A couple of months ago, I read an article in the New York Times that listed several new books that had come out under a budding genre: feminist dystopian fiction. If you’ve ever heard of or watched “The Handmaid’s Tale” TV series (or read the book), then you have a fairly good idea of what kind of themes and content you will find in this genre. While I was reading the article, one of the books caught my attention: VOX, by Christina Dalcher. The summary looked interesting, so I decided to pick up a copy for myself.
To provide a brief summary, Dalcher’s novel centers on Dr. Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist living in a United States that is run by the “Pure Movement,” a Christian fundamentalist political movement that has gained control of Congress and the White House and has instituted a policy whereby women are only allowed to speak up to 100 words every 24 hours. This policy is enforced by women being required to wear metal counters on their wrists that are tied to their voices; these counters will deliver a small electric shock if the wearer goes over 100 words, which increases every 10 words the wearer says afterwards. Eventually, if the wearer says too many words, the counter is capable of delivering a lethal electric shock.
Overall, I enjoyed reading the novel. The novel forces you to think about certain issues, especially if you are not a feminist. For instance, does teaching AP classes on Christian fundamentalism bring us one step closer to a dystopian world where women are suppressed? Dalcher seems to think so, and so does Jean, who draws a timeline in her flashbacks that brought the United States to its current state. There are other instances in which Dalcher briefly brings up other issues that seem unrelated to the novel’s main themes but nevertheless play a part in the dystopian world. When Jean and her family (consisting of her husband, Patrick, and her three sons and one daughter) try to leave the United States when the counters come out, they avoid going to Mexico since there is a wall along the entire border, preventing people from leaving. Aside from being a subtle jab at President Trump’s proposed border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, I read this part of the book as “walls eventually keep people in, not out.” I imagine this part will irk some conservative readers and Trump supporters.
The first 24 chapters of the novel are where the readers will encounter the most “political” statements. The dystopia is explained and the main conflicts are laid out. Afterwards, Dalcher’s book mostly reads like a regular novel (mostly because she tones down the political content) and the plot moves forward, which is where the novel begins to fall apart. I have some reservations about the climax, which did not make much sense to me. But other than that, I really like the novel’s structure and how the plot moved forward.
Moving on to themes, several emerge in the novel, such as Christian fundamentalism, family, marriage, patriarchy, women’s rights, masculinity and femininity, gender and gender relations (particularly under a patriarchal dystopia) and the slide into authoritarianism. Many of these themes and conflicts emerge in particular scenes. When Jean gets her counter off, she gets into an argument with her oldest son, Steven, with whom she has several arguments throughout the novel and with whom she has a contentious relationship (Steven is a diehard believer in the Pure Movement’s ideals). During the argument, Steven tells his mother off, saying that it will eventually be illegal for women to insult men. In another scene, Jean gets into an argument with Patrick, where Patrick eventually wonders aloud if his mother would have been better off with her counter on. These two scenes struck me as gut-wrenching, not because it’s the main character’s own family beating down on her, but because of the circumstances in which the arguments took place. In both instances, Jean was propelled by the utter helplessness and verbal hamstringing she felt under the new laws, at times flirting with misandry because of the poor relationships she has with her husband and oldest son.
Another theme that is worth discussing is masculinity and what it means to be a man. Jean frequently compares her husband to a former lover, Lorenzo. Jean sees Lorenzo as having a backbone and willing to stand up for her, while Patrick is a more passive type, willing to let things happen. This is compounded by Patrick working as a scientific adviser to the president; while Patrick was not directly responsible for the counters, Jean still holds him in disregard because he does nothing about it. I believe that Lorenzo’s character is what Dalcher thinks is the ideal man and embodies a “proper” type of masculinity: Lorenzo is portrayed as smart, protective, strong, and romantic. I imagine Lorenzo is the answer that feminists like Mrs. Dalcher have to the “problem” of masculinity in our society.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in the themes that I discussed. I will add that the novel is a good follow-up or compliment to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has a similar dystopia to that of VOX. While it has its faults, Dalcher’s novel highlights some of the key issues facing America today with regards to gender and tackles them from a feminist perspective.