The New York Times recently ran an animated ad online that featured a blinking cursor spelling out the words “He said” followed by “She said. She said. She said.” Ad infinitum. The ad, of course, was in reference to #MeToo, a feminist movement of truth-telling about sexual harassment and assault. Perhaps not coincidentally, there has also recently been a steady rise in post-apocalyptic/dystopian books that feature control over some aspect(s) of female reproduction. But these literary efforts have not been entirely lauded.
In a recent, mostly-positive review of Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks in The Chicago Tribune, Kathleen Rooney pondered the issue of Handmaid’s Tale burnout: “How much feminist dystopic fiction can audiences read?” Ron Charles of The Washington Post echoed Rooney’s sentiments in his review of Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God: “But do we need another novel that reenacts the grim obstetrical control of The Handmaid’s Tale?” To be clear, Charles’s beef in the review isn’t really with the presence of “grim obstetrical control” in the novel, his concerns have more to do with elements like pacing, writing style, and character. But his question—and Rooney’s—point to relevant concerns, especially in the age of #MeToo: do dystopian novels that feature “grim obstetrical control” run the risk of feeling derivative, the equivalent of a cursor repeating “she said” into eternity? Will readers of these works suffer dystopia burnout and turn to quiet domestic dramas instead? Do these novels have the potential to strengthen or reinforce the #MeToo movement without feeling didactic? And if so, how?
It’s true that dystopian/apocalyptic conceits have the potential to feel very derivative: a book published next year about women possessed with electrostatic power would feel like a wanna-be version of Naomi Alderman’s The Power; a novel about changing skin tone to reflect criminal behavior would be a too-close-for-comfort copy of When She Woke; even Erdrich’s concoction of evolution accelerating in reverse, if repeated, would feel redundant. But “grim obstetrical control” is not a speculative premise, it’s a setting that reiterates a current and historical social predicament.
While The Handmaid’s Tale often feels other-worldly, Margaret Atwood has explained on numerous occasions that none of the travails of the women in her dystopic novel were fabricated; all of the misogynistic events occurred at some point in history. Nevertheless, mandatory red cloaks or ritualized procreation on behalf of infertile women still seems, especially for more privileged readers, to be events at the bottom of a very slippery slope and not situations we might find ourselves in next Thursday.
Enter: Red Clocks. It isn’t speculative or post-apocalyptic, and although some reviewers have labeled it dystopian, Zumas herself refers to it as “paratopian.” Regardless, it reaffirms the idea of “grim obstetrical control” as setting rather than speculative premise by placing the characters in a world only three laws away from our own: abortion has been repealed, in vitro fertilization is illegal, and, imminently, adoptions will require two parents. To make matters worse, there’s a “Pink Wall” separating Canada from the United States, and Canadian officials who suspect minors of crossing the border to abort their pregnancies can return them to their homes to face criminal charges. This “grim obstetrical future” is not months or years away. It is not a cumulative snowball effect of the religious right slowly taking hold of our ovaries; Red Clocks is terrifying because the setting could be tomorrow.
We don’t need more novels about “grim obstetrical control” in order to expose the possible reality of the sexual subjugation of women; we need these novels because, like the #MeToo movement, they expose a setting that has felt invisible and unacknowledged for centuries. If “grim obstetrical control” is the setting rather than the speculative premise, then asking whether we need another The Handmaid’s Tale is a little bit like asking whether we need another novel about WWII. Many of us might not choose to read another novel about WWII but we’d never suggest that Nazis were a speculative trope that’s been used up.
This distinction, between setting and speculative premise, matters. Readers look to the speculative premise, often a conceit, as the meaning-making centrifuge of dystopian books. Setting, on the other hand, is more likely to be an arbiter of the novel’s mood or context for a character’s identity (though we can all certainly think of exceptions). So to see “grim obstetrical control” as speculative premise, and thus the meaning-making force of these books, is to risk missing the more profound offerings of each.
In Erdrich’s book, for instance, while Cedar Hawn Songmaker’s pregnancy is central to the narrative and the “grim obstetrical control” setting puts her and her growing fetus in danger, it’s her complicated relationship to religion that makes Cedar’s journey compelling. She is a recent Catholic convert (much to the chagrin of her hippie adoptive parents) and edits a Catholic magazine called Zeal. When the novel commences Cedar is at work on an issue on the Incarnation; meanwhile, her baby is due (and, spoiler alert, is born) on December 25. She and her lover conceive the baby while trying on nativity costumes in a church basement (he wears the angel wings) and Cedar takes comfort in religion at various times—mouthing Hail Marys and the words of Hildegard of Bingen. On the other hand, the religious right has renamed all of the street signs after Bible verses and leads the “grim obstetrical control” charge, rounding up pregnant women and imprisoning them (and often disposing of them after the birth). Cedar’s Ojibwe birth mother, who she meets near the beginning of the novel, is responsible for tending a statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, patron saint of Native people. The figure of Kateri has been appearing on the reservation, not to pious believers but to feckless gamblers whom she chastises rather severely. Religion provides both comfort and harm, fodder for philosophical musings and justification for violent subjugation; the nativity looms as a larger parallel story but the analogous actors Erdrich provides are flawed, unwilling, and deeply human. “Maybe God has some plan for me,” muses Cedar near the end of the novel. But then: “I crawl back onto my cot, and at the very notion of God Has a Plan, I start laughing so hard I have to stuff the edge of a blanket in my mouth.” To miss this dexterous, complicated, unflinching portrait of religion is, I think, to miss one of the central dynamics of Cedar’s character and one of the great strengths of the novel.
Similarly, although the new misogynistic laws of Red Clocks certainly provide some of the tension in the book, to relegate the novel to a parable about the overturning of Roe v. Wade is to do the book a huge injustice. The five women in the novel struggle with myriad philosophical, ethical, and emotional issues: one character is caught between biological instinct and political conviction; another wrestles with notions of love and vocation; one woman faces feelings of guilt while another confronts grief. All of them wonder, in some way, what makes a life significant, specifically a woman’s life. And they grapple with how romantic relationships—or the true desire for solitude—relegate us to certain roles within our society. The political setting is not the purpose of the book but it does heighten the tension and increase the urgency of the characters’ choices. The decision to stay happily single, for instance, takes on different weight when this means you’ll be barred from adopting a child. Revealing a teenage friend’s pregnancy becomes more significant when the result may be years of incarceration. Though these dire settings raise the emotional stakes and intensify the choices of the characters in both Future Home and Red Clocks, they are not, ultimately, what the books are about.
In her review of Red Clocks, Rooney further clarifies her concern about the onslaught of feminist dystopic fiction: “readers,” she cautions, “might find it redundant to be immersed in fiction that so closely resembles nightmares that already feel too present.” Donald Trump fatigue is certainly an important issue, and the inundation of stories from the #MeToo movement can feel disheartening because they point to a real setting, but one that is slippery and sometimes invisible. They point to acts that happen in dark rooms or closed offices or to comments so subtle and insidious that others can pretend to mishear. Novels that feature “grim obstetrical control” as setting make the invisible visible. They offer the relief of seeing plainly on the page what many women have felt for centuries, a vision that might be simply one step down a slippery slope or the horrible wreckage at the bottom. But they do not suggest that ultimate meaning is to be found in the setting, in the subjugation and disenfranchisement; rather, it’s to be found in characters who act bravely, wisely, foolishly, repugnantly, resiliently against the backdrop of this reality.