I have always had a strange, involuntary aversion to “Maths.” I just can’t help it. It’s in my neurons. My brain recoils magnetically from the abstract theory behind numbers. At school, I dredged myself through maths GCSE by rote learning the steps to fix specific puzzles without once understanding the concept behind them – probability BLEW MY MIND. But in adult life it’s just as bad – exchange rates – the stock market – economics of almost any kind – poof! Sorry, I drifted off there.
I can do addition, subtraction and multiplication (with a calculator.) I can do profit-and-loss, and business balance sheets, which are essentially only addition and subtraction anyway. But that’s it, people. I’ve got brains, but they just don’t work that way.
So imagine my distress when I discover the book I’m reading, which I have gleefully selected as a family drama (tick) dystopia (double tick) – is obsessively interested in economics and fiscal policy? Hiss! Boo!
I’ve read a fair few dystopias, and I always love them. There has to be a reason for the world to go to hell in a handcart, and I’ve seen religion (The Handmaid’s Tale), mega-virus (Station Eleven) and political tyranny (Nineteen Eighty Four, natch). But Shriver (writer of the brilliant We Need To Talk About Kevin) bases her dystopia on economic disaster. It starts in 2029 with the United States being cut off from world trade, with assets being seized and the currency beginning to devalue into impossibility through hyper-inflation leaving living costs (food, water, utilities) impossible and jobs rare. It’s a fascinating premise. Unfortunately for me, it is not a premise which the book uses as jumping off point. No, it is the dominating subject of the book itself. Not unreasonably, all of the characters become obsessed with economics, and there is page after page after PAGE of dialogue and debate around the economics that has led to such a desperate stage. Quite half of the book must be taken up with these interminable conversations about tax, currency and trading. It never gets as bad as The Worst Book of All Time, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (a novel set in the IRS which AIMS to explore boredom and one of only three books I’ve given up on in the last decade) but my eyes were semi-permanently glazed at times.
Disaster? Nearly. But Shriver is a BRILLIANT writer. One by one each diverse member of the once-fabulously-wealthy-now-totally-buggered Mandible family comes under her unforgiving, painfully perceptive focus in all of their strength and weakness. By putting their perspective straight into the narrator’s third-person (no he thought/she thought) we get each character’s clear internal world view unapologetically stated on the page and it’s massively effective as totally different characters stack up, utterly at odds both with others and with how others see them. This, and the sparkling imaginative detail which makes dystopias so brilliant – future slang, dress, trends, attitudes (plus hilarious asides on how we might look back on the present day in a few decades time) meant I couldn’t put the book down.
Ultimately, despite the word count lavished upon it, this book isn’t about the economy. Shriver puts it best, in the words of one character: “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all. The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown.” But just as you’re nodding along, Shriver typically has the character say something that makes us doubt his perspective all over again: “The truth is, throughout history things keep getting better…So don’t you worry. You’re future’s looking sunny, and it’ll only get sunnier.” Completely discredited through the plot and themes of the book, this is certainly not Shriver’s perspective. Humanity is our own worst enemy, and our selfishness will inevitably destroy the systems we have to establish. But to say all this with black humour that keeps it wry, not weepy? Forget the maths – this book’s a clever one.