LitFest 2016's Golding Speaker: a real treat of an evening with Lionel Shriver

Written by Celia Hicks on .

(Photos copyright Ben Phillips Photography)(Photos copyright Ben Phillips Photography)America 2029, one hundred years after the start of the Great Depression:  in Lionel Shriver's latest novel we fast forward thirteen years from now to the near future and to a world where the American President has renounced the national debt, the Mexicans have built a wall to keep out impoverished and unwanted Americans, and anarchy unfolds, fuelled by food shortages and fiscal collapse.

The opening day of Marlborough LitFest 2016 (Friday, September 30) saw an erudite and engaging conversation between the author Lionel Shriver and journalist Alex Clark focusing mainly on her latest novel, The Mandibles, and enjoyed by the many appreciative fans who packed into the Town Hall - this was a sell-out evening.

Is this story a dazzling work of imagination? Could it really happen? Ms Shriver explained her fear about the current level of indebtedness and quantitative easing and was at pains to point out that her story is indeed plausible and pertinent to us all.  

Some of her narrative clearly echoes the past: the economic downturn of the thirties, Roosevelt’s recall of gold reserves in 1933, Keynes proposed monetary unit… This story may be based on apocalyptic economics, but who amongst us would survive if it became a reality?

Asked what inspired her writing Ms Shriver agreed that she is predominantly an 'issues writer'. Previous novels have focussed on the impact of dysfunctional parenting, the devastating effects of illness, population control in East Africa - to outline a few of her issues.

And yet they also address the central issues of relationships and Ms Shriver chose to read aloud an extract from The Mandibles that illustrated just that. It is, she said, interesting to see how different people are able to cope with change.

The Mandibles is, however, predominantly, a dystopian novel and in writing it Ms Shriver suggested that she was able to exorcise her own fears. Indeed, in the novel Lowell tells her daughter: “Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all.”

So what does Lionel Shriver see as emerging issues facing us in 2016?  She expressed her concern about the near Soviet correctness of the left, her dismay at their emerging control over what is political acceptable and her repugnance of identity politics at the cost of the individual.

Could these issues motivate her next books? Success, she asserts, has allowed her to write about whatsoever she chooses and if you are going to write fiction there should be no limit on the imagination.

Yet, after all that, the audience was left in no doubt that Ms Shriver’s sense of humour remains intact.

At the same time as America is experiencing spiralling collapse in this latest novel, Putin remains in charge of Russia, albeit with his shirt on!

A dysfunctional household management system that is out of control provides an amusing and welcome distraction.

Friday’s audience with Lionel Shriver was a treat, a strong and engaging start to this year’s LitFest.

The event was a triumph for the organisers and heralded the start of a wonderful weekend.