LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
For the last couple of months, we've brought you our series Hanging On about the increasing pressure on the middle class in 2016. Now we bring you Hanging On 2029. Of course, this one is fiction. Lionel Shriver's new novel, "The Mandibles," chronicles the pressure on a once well-to-do family as they try to survive an uncertain future. It's 2029, the U.S. economy has tanked, the dollar is worthless. There is a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep impoverished Americans out. In the U.S., inflation is rampant.
The Mandibles lose their fortune after the 2029 crash. They plummet from the relative luxuries of the upper-middle class to a small Brooklyn townhouse where four generations of the family must crouch together, enduring a life of hardship, drudgery and eventually violence. It's dystopia with a side of economic theory. Lionel Shriver joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.
LIONEL SHRIVER: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the setup of this novel is impressive in that it's terrifying. But we're essentially talking about a bloodless world war. Could you give us a snapshot of the world you created in 2029?
SHRIVER: Well, the U.S. defaults on its national debt. And that means cheating not only foreign investors but also the holders of U.S. bonds in the United States.
WERTHEIMER: Which would include everybody's retirement plans.
SHRIVER: Most importantly pension funds. And once you default on your debts, you can't borrow. Nobody wants to give you money if you're not going to pay it back. So in order to cover the increasing demands of entitlements, the government prints money. And of course, eventually that means that the value of the dollar starts to slide. But the key to writing this book, I discovered, was to control the scale and not to let things fall apart too quickly. So to begin with, my characters are a little distressed that the price of imported olive oil has gone up.
WERTHEIMER: The family Mandible.
WERTHEIMER: They're forced into dire circumstances. The main focus of the book are sisters, Florence and Avery, their partners and their brainy children. Introduce us to the characters.
SHRIVER: Well, Florence works for a homeless shelter, and it doesn't pay great. She lives in Brooklyn with her Mexican partner. She has one child, whose name is Willing, from a one-night stand some time ago. And Willing is a kind of overserious economics autodidact. Florence is emblematic of someone who graduated in 2008, which was an especially unfortunate time to graduate. And I think that whole generation is in danger of being cursed. They're an awful lot of people who got off to a very poor start right out of college. And she is one of them.
Her sister, Avery, on the other hand, married a Georgetown economics professor and lives in D.C. And she's quite affluent. And she has three arty children, and they're all in private school. And they have a lovely townhouse with a massive mortgage in a very nice neighborhood in D.C. You know, to put it simply, she's pretty spoiled.
WERTHEIMER: One of the most shocking scenes in the book is when one of the Mandibles, Willing, who is an important figure in the book, mugs a younger boy for food out of desperation. It's a tough moment, a kind of cliff for him in the book. The civil breakdown is small in this case, but it crosses a line. Is this what you imagine the slide into social savagery would be like?
SHRIVER: Yes, that's what I meant about trying to control the scale. I wanted to record civil breakdown by degrees. And you're right that that scene is very important because Willing has always seemed a morally grounded character, and suddenly he's intimidating a younger boy out of a sack of groceries meant for the boy's family's dinner, obviously. But Willing's own family has nothing to eat, and he is driven by desperation. But you sense that when he crosses that line, we have entered a completely different world.
And I think that is indeed how civilization breaks down. It's not all at once. It's not, you know, you flip a switch and suddenly people are dog-eat-dog and regard everything in a Darwinian animalistic way. I think that it starts subtly. At the very beginning of the book, it expresses itself in this - even smaller things, like suddenly you walk into a restaurant and the maitre d' does not see you to your table but just waves at it or doormen no longer carry groceries for the elderly. It's that little.
WERTHEIMER: But one of the fun parts of the novel, I think, are the funny words that people use, the language of the future. There's something called roach bar, which I guess is a bad, unpleasant place, malicious, which means good in this case. If someone's talking BS, they're talking treasury. That's a wicked one.
SHRIVER: Yes, or if you're a jerk, you're a boomer-poop (laughter).
WERTHEIMER: Now I said in the introduction to this piece that it comes with a side of economic theory, but it's really a generous helping. I mean, you must have had to go to school on this or were you an economist by training?
SHRIVER: Certainly not. I used to be bored to death by economics. And then I started reading about it. And I have to say, it's fascinating. In fact, it's become apocalyptic. It's like reading science fiction.
WERTHEIMER: In this book, one of your characters says plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. Is economic collapse a fear of yours?
SHRIVER: Yes (laughter), I think that we all have a certain setting in terms of how much we worry about anything really but, say, how much we worry about money. And when I was not doing all that well, I would worry about being able to pay my modest rent. And now I make more money, and now I worry about worldwide economic collapse (laughter). So it still makes me anxious.
WERTHEIMER: Lionel Shriver's book is called "The Mandibles: A Family, 2029 To 2047." Thank you very much.
SHRIVER: It's been my pleasure.