Saturday 22 September 2018

A dystopian tale that flirts with Trump's reality

Fiction: Red Clocks, Leni Zumas, Borough Press, paperback, 355 pages, €12.99

Hailed as a feminist classic: the power of Leni Zumas's story lies in its plausibility
Hailed as a feminist classic: the power of Leni Zumas's story lies in its plausibility
Red Clocks

Tanya Sweeney

Leni Zumas's third novel imagines an America where abortion is illegal and IVF banned, and is told through the four protagonists' deeply personal stories.

There's a very good reason that dystopian fiction is having A Moment. In these economically and politically capricious times, dystopian fiction enables readers to imagine a terrible and dark timeline, albeit one in which the seeds of possibility are already visible. The Handmaid's Tale, published in 1985 and revitalised with a TV series (and new political climate) last year, took the idea of women as vessels of procreation and ran all the way to the badlands of Gilead with it. Orwell conceived 1984 as the sceptre of the Soviet Union loomed large, and it's managed to seem every bit as prescient in the years since. Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror TV series imagines existences in which the currently simmering threats of technology finally boil over. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower carry a similar invigorating, urgent power. It allows for a wildly imaginative story that's part political statement, part warning, and part worst-case scenario.

In Leni Zumas's third book, Red Clocks, the action unfolds in a small fishing village in Oregon. Two years previously, the US Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty and property to a fertilised egg at the moment of conception. This means that abortion is illegal across the US: abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, while those who seek abortions can be charged with conspiracy to commit murder. For Irish readers, this scenario doesn't exactly require much stretch of the imagination. Yet Zumas pushes the premise in an even bolder direction, speculating on the outcome were a president with megalomaniacal and misogynistic tendencies be allowed to push through with the courage of his convictions. IVF is now banned, as embryos can't consent to their transfer from laboratory to uterus. A technician who accidentally drops an embryo during an in-vitro transfer is now guilty of manslaughter, while the new president decrees that women who experience miscarriages are required to pay for funerals for the foetal tissue. And with this new world order comes a new law: Public Law 116-72, otherwise known as Every Child Needs Two (parents). This immediately puts paid to unmarried persons adopting children.

These laws affect four women: the Biographer, a single teacher trying in vain to have a child; the Daughter, an adopted 15-year-old who is academically promising yet finds herself pregnant; the Mender, the distributor of 'termination herbs' who is put on trial in a latter-day witch-hunt; the Wife, a mother-of-two trapped in a domestic purgatory of her own making. Their stories soon overlap - the Wife and the Biographer are friends, slightly resentful of the other's existence. The Daughter, who has just seen her friend jailed after an attempted termination, soon seeks out the services of the Mender. Interspersed throughout the stories is the life story of Eivor Minervudottir, a 19th-century polar explorer who the Biographer is writing about.

There's no doubt that Red Clocks benefits greatly not just from the current voguish wave of feminist dystopia, but from its sheer plausibility. There is no moment of terror or apocalypse, as there is in The Handmaid's Tale (although comparisons between the two books, not to mention Naomi Alderman's The Power, are inevitable). Here, the legislation is almost passed under cover of darkness (Zumas has pointed out that the details from this new world order came in part from actual proposals mooted by US government officials).

And where other dystopian writers are architects of a new world and fierce climate of doom from the ground up, Zumas's is - save for the recent law changes - instantly recognisable as the modern-day US. In what is presumably a not-so-subtle nod to Trump, there's even a 'pink wall', which cuts Canada off as a safe haven for women.

Save for a few boilerplate details, each woman in Red Clocks is relatable by the foibles and challenges that visit most modern woman. Yet while each character has their own vivid interiorities, it takes a while to fully drop into their lives. Zumas flits from vignette to vignette, rarely giving us enough details to grasp on to before we're spirited off to the next character. It's not until later in the book that the women's names are used - referring to them as 'Daughter', 'Wife' or 'Biographer' is a canny, if slightly wearying, device that hits home how women are labelled.

Perhaps in side-stepping expository writing, Zumas has swung the other way, making the reader work that little bit harder to make the jigsaw pieces fit together. It can be disorienting from the outset: off-putting, occasionally. Yet readers who persist and wade through the slightly murky beginning are rewarded in spades.

Zumas soon finds her stride and divines a line between lingering, descriptive passages and propelling the plot forward.

For a novel with such a striking political and feminist premise, the women's stories run deeply personal. Zumas reportedly based the experience of Ro (the Biographer) on her own experiences of undergoing fertility treatment, and it's a narrative arc that rings true. The love/hate relationship between her and Susan (the Wife) is also brilliantly relatable.

Red Clocks has already been hailed as a dystopian feminist classic for a new generation, set to invigorate the minds and political hearts of a new wave of readers. Certainly, it's provocative, complex and richly textured. But it won't strike stone-cold terror into the heart like Atwood's wretched Gilead. Nor will it be a fantastical page-turner like Alderman's The Power. Rather, the power of Red Clocks lies in its ordinariness and plausibility, which goes doubly for Irish readers. On whether this makes it an even more unsettling read than its forebears, the jury is out.

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