Weekly Update, 8/11/19: Toni Morrison, Years and Years, The Mandibles, & Grandmas

Greetings from the Dominican Republic,

This will be my last post from the beach - but I’m not going to wax poetic about kitesurfing. Let’s just say: I’ve certainly gotten my fill of whisking across the ocean for a while. On Thursday, I fly back to the States.

Instead, I’m going to recommend two fictional visions of the future. But first, a note on Toni Morrison.

Why she writes

I didn’t think I had much to say about the death of Toni Morrison. What would I, a white man in his 30s, have to say about a woman who wrote about black identity, and who was the first African American woman to win a Nobel Prize?

But then on Wednesday The Daily podcast excerpted this bit from a 2015 interview Morrison did with the NY Times:

I don’t think I could’ve happily stayed here with the calamity that has occurred so often in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, past, present, future, which is what writing is for me. It’s control. Nobody tells me what to do. I am in control. It is my world. It’s sometimes wild, the process by which I arrive at something, but nevertheless it’s mine, it’s free, and it’s a way of thinking.

When I heard that I smiled, and I felt some small degree of kinship with this woman from a from a different generation, from a different culture.

Writing is mine. It’s free. And it’s a way of thinking. Thank you Toni Morrison for saying it so well and so simply.

What I’m watching

When I last mentioned the HBO show Years and Years, I had just watched the Pilot, which I described as Black Mirror mashed with a British family drama. Now that I’m done with the series, I think that’s the wrong analogy.

The right analogy is that it’s a TV version of one of my favorite books from the past five years: The Mandibles: a Family, 2029-2047.

Both Years and Years and The Mandibles are about a multi-generational family living through societal crisis. Both take place in the very near future. And both offer the most plausible way for things to fall apart that I’ve seen in fiction in recent memory.

Of course, we may always get an astroid coming our way, as in Armageddon; or a sudden global ice age (Day After Tomorrow); or a global zombie plague (I’m partial to World War Z); or an AI-motivated nuclear holocaust (Terminator); or our sun may prematurely start to die (Sunshine), or the core of our planet may start to die (my vote for worst movie ever, The Core), or… I could go on.

But for my money, if society is to collapse, it’s going to happen not as in the movies, but as in one of these two stories: either the Mandibles, or Years and Years.

The Mandibles

Without giving too much away, the story takes place in a near future America, where a foolhardy American president decides to cancel American debt - leading to a global currency war in which the almighty dollar is replaced with a new currency pegged to commodities.

This leads to rampant inflation in the U.S. - Weimar Republic-style inflation (or Zimbabwe now) - in which savings are wiped out, and income becomes close to useless. There is a massive depression; grocery stores start to run out of food; the intricate interconnectedness of the city starts to breakdown; and through it all the members of the Mandible family cope, in various ways, with the slow collapse of society.

Sound far-fetched? It’s pretty much exactly what’s happened in Venezuela over the past few years. Massive inflation, nationwide food shortages, breakdown of law and order, mass migration, a political crisis, even nationwide blackouts.

It can happen, because it is happening.

Years and Years

Years and Years is about a British family, not an American one, but the overall arc is strikingly similar. Rather than one big precipitating event as in The Mandibles, the episodes of Years and Years track through a series of shocks, dissolutions, and crises.

I won’t give spoilers, but things get bad, then they get worse, then they get truly horrific. And through it all, the family copes, as people do.

Someone loses a house? Family can take you in. Someone loses a job? A partner can help replace the income. But then a shock comes: a financial crisis hits, or a buffoon gets elected, and the system gets a bit more fragile; the good things about society we take for granted become more and more precarious.

Then one day, something we’ve taken for granted gets taken away for ever. Perhaps it’s a freedom we had, simply to go out at night, or to say what we want, or to love who we love. And even then, we go on. We survive and we cope, as humans do.

And then one day you look back and nothing is the same.

Grandmas

There’s another similarity between the two works that I found striking: both have a grandmother character whose younger family members find her slightly tedious, but who are ultimately recognized as wise and prescient. The grandmothers are the heart of the respective families, and quite often the voice of unexpected temperance and reason.

In Years and Years, it’s grandma’s house where the family repeatedly convenes for dinners. In The Mandibles, the grandmother moves back to the U.S. from abroad to live with her kids, and it’s her prescience and fortitude that help the family get through dark times.

Perhaps it’s a character trope, but grandparents are the closest thing we have in real life to the sage. I have heard it said that all of us, all the time, should be sitting down with our grandparents and recording interviews about their childhoods, their young adult lives, about what they have seen and how it used to be.

Sometimes I try to put myself in my grandma’s shoes and see the reactions of my generation through her eyes. What must it be like to have lived through all that she has done and seen and then just have that experience inside you, and then watch as future generations fumble through life like innocent waifs, either messing everything up or otherwise having to relearn all the lessons she’s internalized for decades, all the while being unable to tell them, warn them, walk them through life’s difficulties.

When Trump was elected, and my sister wrote an email to our grandpa asking him for any sage advice, he wrote back with just that kind of moderated long view: he had seen and lived through many of things, he wrote: the Holocaust, the Brazilian dictatorship, economic shocks… and we would live through this as well.

Maybe. The wisdom of age is an excellent guide, until it’s not. The arc of history bends toward justice, until it doesn’t. The end of history arrives - and then history starts up again. Paraphrasing Muriel, the grandma in Years and Years, as she spends her last savings on a cure for macular degeneration: the world may be a terrible place, but I want to see every moment of it.

Ok, with that -

Signing off from the DR,

- Russell Max Simon