In her well-received TED talk, “The Beauty of Being a Misfit,” Lidia Yuknavitch made a solid case for the ill-fitted, failure-prone outsider as worthwhile protagonist. Contemplate Hamlet as a self-sabotaging nebbish and klutz; Odysseus as serial screw-up. Conjuring up echoes from “Death of a Salesman” — “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person” — Yuknavitch argued that the plight of a square peg in a round hole could be the stuff of noble tragedy.
Surely, Joan of Arc, that maundering Maid of Orleans, falls solidly into the category of fascinating, exemplary misfit. Her eccentric, otherworldly personality; her shambolic career that lurched from one inconclusive crisis to another; her ignominious end at the age of 19; and her evanescent battlefield legacy — the pure quill of misfitdom.
And so Joan offers herself as the perfect figure for Yuknavitch’s new novel, “The Book of Joan.” Translated into a dystopian future, this New Joan of Dirt serves as emblem for all the stalwart commoners in whose crushing defeat lies a kind of inviolate spiritual victory.
Yuknavitch’s future scenario takes place circa 2049, and it is, frankly, a most unlikely setup right from the outset. No hard-edge science fiction intended or likely to be found here. In a mere three decades from the present, the Earth has become totally uninhabitable, and the human species has mutated into a new bodily form: genderless and mostly hairless. A remnant batch of humanity lives in a quickly constructed space habitat dubbed CIEL.
This is not the densely rationalized world of “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel, or “Oryx and Crake,” by Margaret Atwood, but rather an allegorical awfulness meant to invoke the kind of Hundred Years’ War hellscape against which Joan of Arc lived her life. Once the reader accepts the incongruities and phantasmagorical exaggerations of Yuknavitch’s damning nightmare, the book offers a wealth of pathos, with plenty of resonant excruciations and some disturbing meditations on humanity’s place in creation.
The narrative is divided into three parts. In the first, we meet our taleteller, Christine Pizan, a complicit yet remorseful resident on CIEL. (Surely, her name is meant to echo that of medieval author Christine de Pizan, suggesting that she’s an avatar of female creativity.) Christine’s situation — immured in a vapid techno-prison — immediately conjures up comparisons to E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops.” CIEL is ruled over by Jean de Men, described as “some strange combination of a military dictator and a spiritual charlatan. A war-hungry mountebank.” The global warfare between the forces of de Men and the allies of Joan is what devastated Earth.
Christine is an expert in “grafting,” which is the literal burning of text into a person’s flesh. Christine carries the story of Joan on her body, and now she begins to read it as a kind of Braille. And so in Book 2, our perspective shifts to Joan’s, and we witness the stages of her fraught life right up to the waning days of warfare, when she and her lover huddle in deep caves as the last refuge. Book 3 conflates the lives of Joan and Christine, on Earth and on the CIEL station, through a mysterious teleportation process as the women confront Jean de Men and strive for a planetary rebirth.
Yuknavitch delivers no straight-up cinematic battles, chases or confrontations, but always mixes in digressive, reflective philosophizing with her action scenes. One of her primary themes is the nature of being a corporeal creature in the magical world, a fusion of matter and spirit. For Yuknavitch — as is also the case with Samuel Delany, who maintains that among the homeless and impoverished, one of the last sacraments available is the exchange of bodily fluids — the blood-and-bones vessels we maneuver through the world are also our instruments of knowing.
Two things have always ruptured up and through hegemony: art and bodies. That is how art has preserved its toehold in our universe. Where there was poverty, there was also a painting someone stared at until it filled them with grateful tears. Where there was genocide, there was a song that refused to quiet. Where a planet was forsaken, there was someone telling a story with their last breath, and someone else carrying it like DNA, or star junk. Hidden matter.
“The Book of Joan” concludes in a bold and satisfying apotheosis like some legend out of “The Golden Bough” and reaffirms that even amid utter devastation and ruin, hope can still blossom.
Paul Di Filippo’s new story collection, “Lost Among the Stars,” has just been released.
By Lidia Yuknavitch
Harper. 266 pp. $26.99