“The Book of Joan” author Lidia Yuknavitch’s language is poetic ... like a preteen trying too hard to be the kind of beautiful only adults can be. Yuknavitch chooses intriguing phrases or words such as “secreted away,” “hoary” and an uncommon use of the word “wrong” far too often in her novel. While I appreciate the nod toward making more books with central female characters — “The Book of Joan’s” cast of main characters is nearly all female (sort of) — their gender seems either incidental or spectacle, neither of which particularly inspired me.
The first narrator is a female on Earth before the “geocatastrophe,” an event that is never fully explained, only implied. She narrates a plotline that is fairly predictable, given the cache of recent dystopian fiction and cli-fi (climate-change fiction) work being published in the last few years: Something very bad happened on Earth rendering it nearly uninhabitable. An evil dictator builds a fleet of spaceships that he tethers to the Earth to siphon off the rest of its resources in order to support the lives of the wealthy elite who manage somehow to get on these ships. But only until they’re 50. Then, their journey is “complete.” There are vague references to the evil dictator’s harnessing of the female bodies for reproductive purposes, though it’s ultimately unclear why these lives, which are slowly losing most of what makes them human, are being preserved. The second narrator, who only talks briefly, is an angry young girl named Joan, randomly endowed with the powers to save and destroy the world (Did she cause the geocatastrophe? Was it not climate chaos after all?). She is also the first narrator’s hero for some reason. Joan and her best friend survive the apocalypse and are running around on the dying Earth, trying to survive, destroying the connections the ships send down and possibly destroy everything.
It took me 80 pages to connect with the first narrator. I didn’t connect at all with the second and found the switching difficult to follow. The plot twists felt forced, like Yuknavitch was trying too hard to be clever. The ways she invents to get herself out of plot corners she’s painted herself into feel contrived and inauthentic.
The antagonist is an evil stereotype, reminiscent of our current president in a way I’m tired of reading about in the media. He’s intoxicated by his power , imprisons his minions and demands their unwavering allegiance. Nothing new there. And there’s also the fact that most of the few relations that do occur between men and women are overly sexualized, and not in an interesting or original way. Again, nothing new, but it’s a little worse than that. Using sex for entertainment — which is what it felt like Yuknavitch is doing — reinforces the violent cycles that threaten mostly women while exalting the historically and statistically male impulse for conquest.
I feel the need to call on writers — especially those who identify as female — to be more creative than all that. Don’t let being ‘nervy’ or ‘badass,’ as other reviewers have said of this book, eclipse the serious drama of the dangerous moment we’re in, survival-wise. The points you have to make are far too important, as are the bodies of the vulnerable, such as the Earth, women and children. And, speaking of children, there’s a distracting contradiction between what I read as Yuknavitch’s desire to condemn child armies — though her setting them up in the book as some new horror seemed a bit out of touch — and her use of a child to literally destroy the world. The author was trying too hard to be original and beautiful, and it was obvious that her use of the grotesque was often for shock value rather than to make a genuine point.
Finally, I felt overly explained to and a bit insulted by Yuknavitch’s reliance on telling rather than showing and the strained philosophizing about life, death and the destruction of the environment, which she puts into an unapologetically sadomasochistic lead character’s voice. Fiction can have as dark a world view as it wants, but in these times, it needs to tell the reader something redemptive about being human. We have enough examples in reality to the contrary.
That’s me reading like a writer. And, more importantly, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women. So if I were to change lenses and look at “The Book of Joan” as a reader, what I get is an agonizing love for the natural world, a fresh panic every time I think of its peril and needless devastation. I’m reading “The Book of Joan” while hurricane Harvey sacks Houston. And I feel like I’m drowning, choked by anticipatory longing for the fragile glory we are losing more of every day and by anger at my species’ apathy. It is a delusion that we can actually debate the origin of the Earth’s clear pain, and suicidal pursuit of the status quo, even when faced with alarming facts. Harvey was augmented by anthropogenic climate change. So were Katrina and Irene and Bill and, and, and ... what will wake us up?
While Harvey swallows highway systems whole and traps nursing-home residents in waist-deep water and washes Houston’s toxic pools of untreated water into the Gulf of Mexico, the Emerald City’s plant life is shriveling. Grass is turning to straw. The blackberries are bitter and small. Yuknavitch presents a world where there are no such things as blackberries or grass or straw or regular human bodies anymore. And she makes me long for the one we’ve got now — damaged as it is. She makes me marvel at what this human body I have can do even as I struggle with immense guilt for being human in a human-marred world.
And she makes me intensely miss trees while we still have trees.
Megan Wildhood is a contributing writer for Real Change, advocate in the mental health community, published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
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