You may not remember this, but 2016 was kind of a wild time. The US election in November, which was expected to be a mere formality before the inauguration of the first female president, instead saw the nomination go to a former reality TV show host who had been repeatedly caught bragging about committing sexual assault. The juxtaposition of these events led to what political scientists refer to as a Big Mood.
Two years later, enough time has passed for the arrival of post-Trump literature, and the first one I laid my hands on was Christina Dalcher’s Vox, a much-ballyhooed bestseller described somewhat confusingly on a front cover endorsement as a “re-imagining of the Handmaid’s Tale”, implying some sort of direct connection between the two works (there isn’t one).
In case my use of the word “ballyhooed” didn’t give it away, I did not like it very much.
An indeterminate time in the near future and following a critical election, America has been hijacked by the Pure movement, an ultra-fundamentalist regime bent on returning the country to a time when men were men and women stayed at home and popped out babies. As part of this vision, women are restricted to speaking one hundred words a day, enforced by a bracelet that will deliver an increasingly-painful zap of electricity every time they go over the limit.
Protagonist Gene is a neurologist whose ground-breaking work on aphasia was halted moments before completion by the arrival of the Pures. When the president’s brother suffers a brain injury that scrambles his ability to speak, Gene is temporarily granted a reprieve from homemaking to finish her research. But the whole “the president’s brother got a bump on the noggin and came down with the exact condition you were moments away from curing” situation is exactly as unlikely as it sounds, and it turns out there’s more going on than meets the eye. After coming into contact with an underground resistance, Gene is perfectly placed to help them bring down the new regime.
If that plot synopsis sounds a little, well…stupid, then you’ve identified Vox’s primary flaw.
From the beginning, the book suffers from an identity crisis. It wants to be a dark, gritty meditation on misogyny and religious terror where gay people are locked up in cells with the opposite sex until they “get the idea” and where teenage girls who have sex before marriage are torn away from their parents, publicly humiliated for hours on live TV and then shipped off to a nunnery to spend the rest of their lives in silent, back-breaking labour. It’s not shy about its source of inspiration; Gene regularly talks about the militantly feminist college roommate who urged her to read a certain unnamed novel that “everyone was talking about” as a glimpse into the dystopian future awaiting America women if they didn’t stand against the rising tide of misogyny (they didn’t).
But it also wants to be—or at least is—a pulpy adventure story where the heroine takes on the unstoppable bad guys with her magic science juice and has a dangerous affair with a hot Italian scientist. I’m not saying it would be impossible to blend these two approaches gracefully, but Vox doesn’t. A story supposedly taking place in sober, depressing reality shouldn’t feature an aphasia treatment that consists of a mysterious “serum” that cures the condition instantly, as opposed to the neurosurgery and intensive speech therapy that would probably be used in the real world. The villains should definitely not then reverse-engineer said serum into a water-soluble chemical weapon to permanently rob their enemies of speech.
Yes, that happens. It’s technically a big spoiler, but the twist is so obvious I’m just going to reveal it up-front.
I knew I wasn’t going to get along with this book from the very beginning, where the shock-counters feel like a jarringly out of place sci-fi element in the middle of what is otherwise a completely realistic—even plausible—setting. The lengths that the Pure regime go to stop women speaking too much feels completely ludicrous; they even have cameras set up to catch sign-language or written notes, such is the terrifying power of women’s voices.
I assume you’ve caught the subtext there. It seems obvious that Vox was born (or at least brought to its current form) in the boundless optimism following the women’s marches of early 2017, which were hailed by many (including a certain very intelligent and good-looking blogger) as a big deal and a triumphant rebuttal to Trump’s rise. Anyone listening to people of colour at the time would have heard their concerns about the framing of the Trump election as being a fight between feminism and resurgent misogyny; two years later, it feels even more irresponsible to cast the primary concern of this era of American history as anything other than race.
Before anyone misunderstands me, I'm not trying to downplay Trump and his followers' odious misogyny, or the very real threats to things like reproductive rights that could come about, either directly or indirectly, as a result of his presidency. And that's to say nothing of the immediate and on-going danger he poses to trans women. But Trump primarily rode to power on a wave of racism and xenophobia; his biggest victims, and those still in greatest danger, are Americans and immigrants of colour.
The book is clearly aware of this on some level, parachuting in a black resistance operative to give Gene a thorough dressing down for her white feminism tendencies and predict that the Pure movement will turn on people of colour as soon as they have the general population firmly under control. But far from alleviating these concerns, this bandaid only makes them stand out more (and makes me wonder why this person isn't the protagonist, as she comes off as way more interesting than Gene in her short amount of page-time).
All of this starts to feel magnitudes of order more troubling when we're introduced to Gene's chinese colleague, who is really diminutive and small, oh so very small, absolutely tiny (you guys she's small, do you get it).
But okay, social justice complaints aside, how is the actual book?
It's not great.
Gene herself is kind of a black hole as far as characterization goes. We're told that she was politically apathetic prior to the election that got the Pures in power, to the point that she didn't even vote (although she's also still driving around with a bumper sticker supporting the liberal candidate a year later--one of several instances where the novel could have done with another editing pass), and then afterwards she becomes angry and radicalized, and...none of it feels earned or set up. We don't really know why Gene ignored the political situation for so long, and her current rage at the new regime seems to be driven mostly by the ways it impacts her personally.
Also, she's just kind of unpleasant. Despite standing up for women's rights, she constantly makes snide or nasty remarks about other women and has incredibly old-fashioned and judgemental attitudes about things like sex work. This could have been an asset instead of a flaw, showing how even the stark reality of an anti-woman regime can't erase unexamined sexist attitudes and internalized misogyny, but I never felt like I got to know her enough to figure out why she thought this way, or even to what extent these were her own thoughts and not the unconscious biases of the author.
The rest of the cast doesn't fare much better. Gene's husband is a wet noodle who turns out to be secretly working with the resistance, which doesn't make him any more of a wet noodle. Two of her five children have such little impact on the story that I kept forgetting they were there. Her Italian lover is hot and sensuous and willing to publicly stick it to the man, and not much else. All of the villains are one-dimensional, moustache-twirling cartoons. She has a seventeen year old son who becomes a proper little Hitler Youth member for the Pure movement, but the book isn't interested in exploring why or how this process of indoctrination occurs, and the whole thing ends up being setup for his collaboration with the regime blowing up in his face.
The only glimmer of interest to be found comes from Gene's six year old daughter and the ways Gene tries to keep her out of trouble while maintaining her childish innocence--for example, by keeping the wrist counter's actual function a secret and turning the word limit into a game. These interactions put Gene at a sadistic crossroads, as keeping little Sonia out of harm's way means basically capitulating to the Pure edict that girls should be silent homemakers. Instead of facing this dilemma with a badass display of courage or resistance, she muddles through it and makes mistakes and chooses easy short-term solutions that she fully realizes are going to come back to bite her later.
All of this is much more compelling than the daft voice-stealing supervillain plot that the story is primarily concerned with, and it also drives home the horror of the setting far more effectively. The only part of the book I found genuinely chilling was the scene where Sonia comes home, bubbling over with excitement, over having won a competition to see which student at her all-girl school could get through the day with the least spoken words. The zero on her wrist counter shocked me far more than any of the more over the top, violent fates that befall various girls and women elsewhere in the book.
I alluded to it a moment ago, but Vox's biggest stumbling point is that its story is just kind of silly. Cheesy soap opera twists--someone becomes inconveniently pregnant, a grandmother has a stroke at the worst possible time--pile up and are then largely discarded without consequence, and the science-fiction angle becomes more and more absurd as the story goes on.
The book's nadir (and the part that made me stop reading--no, I didn't finish it) comes when, in the span of a single morning, Gene a) discovers that her son has ran away from home, b) works out that her husband is helping the resistance and c) witnesses his resistance contact being tased and dragged off by government goons right outside their house. Her reaction to all of this was so unbelievably low-key that I realized the book was going to hang on to the cosy status quo it had established twenty chapters earlier for dear life.
There are also some parts of the world building that make no sense. This normally wouldn't bother me too much, but if a book is going to spend as much time on setting detail as Vox does, it could at least make sure the setting feels plausible. I've already talked about how the Pure regime's hyper-specific focus on women's speech feels implausible, but then you've also got things like foreign women temporarily resident in the US for work or study--such as Gene's tiny, diminutive, small-breasted Chinese coworker--being prevented from leaving so they can be subjected to the regime's draconian policies. Wars have been started over much less than this, but in the world of Vox no foreign governments seem to have reacted to their citizens being held hostage by religious loons.
There's obviously a place in the market right now for books like Vox . Another one also being compared to The Handmaid's Tale --Leni Zumas' Red Clocks --came out earlier this year. But Vox goes to show that no amount of timely relevance can overcome problems with fundamental elements of storytelling and characterization.