"Red Clocks" might sound like a dystopian novel, but plenty of conservative politicians are plotting to make it a work of nonfiction. In fact, the author, Leni Zumas, has said that she drew the most frightening details of her story's misogynistic world from "actual proposals" by men who are currently in control of our government.
Such is the state of affairs in the early 21st century. Feminist writers of speculative fiction don't need the bizarre rituals of Margaret Atwood's 1985 classic, "The Handmaid's Tale," or even the fantastical elements of Naomi Alderman's terrific recent novel, "The Power." Bridles designed for women's bodies are already hanging in legislators' barns, just waiting for Ruth Bader Ginsburg to die.
The ordinariness of the world that Zumas imagines is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of "Red Clocks," her second novel. The story is set in a small Oregon town in a future that Mike Pence can almost see if he stands on his pew. The Personhood Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has nullified Roe v. Wade and criminalized abortion. Anyone who tries to end her own pregnancy is jailed — assuming she survives the poisons and coat hangers. A sprawling Pink Wall along our northern border keeps desperate girls and women from seeking relief in Canada.
Zumas lays down these conditions without any particular drama: There is no siege or state of war or climate of terror. Instead, her novel stays rooted in the everyday experiences of four women whom we hear from, one at a time, in short chapters:
Susan is trapped in an unhappy marriage, trying not to resent the burden of her two toddlers, while pleading with her husband to attend couples therapy. Ro is a high school teacher impoverishing herself with expensive medical treatments to conceive a child before her biological clock runs out. One of Ro's students, Mattie, is a smart teenager with a promising academic future, but her unwanted pregnancy has thrown all that into doubt. And, finally, Gin is a hermit who knows how to use the forest herbs to heal sicknesses and end pregnancies.
These lives intersect at work and after school, but their stories retain their own autonomy, and Zumas labels each chapter: "The Wife," "The Biographer," "The Daughter," "The Mender" — a constant reiteration of the constricting roles these complex women are forced to inhabit.
As much as "Red Clocks" is about the repressive legal proposals that threaten women's lives in America, the novel is equally astute on the cultural constraints that women contend with — and enforce on each other. They're all subjected to grinding, fruitless competition over their careers and their sexuality. Ro, the high school teacher, tortures herself by adding to a wry list she titles "Accusations from the world":
Preferring one's own company is pathological.
Human beings were designed for companionship.
Why didn't you try harder to find a mate?
Married people live longer, healthier lives.
Do you think anyone actually believes that you're happy on your own?
Ro should find solace with Susan, "The Wife," but she feels only condescension and pity from her fecund friend, just as Susan secretly envies Ro's childlessness. It's a poignant reflection of the way these women's lives are spiked by a culture determined to interfere in the most intimate aspects of their personal lives.
That theme generates such power largely because Zumas's agile style energizes "Red Clocks." Her prose sports a kind of rawness that's really the fruit of subtle artfulness. She's flexible enough to reflect each woman's differing concerns and personality, from the high schooler's fear and earnestness, to the mother's conflicted depression and the hermit's earthy insight. Her phrasing stays exquisitely close to these minds, not quite stream of consciousness, but shadowing the confluence of anxiety and rationality they all harbor. She breaks into lists and rapid-fire dialogue, throws off sarcastic asides and flips back into dark memories. There's no coddling readers here. This is an author who insists "Keep up!" — an author comfortable letting moments of disorientation hang on the page from time to time.
More daring still, this chorus of contemporary women's voices is punctuated by tantalizing snippets from a biography that Ro is working on during her spare time. She gets no encouragement from her fellow teachers and has little chance of finding a publisher, but something compels her to keep writing the story of a forgotten woman, Eivor, born in 1841 on an island off the coast of Iceland. We never get more than a few lines at a time from Ro's manuscript, but we learn that she became a knowledgeable explorer and an expert on polar ice. Eivor's experiences, often brutalizing, sometimes life-threatening, serve as a kind of lodestar for Ro, indeed for all these women who persist through bone-chilling loneliness and disappointment to make the lives they choose.
This provocative exploration of female longing, frustration and determination couldn't be more timely, and yet there's nothing fleeting about it. With "Red Clocks," Zumas has written a novel that's political without being doctrinaire, that expands the dimensions of our most pressing social debate.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. On Jan. 23 at 7 p.m., Leni Zumas will be at Politics and Prose at the Wharf, 70 District Square SW.
By Leni Zumas
Lee Boudreaux. 356 pp. $26.