Things Fall Apart for Women (Again): Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks

My closest reading friend is a young woman in her 20s, an English major and high school English teacher. Recently, she asked me with a chilling earnestness, “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

The question was prompted about my home state of South Carolina because I was telling her about finishing Red Clocks by Leni Zumas—simultaneously with hearing about the impending possibility of Tennessee passing essentially an abortion ban.

Like nearby Georgia and Alabama, Tennessee is poised to join a movement across the U.S. to overturn Roe v. Wade; South Carolina Governor McMaster has guaranteed to join that movement.

Zumas’s novel has drawn comparison’s to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because of its powerful but disturbing near-future speculative fiction rendering of the U.S. post-Roe v. Wade.

Red Clocks tests readers’ comfort with near in her speculation about the life of women after a complete abortion ban in the U.S., including a Pink Wall that denies those women access to abortion in Canada.

Zumas has Atwood’s gift for incisive language—along with Pink Wall, the Personhood Amendment and the Every Child Needs Two law—and setting the novel in Oregon seems an allusion to Ursula K. Le Guin, who famously sparred with Atwood about labels such as “science fiction” (which Kurt Vonnegut wrestled with and against), “speculative fiction,” and “fantasy.”

Once I finished reading, I felt the most compelling aspect of the work is Zumas’s deft blending of allegory (the central characters and rotating limited narration through the Biographer, the Mender, the Daughter, and the Wife, reminding me of Jeff VanderMeer’s techniques in his Souther Reach Trilogy) with stark relevance to now.

Zumas includes as well a recurring fifth key, although tangential, woman to the narrative, “[t]he polar explorer Eivor Minervudottir”—both a sparsely detailed would-be subject of the Biographer and a representative of the lost women of science (her great work of research eventually published under a man’s name because Sir George Gabriel Stokes in a rejection letter explains it is “a paper which, it is patently clear, you did not write”).

Ultimately, as a reader, I wondered if this prescient work of fiction had presented too sharp a blade for exposing the historical and current burden of simply being a woman, a burden inextricably tied to being sexual and reproductive beings.

Had, I asked, Zumas failed James Baldwin’s litmus test about protest novels?

Along with supporting the politics of the narrative and the work’s relatively overt nudges toward activism, I found the novel a rich and excellent work of speculative fiction because the more I read, the more I was drawn to keep reading. That compulsion was firmly grounded in the characters, flawed often but always sympathetic in a wide range of ways linked to both their unique personal qualities and how they share as well as highlight the many ways the world (and U.S.) remains hostile to their simply being women.

When I stumbled in my reading of this novel, it was the limited third-person narrative that drifts into a sort of stream of consciousness and (like in Atwood’s work) a thin whiteness to the focus that makes me nervous the work can too easily be discounted as the sort of work some white women do that is hyper-feminist to the exclusion of admitting that race and racism cannot be separated from the fight for gender equality.

Zumas and her novel, I think, easily rise above these concerns, again because the politics and prescience are incisive and the narrative and characters are expertly wrought. Above all else, I wanted to remain with these characters because I genuinely cared for their lives and their dilemmas, often intertwined directly but always shared by their womanhood.

[spoiler alert]

The Wife, for example, pulls together many of the feminist thematic elements  in the novel. She frets about her labia, her empty marriage, the possibility of suicide, and her personal ennui grounded in forgoing her law career to be a mother—all while she positions herself to have an affair with a colleague of her husband.

While the affair never materializes (at the pivotal moment when she thinks it will happen, she has to confront, “He does not want her”), the Wife does finally initiate leaving her husband and her marriage, a scene that ends ominously:

The wife kneels on the path.

…She reaches for the black earth.

Her body yearns, inexplicably, to taste it.

Brings a handful to her lips. The minerals sizzle on her tongue, rich with the gists of flower and bone.

…Bright minerals. Powdered feathers. Ancient shells.

And then there is the guilt of being her own Self as well as a member of the tribe of women, the allegiances to both in conflict. While attending the trial of the Mender, represented by a former friend of the Wife from her law school days, she confronts that guilt:

Has the wife become a person who believes all accounts?

Sort of, yes, she has.

She has been too tired to care.

The Personhood Amendment, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the calls for abortion providers to face the death penalty—the person she planned to be would care about this mess, would bother to be furious.

Too tired to be furious.

This Brave New World closing in on the Mender, the Daughter, and the Biographer in direct and terrifying ways has, to the Wife, mostly not been about her directly, a wife and mother of two living rent-free in a family home.

Navigating the Wife in this novel was parallel to the bitter pill of a majority of white women voters choosing Trump—sacrificing the good of women for the perceived personal comfort they have in their own lives.

However, the Wife’s fear of change is only nearly paralyzing since she ultimately, it seems, takes the initiative toward a new life, one less secure and more directly jeopardized by the erasure of women’s rights.

The story circles back from the opening focus on the Biographer and her subject to the closing chapter that concludes the novel with the word “possible,” reminding me of Adrienne Rich’s work and Atwood’s framing of speculative fiction:

“I’m an optimist,” the decorated Canadian author explained by phone to Wired.com during a tour for her most recent book, The Year of the Flood, published in September. “Anyone who writes this kind of stuff probably is. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t waste your time writing the books.”

I am afraid, none the less, and haunted by my reading friend’s question: “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

What will any of us do? What are any of us doing now?

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