I think some of the greatest feminist dystopian fiction includes Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve”, Sandra Newman’s "The Country of Ice Cream Star" and Naomi Alderman’s “The Power”. They don’t just speculate about terrifying ways that humanity can go wrong for women, but also powerfully comment upon the continued subjugation of women today. Lidia Yuknavitch has created an utterly original and wildly imaginative take on this narrative in her new novel “The Book of Joan”. This novel takes readers to the near-future 2049 when a series of cataclysmic events have reduced our planet to a “dirt ball” around which orbits a slipshod repurposed satellite. Upon this resides the mutant elite of humankind who survive on the scarce resources they can suck out of the decimated planet Earth. This will most certainly be the end of the human race as these mutants’ genitals have dropped off or sealed up and people’s skin has turned so (ugly) white they are nearly transparent. They are led by a powerful former self-help guru Jean de Men who organizes trials and executions of “offending” citizens as entertainment. But there is a resistance to this tyranny in the form of a strike branding artist Christine who tattoos poetry on the grafted skin covering her body. She mythologizes the story of Joan who created chaos across the planet and was ritually burned like her 15th century French-warrior namesake. The ensuing conflict is not only a mesmerizing and grisly adventure but makes striking observations about gender, genetics and the meaning of story-telling.
So I couldn’t help thinking that Yuknavitch was speaking directly about today when Christine comments: “We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power. Our existence makes my eyes hurt.” It’s difficult not to read this as a reference to the current American president. It’s interesting how she engages with the way that popularity and power intermingle and the compromises and resolutions such a leader must make to either maintain their image as a beloved celebrity or flagrantly abuse their power to ensure the general population falls into line. This is shown differently in both of the figures of Jean de Men and Joan. Notably, she does so not just in these characters’ actions but in the way their bodies are radically transformed and mutate as they utilize previously untapped elements from both nature and technology.
It’s difficult in dystopian fiction to maintain a balance between explaining the conditions of an imagined future reality and developing characters that readers can really connect with. There were sections of this novel which flew over my head. Yuknavitch ambitiously builds this distorted future by playing upon many elements of philosophy and science such as subatomic physics. She also hints at bands of rebels and subservient robots. To fully flesh out this future would have taken thousands of pages, yet there could have been ways to briefly round out her fantastical reality to help me fully picture it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t always clearly see it so parts of the novel felt too chaotic to me. But she makes up for it with some fantastic characters whose very bodies carry the scars of what they’ve gone through. There is Christine’s gay friend Trinculo who affectionately and relentlessly spouts antiquated bawdy insults at her. There’s also the love affair between Joan and Leone who is a Vietnamese-French girl that fights alongside her in battles across the world.
One of the most striking things in this novel is the way that poetry and verse becomes an adornment that symbolizes privilege. Christine emphasizes that tattooing text is an art and since their group of mutant beings keep grafting on layers of skin it’s like parchment which they carry with them everywhere. She emphatically holds onto the importance of storytelling because “To have a story was to have a self.” The difficulty with real historical tales like that of Joan of Arc is that her story can be shaped into whatever its tellers need it to be. She could be portrayed as a saint or a heretic. Yuknavitch poses the question “What if, for once in history, a woman’s story could be untethered from what we need it to be in order to feel better about ourselves?” In the character of Joan she creates a woman that untethers herself from the script which is assigned to her and becomes fiercely individual – someone that can only be defined by what she loves.