Vox, Christina Dalcher’s novel makes use of Atwood’s template for modern feminist dystopian novels, placing it squarely in the United States. Not quite dystopian, eh?
Margaret Atwood, writing The Handmaid’s Tale, created a template for modern feminist dystopian fiction. Current political optics have spawned a host of subsequent novels, including Christina Dalcher’s Vox, which imagines a United States where women have been silenced. That’s right, silenced, each allowed to speak only one hundred words per day. Every time a woman exceeds her quota, a wrist counter gives her an electrical zap. With every additional word, the jolt strengthens, becoming unbearable if the woman continues talking.
Even little girls must wear wristbands and must circumscribe their words. Little girls no longer learn to read or write, either. Their school days teach them how to sew, how to cook, and how to serve their masters, men. Jean McClellan only has a hundred words to communicate with her husband and four children; Sonia her daughter, allowed to voice the same number each day, wins a school prize on the days she speaks fewer words than any of her classmates. Jean’s three sons, in contrast, chatter freely, as does her husband Patrick.
The oldest McClellan boy, Steven, is enrolled in an AP class that teaches the fundamentals of modern Christian philosophy. There, the innate superiority of men, taught from the point of view of extreme-right fundamentalism, is ingrained in the minds of pliable teenagers. Jean, who has a Ph.D. in neurological linguistics but who no longer is allowed to speak, is horrified by the indoctrination of her son. Her husband, a physician with a highly classified government position, is distressed, too, but acquiesces to the new normal in order to save his job.
When the government decides it needs Jean’s specialized services for a new research project, Jean agrees. With her wrist counter temporarily removed (and Sonia’s, too), she rejoins fellow researchers who are equally dismayed by the current governmental edicts. Together, they work on their project. But at the same time, they secretly conjure up ways to subvert presidential dictates and the strictures put in place by the political party in power. Their work, interspersed by McClellan’s family dynamics, is the core of Vox’s plot.
More interesting, and more provocative, than the storyline of Dalcher’s novel, are the ways she describes the subtlety with which the silencing occurred. Many of the events that preceded Vox’s current edicts could be taken from today’s headlines. Women’s marches, to no avail. An incendiary “me, too” movement, igniting fear in men. The expansion of fundamental Christianity—“The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”—from red states to blue. Textbooks skewing young people’s minds. Other books are banned from libraries.
Yes, Dalcher exaggerates what might happen next in the United States. But Vox is a cautionary tale, one that any “impolite arrogant woman” might like to read. – Ann Ronald
Books available by Christina Dalcher: Master Class; Femlandia; Quotient.
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