Book review: “When She Woke,” by Hillary Jordan

September 29, 2011

You have to absorb a lot of things about the near future of America before you can get fairly started on Hillary Jordan’s second novel, “When She Woke.” The country has been taken over by something called the Trinity Party, made up of fundamentalist Christians — Texans, by and large. Roe v. Wade has been repealed, and abortion is prosecuted as murder. But most convicted criminals no longer go to prison. Because of budget constraints, a new system of “melachroming” tints evil-doers according to their crime. Green, for instance, denotes an arsonist or robber. Murderers are bright red, which is how Hannah Payne finds herself when she wakes up and starts to serve her long sentence — because of a child she aborted. But there are plenty of blues and yellows wandering around, too. Naturally, all these people are pariahs.  They can’t get jobs, can barely expect to survive their sentences, and so on. 

Has this dystopic America become such a punitive society because of Christian rule or because of hard economic times? At first, it’s hard to tell. Los Angeles has been nuked into radioactive rubble. (I couldn’t find out who did it, although I read the book twice.) The world has suffered an even larger trauma, a pandemic called “The Great Scourge,” or “superclap” in the vernacular, which, until it found a cure, rendered all women sterile. That’s why babies are so valued. (See Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)

So we have melachroming; superclap; a dead Los Angeles; dozens of technological doodads, including the drug Thrall, which turns women into slaves; nanotransmitters, which keep an eye on everyone all the time; geostats and ports and vids. And abortion rights advocates, in a frenzy of push-back, have turned themselves into ruthless terrorists called Novembrists. 

Again, are Christians responsible for all this?  You can argue, at least, that the prevalent diction has taken a distinctly biblical turn. “The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption,” an “enlightener” chides Hannah, “and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew!” So there.

How did Hannah Payne (as in Hester Prynne) get in this mess? Pretty much the way you remember from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” She had an affair with Aidan Dale (as in Reverend Dimmesdale), a mega-church celebrity preacher who has just been promoted to secretary of faith in the Christian administration. Hannah got pregnant, went for an abortion, got caught, was arrested, but wouldn’t reveal the names of either the abortion provider or her lover.  

Once this old plot line is dressed up in the techno future, however, Hawthorne’s novel fades, and “When She Woke” becomes a lesbian-feminist road-trip thriller. After being badgered by the nut job who calls down the mildew on her, Hannah leaves the halfway house. She is threatened by a band of Christian brutes with big belt buckles and then rescued by militant feminists, including a lesbian, who, after a sizzling love scene or two, puts Hannah on her perilous way to Canada, where she can be dechromed and make a new life. Traveling north, she has many adventures, of course, and learns to be a strong, independent person, instead of the compliant little church girl she was raised to be. 

During the road-trip section of the novel, various characters weigh in with their ideas about God. The very cute lesbian opines that “if God is the Creator, if God englobes every single thing in the universe, then God is everything, and everything is God.” Hannah is genuinely shocked; she’s been led to believe that lesbians are the devil incarnate. Another person, a female minister, brings up these twin arguments: Yes, there is a God because just look at hummingbirds; on the other hand, what about all the “cruelty and injustice” in the world?And in between these conversations, Hannah ponders the mysteries of her sexuality.

The advertising for this novel recommends it to reading groups because women will want to discuss its big issues. I think they might end up screaming at each other instead. Ninety percent of the men here are cowards or brutes or would-be rapists; at least 50 percent of the Christians are full-on certifiable. “When She Woke” seems to me to be primarily agitprop: ham-handed, disrespectful and quite dumb in places where it should be smart. 

See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.

when she woke

By Hillary Jordan

Algonquin.

341 pp. $24.95

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