Book review: The Mandibles, by Lionel Shriver

posted: May 12, 2023

tl;dr: A future history of how the collapse of the U.S. dollar happens gradually and then suddenly...

I can see why James Rickards recommends The Mandibles, by Lionel Shriver. In fact, I would not be surprised to someday learn that “Lionel Shriver” is Rickards’s pen name when he writes fiction.

Published in 2016, The Mandibles is a future history that profiles multiple generations of the Mandible family at two future points in time. In 2029, the value of the U.S. dollar collapses as most of the rest of the world adopts a new commodities-based reserve system. The name of the currency is the bancor, which was proposed by John Maynard Keynes, although (ironically) the economists in the United States who today call themselves Keynesians are typically strong proponents of the dollar-based fiat monetary system that came to full fruition after President Richard Nixon broke the dollar’s last tie to gold. One of the characters in The Mandibles is a Keysian economist from academia, and he is one of the most oblivious as to what is happening in the world around him. The final part of the book is set in 2046, to show the long-term impact of this change on the various family members.

Lionel Shriver demonstrates a keen understanding of finance, economics, and politics, from an Austrian economics perspective. I was impressed with her ability to show how this change in the monetary system would trickle down to affect the lives of a spectrum of Americans, from the rich to the poor. No one escapes unscathed, no matter what they do. A key lesson from The Mandibles is that there is no way to avoid the cataclysm once it arrives, but there are ways to better position yourself and to react to it. There is an echo of Atlas Shrugged in the ending, but it is a faint echo, as the ending Shriver describes is far from a utopia. I loved the last sentence in the book, which hints that there is no system that will remain stable forever.

A book cover consisting of a framed United States one hundred dollar bill, oriented vertically and pointing downwards, in a white picture frame with white matting hanging on a white wall, and a plaque beneath the picture with the book's title, superimposed over which is the author's name and some other information about the book

Given my general leanings on the subject of economics, I thoroughly enjoyed The Mandibles. My only complaint about the book was that the wording was at times more complex than it needed to be, so it could have benefited from a bit more editing. It should appeal to Bitcoiners (of which I am not one), gold bugs, and anyone who puts more faith in hard assets than the rapidly expanding fiat money supply. However if you believe that the U.S. dollar will reign supreme as the global reserve currency forever, or at least as long as you are alive, then you will dismiss The Mandibles as mere doomsayer fiction. If you are an MMTer, and/or hate Atlas Shrugged with a passion, then you will at a minimum strongly dislike The Mandibles too.

Could the United States undergo a hyperinflation similar to what happened in Weimar Germany? Let us all hope that the U.S. dollar continues to lose value at a gradual pace, because for it to lose value suddenly would be very bad indeed.

I consumed The Mandibles as an audiobook which I borrowed through the Libby app, which I used for the first time on the recommendation of one of my children. The playback was top notch, as the app never lost my place. I had three weeks to finish the book, which I did with days to spare. Using Libby is similar to borrowing a book from the library in that the most recent titles often have long “hold” lists, but older titles are more immediately available. I’m impressed, and will definitely be using Libby again.