The Mandibles

Lionel Shriver

June 23, 2016 
The following is from Lionel Shriver’s novel, The Mandibles. Lionel Shriver's novels include The New Republic, So Much for That, The Post-Birthday World, and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her journalism has appeared in The Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.

So how could they grasp the plight of their elder daughter? For six long years after graduation Florence had to live with her parents in Carroll Gardens, and that big blot of nothingness still blighted her résumé. At least her little brother Jarred was in high school and could keep her company, but it was humiliating, having toiled on that dopey BA only to trial novel recipes for peanut-butter brownies with mint-flavored chocolate chips. During the so-called “recovery” she moved out at last, sharing cramped, grungy digs with contemporaries who also had Ivy League degrees, in history, or political science, and who also brewed coffee, bussed tables, and sold those old smart phones that shattered and you had to charge all the time at Apple stores. Not one lame-ass position she’d copped since bore the faintest relation to her formal qualifications.

True, the US bounced back from the Stone Age more quickly than predicted. New York restaurants were jammed again, and the stock market was booming. But she hadn’t followed whether the Dow had reached 30,000 or 40,000, because none of this frenzied uptick brought Willing, Esteban, and Florence along with. So maybe she wasn’t middle class. Maybe the label was merely the residue of hailing from a learned, literary family, what you clung to in order to separate yourself from people who weren’t much worse off than you. There weren’t many dishes you could prepare from only onions.

“Mom!” Willing cried from the living room. “What’s a reserve currency?”

Wiping her hands on the dishtowel—the cold gray water hadn’t cut the grease from the pork patties—Florence found her son freshly washed with his dark, wet hair tousled. Though having grown a couple of inches this year, the boy was slight and still a bit short considering he’d be fourteen in three months. He’d been so rambunctious when he was small. Yet ever since that fateful March five years ago, he’d been, not fearful exactly—he wasn’t babyish—but watchful. He was too serious for his age, and too quiet. She sometimes felt uncomfortably observed, as if living under the unblinking eye of a security camera. Florence wasn’t sure what she’d want to hide from her own son. Yet what best protected privacy wasn’t concealment but apathy—the fact that other people simply weren’t interested.

Also somber for a cocker spaniel—though the forehead’s perpetual rumple of apprehension may have indicated a drop of bloodhound—Milo was flopped beside his master, chin glumly on the floor. His chocolate coat was glossy enough, but the brown eyes looked worried. What a team.

Typically for this time of evening, Willing wasn’t propped before video-game aliens and warlords, but the TV news. Funny, for years they’d predicted the demise of the television. Channels were streamed, but the format had survive—providing the open fire, the communal hearth, that a personal device could never quite replace. With newspapers almost universally defunct, print journalism had given way to a rabble of amateurs hawking unverified stories and always to an ideological purpose. Television news was about the only source of information she faintly trusted. The dollar now having dropped below 40 percent of the world’s . . .a newscaster was yammering.

“I’ve no idea what a reserve currency is,” she admitted. “I don’t follow all that economics drear. When I graduated from college, it was all people talked about: derivatives, interest rates, something called LIBOR. I got sick of it, and I wasn’t interested to begin with.”

“Isn’t it important?”

“My being interested isn’t important. I swear, I read newspapers front to back for years. My knowing any of that stuff, most of which I’ve forgotten, hasn’t made the slightest difference. I wish I had the time back, frankly. I thought I’d miss newspapers, and I don’t.”

“Don’t tell Carter that,” Willing said. “You’d hurt his feelings.”

Florence still winced at that “Carter.” Her parents had urged all their grandchildren to address them by first names. “Only” fifty and fifty-two when Avery had her first child, they’d resisted “Grandma and Granddad” as connoting a geriatric status with which they couldn’t identify. They obviously imagined that being “Jayne and Carter” to the next generation would induce a cozy, egalitarian palliness, as if they weren’t elders but buddies. Supposedly, too, the rejection of convention made them bold and cutting-edge. But to Florence, it was awkward: her son referenced her parents with more familiarity than she did. Their refusal to accept the nomenclatural signature of what they actually were—Willing’s grandparents, like it or not—suggested self-deceit, and so was purely a gesture of weakness, one that embarrassed her for them if they didn’t have the wit to be embarrassed on their own accounts. The forced chumminess encouraged not intimacy but disrespect. Rather than remotely nonconformist, the “Jayne and Carter” routine was tiresomely typical for baby boomers. Nevertheless, she shouldn’t take her exasperation out on Willing, who was only doing what he was told.

“Don’t worry, I’d never bad-mouth newspapers to your grandfather,” Florence said. “But even during the Stone Age—everyone thought it was so awful, and some aspects of it were awful. But, gosh, for me liberation from all that noise was dead cool”—she raised her hands—“sorry! It was careless. Everything seemed light and serene and open. I’d never realized that a day was so long.”

“You read books again.” Mention of the Stone Age made Willing pensive.

“Well, the books didn’t last! But you’re right, I did go back to books. The old kind, with pages. Aunt Avery said it was ‘quaint.’” She patted his shoulder and left him to the Most Boring Newscast Ever. Christ, she must have the only thirteen-year-old in Brooklyn riveted by the business report.

Checking the rice, she tried to remember what her weirdo son had claimed about the recrudescence of malnutrition in Africa and on the subcontinent, after both regions had made such strides. It was an outrage that the poor simply couldn’t afford to eat, she’d bemoaned to the boy, when the planet had plenty of food. He’d responded obtusely, “No,  it doesn’t.” He proceeded to recapitulate his great-grandfather’s tortured explanation—something like, “It only seems like there’s plenty of food. If you gave the poor more money, then the price would rise even higher, and then they still couldn’t afford it.” Which didn’t make the slightest sense. Around Willing, she should monitor her grandfather’s propaganda more closely. The old man was liberal by creed, but she’d never met anyone with money who didn’t have conservative instincts. One such instinct was to make the morally obvious (if fiscally inconvenient) seem terribly complicated. Like, rice is too costly, then give people the money to buy it. Duh.

Willing seemed so subdued and unassuming at school, but behind closed doors that kid could get a bit full of himself.

“By the way, I’ve arranged to talk to my sister after dinner,” she told Esteban as he reached for a cold beer. “So I hope you don’t mind doing the dishes.”

“Let me use real water, I’ll do the dishes every night.”

“The gray is real enough, just not especially clear.” She didn’t want to have this battle every evening, and was relieved that he changed the subject as the pork sizzled.

“Met this afternoon with the new group we’re taking up Mount Washington,” Esteban said. “Already identified the trouble-maker. It’s never the weak, pathetic clients who give us grief, but these geriatric superheroes. Usually guys, though sometimes it’s some tough, I-still-think-I’m-thirty-five old bag held together with Scotch tape and several hundred grand in plastic surgery.”

He knew she didn’t like him to talk about his charges with such contempt, but presumably he had to get the frustration out of his system beyond their earshot. “So who’s the headache? Jesus, this meat’s so full of water, these patties will be boiled.”

“Must be the other side of eighty. Has that look, with these stringy biceps—spends hours in the gym and hasn’t noticed that he’s now doing curls with barbells made of balsa wood. Wouldn’t listen to my safety drill. His only question was how we dealt with the fact that people ‘keep to different paces,’ and some climbers prefer to ‘push themselves.’ He’s a type. They’re runners, or used to be, though that was before their double hip replacements and five keyhole heart surgeries. You can bet they have money, and back before the dawn of time they did something with stroke. So nobody’s dared to tell them they’re fucking old. Usually their doctor or their spouse has laid down the law that they can’t troop into the woods anymore without someone to scoop them up when they stumble down a gully and break their legs. But they never like the whole idea of trekking with a group, and they always look around at the other arthritic losers and think, What am I doing with these boomerpoops?—when actually they fit right in. They don’t follow directions and they don’t wait up. They’re the ones who have accidents and give Over the Hill a bad rep. On a canoe trip, they’re the ones who splash off solo and take the wrong tributary, and then we have to abandon the whole expedition to find them. Because they don’t like following a guide. Especially a Lat guide. They’re enraged that Lats are running the show now, since somebody has to—”

“Enough.” Florence threw the cabbage into what was starting to look like pork soup. “You forget. I’m on your side.”

“I know you get sick of it, but you’ve no idea the waves of resentment I get from these crusties every day. They want their domination back, even if they think of themselves as progressives. They still want credit for being tolerant, without taking the rap for the fact that you only ‘tolerate’ what you can’t stand. Besides, we gotta tolerate honks same as they gotta put up with us. It’s our country every bit as much as these has-been gringos’. It’d be even more our country if these tottering white cretins would hurry up and die already.”

Mi amado, that’s too far,” she chided pro forma. “Please don’t talk that way around Willing.”

As ever, Florence didn’t have to ask her partner to set the table, fill the water glasses, and replenish the saltshaker. Esteban had been raised in a crowded household, and pitched in as a matter of course. He was the first boyfriend to convince her that just because she didn’t need companionship, and she didn’t need help raising her son, didn’t mean she couldn’t still like a man in her bed, and like for Willing to enjoy some semblance of a father—one who could take credit for the boy having become fluently bilingual. At once, Esteban was second generation, and spoke English with no trace of an accent; occasional insertions of Spanish were mostly tongue in cheek, a droll playing to stereotype that his elderly clients lapped up. He may not have gone to college, but that was a smart financial move, in her view.

As for the ethnic issue, it was not true, as her sister clearly believed, that she had latched on to a Lat to be hip (whoops! careless), to join what she could not beat, or to disavow her heritage out of a hackneyed liberal shame. Esteban was a forceful, responsible, vital man regardless of his bloodlines, and they had plenty in common, not least that their favorite emotion was disgust. All the same, the choice of a Mexican lover felt on the right side of history—open and melding and forward-looking—and she had to admit his background was a plus. Whether she’d still be so drawn to the man if he were a regular white guy was a question that didn’t bear asking. People were package deals. You couldn’t separate out who they were and what they were, and the bottom line was that she found Esteban’s nut-colored complexion, silken black tail braid, and wide, high cheekbones irresistibly sexy. In his otherness, he enlarged her world, and granted her access to a rich, complex American parallel universe that for battened-down rightwing paranoids like her sister Avery solely constituted an impenetrable, monolithic threat.

“Hey, remember the guy who moved in across the street last year?” Florence mentioned when Esteban returned to sweep up the bits of cabbage from the kitchen floor. “Brendan Somebody. I told you at the time it was a sign I’d never be able to buy a house in this neighborhood now. He works on Wall Street.”

“Yeah, dimly. Investment banker, you said.”

“I ran into him on the way to the bus stop this morning, and we had a pretty strange conversation. I think he was trying to be helpful. I get the feeling he likes me.”

“Whoa, don’t like the sound of that!”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s more of that disgusting reputation for goodness and mercy that follows me around like a wet stray. So he told me that we should move ‘our investments’ out of the country—right away, today. We should transfer any cash into a foreign currency—like, what cash? I wish it weren’t so funny—and get out of any, quote, ‘dollar-denominated assets.’ God, he was theatrical about it. Maybe that sort doesn’t get much drama coming their way. He touched my shoulder, and looked me straight in the eye, like this is totally fucking serious and I’m not joking. It was hysterical. I have no idea what makes him think people like us have ‘investments.’”

“We might if only your rich abuelo would keel over.”

“Our seeing a dime of that inheritance would also entail my parents keeling over, so don’t tempt fate.”

Although Esteban was no gold digger, any reference to the Mandible fortune—of what size no one seemed to know—made Florence uncomfortable. A wealthy paternal grandfather hadn’t appreciably affected her modest upbringing. Over time, she had devoted a great deal of effort to persuading a Lat boyfriend that she was not yet another lazy, cosseted, entitled gringo who didn’t deserve her good luck, and whenever the money came up, that spoiled caricature reared its head again. It was touchy enough that she held the deed to 335 East Fifty-Fifth Street, and had resisted Esteban’s offers to contribute to the mortgage payments. They’d been together for five years, but allowing him to build a claim to the equity would have meant trusting the relationship an increment further than felt fitting, given that a string of his predecessors had proved such spectacular disappointments.

“What do you think is going on that made the guy say that,” Esteban asked, “out of the blue?”

“I don’t know. I overheard on the news that some bank in Britain went bust a couple of days ago, but big deal. That has nothing to do with us. And yesterday, what, a something-something didn’t ‘roll over’ something . . . ? You know I don’t follow this stuff. And that was somewhere in Europe, too. After years of that ‘orderly unwinding of the euro,’ I’m immense burned out on their everlasting financial problems. Anyway, the news Willing was watching definitely said something about bonds. But I bet Brendan was just trying to impress me.

“Oh, and talk about super weird,” she recalled, plating up, “Brendan asked if we were homeowners. When I said yes, though a tenant helped cover the mortgage, he said, ‘Ownership might prove auspicious. The tenant you may regret.’”

With those where-were-you-then junctures—for people like his great-aunt Nollie, the Kennedy assassination; for his mother’s generation, 9/11—it was all too easy to pretend-remember, to look back and impose the solid facts of what you learned afterward on the tremulous, watery past. So Willing resolved that later he would remember this night, truly remember-remember—right down to the sandy-textured pork patties, a long video powwow between his mother and her sister after dinner, and the dryout (by then, the protocol was routine). He would keep humbly in place the fact that he did not, at this time, understand the notion of a reserve currency. Nor did he comprehend what a bond auction was, although there’d doubtless been whole decades if not centuries during which both concepts were roundly regarded as boring and beside the point by just about everybody. Still, in the future he would make sure to give himself this much credit: during the 7 p.m. newscast, even if he didn’t get it—this “US Treasury bond auction” with its “spike in interest rates”—he did pick up on the tone.

Since the Stonage, he’d had an ear for it. Everyone else thought that the worst was behind them; order had been gloriously and permanently restored. But for Willing, during his own seminal where-were-you-then occasion at the grand old age of eight, The Day Nothing Went On had been a revelation, and revelations did not un-reveal themselves; they did not fit back into the cupboard. As a consequence of this irreversible epiphany, he had learned to upend expectations. There was nothing astonishing about things not working, about things falling apart. Failure and decay were the world’s natural state. What was astonishing was anything that worked as intended, for any duration whatsoever. Thus he’d spent his latter childhood in a state of grateful amazement—at the television aglow with supersaturated color (it turned on! again!), at his mother returned from work on a bus that ran on time or at all, at clean water flowing from the tap, even if he was rarely allowed to touch it.

As for the tone, he identified it while his mother was still chattering over cabbage in the kitchen. Neither his mother nor Esteban detected the timbre. Only Willing paid attention. Willing and Milo, that is; eyes alert, posture wary, ears lifted, the spaniel discerned a curious pitch as well. For the newscasters spoke with a strain of nervous excitement that was distinctive. People who delivered the news loved it when something happened. You could hardly blame them, since saying what happened was their job, and they liked having something to do. When events were bad, as they almost always were since good news was mostly about sameness, they’d get embarrassed by how happy they were. The worst of the anchors covered the happiness with big overdone fake sadness that didn’t fool anyone and that Willing wished they would ditch.

At least tonight nobody had died, and whatever inscrutable occurrences were being reported had to do with numbers and clunky expressions that he bet most of the rest of the audience didn’t understand either. So at least the newsreaders and their guests didn’t pull their cheeks down and drop their voices into an artificially sorrowful minor key. To the contrary, everyone on the newscast seemed pleased, thrilled even. Yet the edgy gaiety was etched with a keen awareness that to the best of their abilities they should mask an exhilaration they would come to regret. The tone came down to: this is fun now, and it won’t be later.



From THE MANDIBLES. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2016 by Lionel Shriver.

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