We need to talk about rich people (and Lionel Shriver)

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Edinburgh International Book Festival

20th August 2016


If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you are a vaguely liberal, young-ish Brit living in an English-speaking country who emotionally channel surfs between horror at the extremism of the Islamic State, and vague jealousy at the people having a better time than you on Instagram. On the one hand, you know shit is hitting the fan, but on the other, YOLO.

But every now and again, you remember: What’s happening to the world isn’t funny. It’s not entertainment. It’s a crisis.

Which begs the question: what to do? When you wake up in a Western country with a job, a life plan, and some kind of dependent organism (dog, baby, rat, ****friend), you can (a) choose to ignore the news; (b) cry over your organic muesli; (c) donate a small amount of cash to a charity that will employ numerous amounts of people to act in some way on your behalf; or (d) do all of the above.

Lionel Shriver seems to have sidestepped this great condrum by focusing on the economic timbomb hanging over the heads of the American people: debt. She believes that America is on the brink of collapse, that they have “seen the abyss, and are pretending that everything is fine”; and that if America goes, so will the world. Her imagination has been so capturd by this great fear, that she has written a book,  The Mandibles, a novel which posits America in 30 year’s time: the economy has collapsed, and a President eerily similar to Trump in his policies has taken power.

By the looks of the sold out audience at Edinburgh Book Festival’s largest venue, and the scent of confused admiration eminating from the reviews, Shriver’s latest novel The Mandibles is doing something right. Firstly, it’s deeply engrained in the genuine fears of the middle class: rich people not being rich anymore. Secondly, it works hard to be as realistic as it is entertaining. It’s basically like a zombie film, but instead of being eaten, people lose their pensions. To be a successful writer nowadays, you do have to cater to a certain kind of clientel.

If it’s sounding by now that I resent the rich, aging generations who came before me and ruined my future, I really, really do. They’ve fucked the climate, the economy, and my EU passport. I’m really not happy. And, comically, Shriver identifies herself as part of this group. How hopelessly vindicated I felt, sitting in a room sponsored by a Financial Investment Fund and filled up with Baby Boomers in tweed being told by one of their own that they’d bum-fucked the millenials. Myself and two sweet-looking students were a minimum of 25 years younger than the rest of the audience. The people sitting around me looked rather awkward at this revelation; and then a plummy voiced fellow changed the subject via a question about the relationship between the “Chinese opium wars” and contemporary UK Policy.

If I’ve learned anything about the world through an hour with Lionel Shriver, is that Baby Boomers have the very great luxury of speculating about the near future, but they won’t have to live it. Shriver’s is a very specific kind of Speculative Fiction, one which is best digested from the comfort of a £1000 pound sofa in a house you own, filled with expensive coffee machines and Nigella Lawson cookbooks which magically transform middle class guilt into gluten free baked goods.

But I’ve also learned something else: they know. They fucking know!! They are beginning to understand what they have done. And there is not much left for them to do so they mock themselves through high-ish brow literature and BBC “Comedies”; they congregate in specially designated places for older people with disposable incomes and reap the remnants of their well-educated vaguely liberal sensibilities (namely book events, and Country File festivals).

If anything, Shriver is one of their leaders. A sharp, infinitely entertaining, and horrified middle class libertarian with two homes, and a big fat book deal. At the end of the show she was asked what role humor plays in a book which is otherwise so serious about the economic crisis unfolding in America. Her view on humor, she claims, is that it increases the tension; that it “twists the knife” and helps get her point across. But I wonder if it is, in fact, a release? A way for her, and her readers, to project their fear and guilt upon a future they will never have to live for a few hours, or a day, and then donate the book to a charity shop. Economic crisis is such a privilege. To fear losing security, you have to have it.

In summary: Shriver is sharp, witty, and brilliant at operating in double vision. Aren’t we all, these days?

Reviewer : Charlotte Morgan

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