Donald Trump may be a disaster for women’s rights, but he’s made feminist dystopias great again. Lately, every hot novel feels like it’s grabbing “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
As Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic continues to sit comfortably on the bestseller list, we’ve seen terrific new books such as “The Power,” by Naomi Alderman, and “Red Clocks,” by Leni Zumas — along with some weaker ones like “Future Home of the Living God,” by Louise Erdrich, and “Sleeping Beauties,” by Stephen King and Owen King. And there are more on the way. We’re living, it would seem, in a utopia for feminist dystopias.
But how many trips to Gilead do we really need? When does a publishing trend give voice to our anxieties, and when does it merely exploit those anxieties?
That’s the uncomfortable question I kept asking myself as I read Christina Dalcher’s “Vox,” the latest novel to give us a fully inflated misogynist nightmare. Dalcher’s story melds one of Western culture’s oldest prejudices with the future’s slickest technology: In the America she imagines, every woman can say only 100 words a day.
As a premise, this is a frightening extension of Saint Paul’s prohibition against women speaking in church. That 100-word limit fulfills centuries of efforts to mute women, to punish them for talking, to disallow their testimony and to mock their speech with all those handy gendered slurs like “gossip,” “catty,” “bitchy,” “hysterical,” “nagging.” What better story to consider during the reign of a president who labeled his opponent “a nasty woman” and promised to “lock her up”?
Trump is never named in these pages, but the allusion is clear. “Vox” opens during the administration of a totalitarian leader elected after the term of America’s first black president. The Pure Woman movement has hijacked the capital and the culture. Dalcher explains that the country’s precipitous descent into full-scale misogyny started in the Bible Belt when “that swath of Southern states where religion ruled, started expanding. It morphed from belt to corset, covering all but the country’s limbs.”
As Dalcher lays out the mechanics of the word-counter that every woman must wear on her wrist, “Vox” is grimly fascinating. American society has been wrenched back to a frosted-lens vision of the 1950s with dutiful wives at home and hard-working husbands at the office. (Naturally, all gays and lesbians have been “converted” or imprisoned.) Women have no access to books, pens or computers. Surveillance cameras discourage nonverbal communication. Each woman prudently parcels out her 100 words a day. If she exceeds that limit, her wrist counter delivers a shock; if she persists, it burns her. (Fortunately, Sen. Mitch McConnell doesn’t have this tool at his disposal. Yet.)
The novel is narrated by Jean, a tough-willed mother of four and a former cognitive linguist in the Washington area. She was on the cusp of discovering a cure for stroke-induced aphasia when the Pure Movement swept through America and sent her home to cook and clean. “I’ve become a woman of few words,” Jean says by way of introduction. But she has many plans.
Early in the novel, the president of the United States seeks out Jean’s help to treat his brother, who has sustained a brain injury. Taking advantage of this rare leverage, Jean insists that she and her young daughter have their bracelets removed while she works on a cure. A resistance movement is born.
Unfortunately, the novel’s most interesting ideas are quickly muzzled. Almost as soon as “Vox” pivots from exposition to action, it loses its edge. It shifts from a sharp work of feminist speculative fiction to a frothy thriller delivered in a fusillade of three-page chapters as though the author herself were wearing a wrist counter. Burdened by this breathless acceleration, few of the story’s initially complex themes survive. That opening shot at the misogynist strains in Christianity gets absorbed by a pastor-villain so creepy and cartoonish that no Christian reader will feel pricked. And Jean’s against-the-clock medical research makes MacGyver look like Francis Crick. Just when “Vox” needs to sink in and give a fuller sense of its political and social world, the story grows sketchy, even silly.
It may sound unfair to object to failures of realism in a plot as fantastical as this one, but the preservation of plausibility within the realm of the implausible is key to the success of any speculative novel. “The Power,” for instance, presupposes conditions far more ridiculous than anything in “Vox.” But once Naomi Alderman establishes that the women in her novel can electrocute men with their hands, everything that follows from that freaky premise is powerfully realized. In contrast, “Vox” never plumbs the depths of its clever foundation.
Perhaps most surprising, though, is the novel’s sudden arrival at a fairy tale ending. For all Jean’s brave acts of resistance, this damsel in distress isn’t safe until a powerful man rides in and saves her. In the final pages, we see America suddenly enlightened again, as though the horrors these women endured were just some freakish aberration and not the consummation of thousands of years of being told to smile and be quiet.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Christina Dalcher
Berkley. 336 pp. $26