Friday 3 November 2017

Reading Notes: Naomi Alderman's The Power

It took a few days after finishing this novel to come to grasps with how I felt about it, in particular because there was a point, maybe 150 pages in, where I felt like I would end up enjoying this a lot more than I eventually did. Which isn't a reflection on the novel per se, just that Alderman chose a completely different path than I expected. Specifically, there is a moment where Roxy first meets Allie (who is on her way to consolidate her power as Mother Eve, with her community growing and just to demonstrate its true potential to the small town nearby - but they have not become the transformative movement that they will be later on). Roxy has just escaped the UK after killing a crime boss to revenge her mother. They meet by the water, at night, Roxy demonstrating her power with an act that is both amazing and horrifying (awesome, in the classical sense of the world rather than the popcultural). The ever-present voice in Eve's mind (a voice that -  we do not know who it is, we know that it speaks in biblical terms but uses very non-biblical language, we know that it wants, that it might as well be an expression of Allie's inherent ambition rather than something truly god-like, but the fact is that the distinction increasingly becomes irrelevant, considering the kind of methods and tools that Allie has at her command) tells her to use Roxy as a soldier, but not to become friends with her. But Allie can't help but connect with Roxy over their shared histories, their lost families, their shared experience of killing abusive men, their shared drive for a world that belongs to them. 

I think, deep down at this point I expected the novel to go somewhere entirely different, and I expected that connection between the two to go to a different place as well. They remain deeply and profoundly connected until the end, when Roxy is wounded and has lost all her power, while Eve is on the verge of transforming hers into something truly awesome, in the apocalyptic sense. But the novel is less interested in their intimate feelings, the way that their individual traumas play out to determine their paths, and how that may connect them - instead its starts to transform into something entirely different, something with geopolitical ambitions, a worldwide perspective. Which works in the novel - because obviously, Alderman is interested in the religious, political and cultural implications (and how all of this is mediated, through the outside perspective of Tunde, so hungry for story and context) of the very interesting biological twist of fate that begins everything. But maybe I would have felt more strongly about the individual tragic fates of the protagonists if the focus hadn't blown so wide open into a story about the entire world, changing, tumbling towards an apocalypse. (and this is an odd thought - but even though these two novels on the surface have barely anything in common, apart from The Power having a bit of storyline about London crime, and both being about a cast of characters connecting and disconnecting, the first part of the book reminded me of Kate Tempest' The Bricks That Built the Houses, and I missed that in the second part).

At points throughout I felt like this novel could have something else, and probably, at an earlier stage, was (apparently Alderman had 200,000 words at some point, but maybe even a whole other book here from which this one spun off). 

One approach maybe doesn't go anywhere, and that is to investigate whether her assumption about how the entire world would change if women were physically stronger than men is correct. It's the presumption of the novel and it falls apart if we don't buy it, so there isn't much point to debating it. Here, it takes ten years between teenage girls showing first symptoms of the skein - a genetic mutation that allows them to use energy to defend themselves and attack - to a part of Moldova spinning off into a women-led dystopia that intends to kill most men and subjects them to severe human rights abuses (the twist of which, at any point throughout the book, is that all of these things have happened and are still happening to women all over the world, and the shocking newness only exists because Alderman switches the genders of victims and oppressors). It only takes ten years for Allie, a foster child who escapes a physically and sexually abusive foster family (killing the man before she leaves with her newfound powers) to transform into Mother Eve, the figurehead of a new version of Christianity that only edits ancient texts a little bit, only gently twists the perspective, to build an entirely new female-centric religion on the base of the old ones (one of the great thoughts here, that all of these stories already exist, but have been read in a deliberately patriarchal way - for a very specific reason - this whole time).  

Alderman shows us how a democracy like the United States would grapple with the change, first following the old instinct of trying to preserve the old order, trying to find a cure to reinstate the status quo, trying to protect boys from girls by separating them, before realising that the biological advance is permanent, cannot be healed or reversed, and will require a profound change within the society. That change happens quickly, once women realise that their physical strength now puts them in the position to argue against all the ancient gender stereotypes that have held them back. News anchors who used to be only ancillaries to their straight white men co-hosts suddenly become the serious stars of the show. The mayor of a major metropolitan area, Margot, makes a swift career progression once she realises that her powers are an advantage, not a dirty secret, that she can use them to demonstrate her strength in difficult times. Inadvertently, she also becomes a tool for Mother Eve, as the voice in her head puts all the pawns into place. 

Tunde, the Nigerian journalist, watches all of this, realises the unique opportunity to become the media voice of the change, someone who does not hesitate to go into dangerous situations for the good stories, someone who aspires to write the definite book that provides context for this historic change in human society. He documents women rising up against their oppressors, political systems changing, but he also realises, very soon, that the gender switch does not lead to a more peaceful and gentle society - instead, the same extremes of violence start to appear. Fuelled by anger, ambition and a drug that Roxy brings into the world, women in war zones start to commit war crimes. The very close-to-home (as in - 2017, here) men's right activists that gather in internet forums and eventually use bombs to express how frustrated they are by the new world justify severe responses. Old patriarchal structures try to reassert themselves, as those who have always been in power refuse to accept the new reality. 

These are the in-between sections of the novel, after Mother Eve sets herself up and then allows her belief to find fertile ground in the still-religious world out there (the interesting question here is how much of Mother Eve is really in Allie, who asks if the voice in her head is God, but seems to consider scripture a very useful tool rather than something that she genuinely believes in - in the beginning, there is only the wish to make the world hers, to carve out a place for herself). The matriarchal new country that split from Moldova, led by the former wife of the authoritarian ruler, becomes an expression of her own insecurities and vanity (some of the most shocking scenes of the book happen in close succession here - the great leader punishes a waiter for speaking over her and makes him lick up alcohol and glass shards from the ground, while groups of women soldiers in the outskirts of the country prepare for war by raping and pillaging the citizens), becomes the festering wound that soon makes it clear to Mother Eve that her attempts at a tabula rasa have failed utterly. 

It's interesting that Margaret Atwood mentored this book, considering that there are so many parallels here to The Handmaid's Tale: In both, a biological event triggers a severe societal change, in both cases, religion plays a central role to cement a new regime. Alderman merely switches the genders (and again, the novel only really works if you believe that the timeline she marks out for all of this is realistic, so there's not much point in debating if this would be enough to undo thousands of years of the patriarchy). Also, in both, the story is framed in a very subversive way. In The Handmaid's Tale, the epilogue is the meeting of an anthropological congress, debating Gilead as it is seen through the tale of the (in the novel, unnamed) handmaid. The framing device here is that this whole story was written by a male writer (whose name is an anagram of Naomi Alderman), sending his novel to a woman (Naomi Alderman) for review - in a world, as we found out in the end, that is finally the complete utopia, the new place, that Mother Eve imagined. It is the culmination of everything that the novel works towards, the attempts at building a new society, the realisation that this will be impossible for as long as there is even a root of patriarchy, even the faintest memory of it, and the eventual shocking decision that the only way to move forward is a complete nuclear apocalypse that will wipe out any record of humanity. Like in Gilead, the only way to truly begin a new society is to destroy any record, or memory, of the old one, except here, in Alderman's world, that annihilation is complete, as is the rewriting of history. This is a very interesting idea (one that I would still trade, very much, for a story about Roxy and Allie).  It makes fun of every single biologically essentialist argument about the differences between men and women, it creates a historic record of artefacts that document a society in which women having this power has always been a reality, it maps out an alternative history of the world with only one minor detail altered. The world that results is very likely not better than our current world - individuals are still limited by cliched  gender models and the lies of a constructed history that justifies subjugation -  which is the point here, considering that this is titled The Power. Why does it happen? There isn't an attempt at an answer here, really, as multiple personal dramas and deeply wounded characters stumble forward, instinctually attempting to create a safe space for themselves, to reassert themselves, to find a shape and form for their ambition. 

Random thoughts: 
  • When Alderman did give Margot's daughter Jos space - a girl with a broken skein, attracted to the few boys who have them, but don't quite know what to do with them - it felt like a sad lost opportunity to maybe address how this whole dichotomy between having and not having this power would play out in a world where trans people exist. Another criticism - there is still a very clear sense here that the US and the UK are the known world and most of the places that Tunde goes to are the strange other that are perceived through the eyes of characters thoroughly rooted in the West. 
  • Just to reiterate here that I really, really wanted this story to be about Roxy and Allie's complicated feelings for each other and for a second I thought that's what I would get, so everything after made me a bit sad. 
  • One thing that I will give this novel though is that it succeeds through its different perspectives, the way that the whole situation escalates through the views of these diverse voices (some privileged, some slowly realising they are very much no longer privileged, as happens to Tunde once he reads his own obituaries and the stories that his ex-girlfriend stole from him). After all, the best episode of The Handmaid's Tale is one that could have never happened in the book, as June isn't even in it. 
  • I also want to reiterate that the book gets the most horror out of the thought of "what if this happened... TO MEN", not unlike The Handmaid's Tale (mostly, but not exclusively) does "what if this happened.... TO STRAIGHT WHITE AMERICAN WOMEN".

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