“One of the services that fiction provides,” said the American author Lionel Shriver to a capacity audience at the Singapore Writers Festival, “is to explore the nitty-gritty of what big events mean.”
Shriver told us that her visit to Singapore will always be associated with a Big Event; she heard that Donald Trump had won the Presidential election while sliding along a walkway at Changi airport. Her vocal response, she confessed, turned a few heads.
Her shock is understandable; her most recent novel, The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047, tells the story of a crumbling USA that is ravaged by debt and divided from Mexico by a wall. Shriver said that she simply “wrote what I’m frightened of”.
In an interview recorded at the National Gallery following her talk, I started by asking Lionel Shriver if she agrees that her book is as eerily prescient as it seems, in light of the Trump ascendancy.
(Audio here, written version below)
Lionel Shriver: Of course, the Mandibles doesn’t envision the US electorate choosing an incompetent buffoon for President. In this sense there is a weird feeling of my book being not dystopian enough!
I was writing about a reasonably competent administration that inherits an unsustainable national debt. And in fact I don’t believe that the (real) US will ever repay its national debt.
Jo Furniss: There have been question marks over Trump’s personal accounting, which doesn’t bode well for his management of the national debt.
LS: The weird thing is that Trump has mentioned some re-negotiation of the national debt, which implies defaulting on at least some of it. He was saying so many other horrifying things that few people picked up on that one – but I did!
During the talk, Lionel Shriver described The Mandibles as “a realistic book” and said that she outlined a world in which “economics has become apocalyptic”. It’s been described as a “bloodless World War”. She joked that her work of future history is already historical fiction.
LS: I don’t want to be overly apocalyptic. I know that Democrats in the US are predicting the end of the world, or at least the US, as they know it. I tend to be more impressed by people who are level-headed, in spite of the fact that I myself tend to be apocalyptic by nature. It’s just because I like story and I’m given to hyperbole.
One of the weird things about this election is that it’s difficult to be hyperbolic. When you’re faced with a real moron and you’ve been calling people morons for your whole life, the word moron is no longer sufficient. I can call him stupid or an idiot, but none of these words seem to work because they’ve always been aimed at people who are half-way intelligent.
This is one of the things that is happening to the left right now, the vocabulary is insufficient. This is actually a writing problem. All the words have been depreciated. I can call him a buffoon, but it’s inadequate.
JF: You mentioned that if you wrote Trump as a character, he would be unbelievable…
LS: He’s implausible as a fictional character. The positions he’s advocating are too crude, too bigoted, and most of all his rhetoric is crude, it’s blunt: blunted. He can’t even finish a sentence. He can’t speak grammatically. He uses the same words over and over, this is one of the things that, as a writer, drives me crazy.
He uses the same word several times in succession as if that makes it more expressive. He’ll say ‘nasty’—especially if he’s talking about Clinton—he’ll say ‘nasty, nasty woman’ as if that’s more effective, when it isn’t. As writers, we know what nasty means and repeating it three times doesn’t make it mean anything different, so you’ve just wasted vital wordage.
He sometimes fills out sentences with gestures, so that you can sort of infer what he’s talking about if you’re watching him on television, but in print it falls apart and really he makes no sense.
The SWF talk was entitled An Unflinching Eye into the Truth and Lionel Shriver is relentlessly honest about herself. She said several times that she writes about what frightens her, explores her nightmares. She is guilty, she says, of “sneaking my opinions into my book.” In her most famous novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, she explored a fear of motherhood and the tyranny of expectation that falls onto women. I wondered how she felt about the negative response to Hillary Clinton and the fact that so many women refused to vote for her.
LS: I must say as a feminist I was disappointed by the story of Hillary Clinton being elected President. Now I still prefer that to the story of Trump being elected President, but I mean that for the first female candidate to have had to be married to a former president in order to be taken seriously–that is depressing.
I would rather the first female president to get in on her own steam and in accordance with her own qualifications. So I don’t like that story.
She’s an intelligent woman, but the fact that she was married to Bill, that bugs me. In terms of story, the story of history, it would be better if the next female candidate doesn’t have those kind of connections.
JF: You mention the next female candidate, which sounds hopeful. I wonder what you see beyond the time period that you depict in The Mandibles. You envision America in the process of falling down, so what rises from that?
LS: The novel is in two parts. In 2029, everything falls apart. But in 2047, it’s been put back together again. It’s a brutal tax regime. It’s also a more resilient country. And there’s a break-away state which is much more libertarian and is a kind of authorial fantasy.
It’s meant to be a rebirth of American values and going back to first principles. It’s a society where you are genuinely free, but that comes with its own problems because you have to take care of yourself and your own, it’s not a welfare state. But it is a place where you can have self-reliance, and people take care of their neighbours because they want to, not because the law tells them to.
It is not meant to be Utopia. You get the impression that the people who rebuild their lives, rising to the challenges, are happier. It’s a book that genuinely, if unexpectedly, has a happy ending.
Speaking at SWF, Lionel Shriver’s talk stayed—mostly—on safe ground. The renowned iconoclast directed her fire at her own nation’s turmoil and the flimsy bastion of world economics. She has taken a break from the kind of controversy that followed her keynote speech to the Brisbane literary festival earlier in 2016, when she addressed the topic of Cultural Appropriation, arguing that we should stop censuring writers—particularly white writers–who step into the shoes of other people in order to write characters from different cultural backgrounds.
An Australian writer, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, walked out of that talk and subsequently published an opinion piece outlining her disgust at what she called Shriver’s “celebration of unfettered exploitation”. The fallout from the subsequent debate continues to rain down. I wondered if the title of her SWF talk, An Unfliching Eye into the Truth, implied that she feels we flinch too much?
LS: I didn’t choose that title. I don’t believe any of us have a monopoly on the truth. But there is a lot of flinching going on and a lot of self-censorship and I am dismayed by that. Especially the touchiness that the left seems to be encouraging.
You know, they have courses in American Liberal Arts colleges that basically teach students to be offended. They’re instructed in a list of things not to say, which can come down to something as simple as ‘you guys’, which is a commonplace Americanism. It does not only refer to men. And they are teaching women to be offended by that, women who were not offended previously. It’s using your sense of injury as a weapon. I would not encourage this social environment because there’s enough real insult out there without going looking for it.
JF: How have people responded to you in Asia, at SWF and the Ubud festival, have they wanted to discuss your comments on Cultural Appropriation?
LS: Incessantly. It’s been difficult to keep this issue from dominating interviews. I have to confess that I’m frustrated by it. I think this concept of CA is a passing fad, I’d be glad to see the back of it. And I worry that in having addressed it in order to dismiss I have inadvertently managed to magnify and perpetuate it.
I feel weirdly guilty, not about anything I said, and I wouldn’t take it back, but I feel that I have helped to perpetuate a tempest in a teacup. For us to be wasting time talking about this… it’s embarrassing and the one thing I regret about giving that speech.
JF: You once said that you like to create characters who are hard to love. That flies in the face of current writerly wisdom that characters must be sympathetic. Do you still like to write difficult characters?
LS: I want you to engage with my characters and believe in them. To me that means you don’t come up with cyphers that are purely good, that’s not what people are like. Niceness is a very thin quality.
I like characters who don’t obey the rules, whom you come to like in spite of yourself. Partly because that’s my experience of real people. You know what it’s like; you meet someone who seems perfectly lovely, but they’re not memorable, you don’t want to spend a lot of time with them. There’s another kind of person, you’re not too sure about them at first, maybe they’re aggressive, or seem a little arrogant, or just weird, and you step back and think maybe this person is not for me, but if you give them a little time they grow on you.
JF: Difficult people can be more stimulating.
LS: Right, and that is the experience I want to duplicate with my characters.
JF: Where do you turn your unflinching eye next?
LS: I have a collection that’s ready to go, some short stories and two substantial novellas. They’re all themed around property, both in the sense of real estate and stuff, so I thought I’d just call it Property.