make getting rid of Kurt as unpleasant as possible.

And, oh mercy, is Kurt willing to deal with a lot:
"If you could lend me a tarp, I hear the encampments in Prospect Park are [awesome]," he said with forced cheer. "Everybody singing, and playing instruments, and telling stories. Just like Woodstock! It could be a great experience. Something to tell the grandkids."
Kurt doesn't move out; Florence clears out the attic for Nollie, neatly avoiding a completely arbitrary problem that only existed in the first place due to an unnecessary character. Way to go.

Then Nollie shows up, and it turns out that she's a lot quirkier in person then she was over video chat. She dresses like a teenager, brings liquor and horsemeat as presents, and insists on bringing boxes full of her own books along for the ride. She is still a character in this book, though, so her first few scenes are lengthy discourses on complexity theory and whatever else the author felt like talking about here.

There are a few interesting odds and ends in here, some from Nollie and some from authorial mouthpiece Avery who stuck her head in just to annoy everyone. We finally learn what's been happening to Jarred, the forgotten relative whom I keep calling "Jessup" because we don't see him enough for me to remember his name. The workers Jarred hired to tend the ranch have moved in their families and more or less occupied the property, refusing to leave. Hey, that sounds interesting, doesn't it? Shame we don't get to see it. Even though we have an omniscient narrator and could wing on down to the ranch and sit on Jarred's shoulder any time we wanted, we're going to get news about his situation second-hand from Avery. Brilliant.

What can I say? I want to meet Jarred. The man's a survivalist - surely even this author could give him a distinct voice, right?

The chapter ends with Nollie heading out to speak with Mimi and find out if the old woman with the expansive estate is willing to help them. Again, we don't get to see this - Nollie relays an account to our POV characters once she returns. What Nollie sees is fairly surreal. Mimi's place has been overrun by squatters and is in a positively tragic state. The image I get in my head as I read Nollie's account is a drug den in an episode of Dragnet. Those of you who've never seen Jack Webb's conception of what the 60's drug culture looked like (a vision that was very trippy, but in an odd way) are really missing out. And while Shriver's version isn't nearly as square, it captures some of those same qualities:
"The elevator was broken, so I took the stairs. Some guy walking down bumped into me, hard, as if on purpose. His clothes where disheveled, with one exception: an immaculate white fedora...
...The peephole cover dropped, and spun around, as if someone flicked it. No one opened the door. I tried the bell again, and heard laughter on the other side. Youngish voices. Then the man on the stairs came back, carrying a bottle of gin. He shouldered me aside and said, 'Got a problem, lady?' He took out a set of keys. I recognized them. Looped with a red ORGAN DONOR tag. They had to have been my mother's That man didn't look like an organ donor, unless he was planning to donate someone else's...
...The place was a wreck. Trash, dried-up sandwiches, hypodermics on the floor. Someone sleeping or high in the hallway was rolled up in one of Momma's Persian carpets. A girl naked below the waist wandered past wearing the shreds of Momma's mink; that girl looked right at me and didn't see me...
Then the man in the fedora sauntered into the hall, down by the dining room, swigging from the bottle of gin. His eyes lit up, and he lunged toward me."
I'm supposed to cringing as I read this, my stomach churning as I ponder what might have happened to the nonagenarian in this building overrun by the scum of the earth. Really, though, I just want to hear from fedora man. True, he's a two-dimensional stereotype, but that's one dimension more than most of the characters we've encountered.

To be serious for a moment, though, I'd like to note that this way out suburban nightmare followed the one at the top of this post by just a few pages. I can only fathom that Shriver, having written the legitimately uncomfortable Adelphi scene, felt that it was much too subtle for her brilliant and visionary work of satire and then doubled down a few dozen times. That she left both in the book speaks to the fact that literary types never cut anything out. How else do you think they manage to produce those impressively thick tomes? Through content? Heaven forbid.

No comments:

Post a Comment