By Naomi Alderman
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Here’s an unusual event: I’ve actually read the book of the moment within a calendar year of the moment itself!
I’m not a trendy soul, not in anything really. My tastes have never been fashionable, not in music, not in clothes, certainly not in books. My favorite authors are all dead: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, writers who chronicled different times in old-fashioned language.
I tend to cast a leery eye on contemporary fiction. To my mind, it has not yet been vetted, polished smooth by years of beloved readers, safely endorsed by generations. It is risky, it has a too-high likelihood of wasting your time, and with so much to read in this world, I am loathe to waste my reading time on books which may turn out bad.
But every once and a while, (and quite a bit lately, it feels like) I end up picking up a new and trendy book. And every once and a rarer while, I pick it up when it is still trendy. And so it has turned out with ‘The Power‘, which I grabbed in the airport in a panic, worried that I was going through my other books too quickly and wasn’t going to make it through my vacation with enough to read (this is a particularly bad way to choose a book: airport reading, like airport eating, is almost always junky).
‘The Power‘ supposes that women a power. It starts with young women, girls really, but young women can teach it to older women, and soon all women will have it. This power, which originates in a new organ, a string of muscular tissue between their shoulder blades, allows them to send electrical current out from their hands, injuring and even killing other people with it.
This power will completely reorder the world.
First will come liberation, freedom from the restraints and authorities of men.
Then will come revenge: riots, gangs of women will swarm through cities, finding male offenders and brutalizing them.
Then, finally, will come control. Women will take possession of a state, in Eastern Europe, and impose a set of state sanctions on men: all men must have an official female guardian, they will not have freedom of travel, they will have curfews.
I was deeply skeptical about ‘The Power‘ going in, and not just because it’s modern. I don’t usually go for gender war stories – I tend to find them over-simplifying. And ‘The Power’ threatened to simplify gender dynamics to the point of cretinousness: throngs of newly empowered women finding out men who traffic in sex slaves and roasting them alive.
But ‘The Power‘ is more than a novel of vengeance, more than just a imaginative bloodletting (although it does feel like that sometimes). It is a meditation on power, and on gender. It asks, and answers, the question, ‘Do men act brutally because they are men, or do they act brutally because they have power?’
Or, to put it another way, ‘Are men and women intrinsically different? Are their differences differences of morals, or differences of strength?”
Or, “Are women really any better than men?”
‘The Power‘ answers this question clearly and emphatically in the negative. Women in ‘The Power’ are no better than men, and, as they come to understand and coordinate their power, they will do to men, in short order, all the terrible things that men have done to them.
It’s always pleasant to read a book which agrees with your worldview. This is not less true for me just because my worldview is dark, nihilistic and grim. I like having my prejudices confirmed just as much as the next guy. And so I enjoyed ‘The Power’ the way one enjoys seeing one’s own dire predictions played out in fiction.
As I mentioned, ‘The Power‘ isn’t subtle. The metaphor is, well, it isn’t really a metaphor, is it? It’s a parable, crystal clear and morally direct. And I was prepared to be offended by the obviousness of the parable – I don’t like being talked down to by books.
However, sometimes the simpler a fictional moral problem is, the greater the force it has, and that is the case with ‘The Power‘ (this is also the case with the most rudimentary and effective moral tale of our time: ‘Star Wars’). The truth is, despite my initial skepticism and my sense of being insulted, ‘The Power’ landed on me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t even really notice how affected I was until I finished, until I put the book down and realized that I felt unsettled, implicated and guilty, contaminated by the things I had seen in the pages I just read.
I mean this as a compliment, an extremely high compliment. The ability to elicit an emotional reaction from your reader is one of the reasons for a novel existing, and not all novels wish to make you feel good. I feel pretty confident that Naomi Aldermen didn’t want me to feel good, maybe about anything, maybe ever again.
This is not a reason not to read her book! On the contrary, it is a reason to read it right away! Most grim-natured books don’t get it quite right, they aren’t emotionally effective somehow. They either swing too hard at your fear, or yank too hard at your heart strings, or build a world too bleak, marked by violence too frenzied.
‘The Power‘ doesn’t do this. It rarely over-plays its hand – there were only one or two moments in the entire book when I thought, ‘That might have been a little much’. Mostly, the book communicates not through violence but through a sense of building dread, of disaster rolling inexorably toward you, a hope that humanity will save itself and a sure knowledge in the pit of your stomach that the hope is vain. And when the storm finally breaks, you feel the confirmation as a low blow, not painful exactly, but dreadful.
Partly, Alderman does this through her use of spare, direct language. The ridiculous blurbs on the back of the book say garbage things like, “gorgeously written” (Ayelet Waldman) and “Will knock your socks off!” (Margaret Atwood, to whom Alderman is being compared – I suppose the comparison to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘, which is facile, is too easy to resist). This is nonsense – it is not gorgeously written – it is bleak, and effectively written, and that is much, much better:
“They start by rounding up the young man. They go tent to tent, pulling them down or setting them on fire so the occupants have to run out or burn. They’re not neat about it, not methodical. They’re looking for any halfway-decent-looking young man. She was right to send Tunde into the forest. A wife, or perhaps a sister, tries to stop them from taking the pale-skinned, curly-haired man who’s with her. She fights off two of them with precise and well-timed jolts to the chin and the temple. They overwhelm her easily, and kill her with a particular brutality. One of them grabs the woman by the hair and the other delivers a bolt directly through the woman’s eyes. Finger and thumb pressed against her eyeballs, the very liquid of them scrambled to a milky white. Even Roxy has to look away for a moment.” (p. 315)
As you can see, there is no hiding from prose like this. It’s unrelenting, and at the end you feel as though you’ve been chased down and forced to look at something ugly, and real, and all the uglier for being real.
But it’s highly worth doing – I’m glad that I did it. If there weren’t ugliness in the world, books like ‘The Power‘ wouldn’t have any effect at all. And as long as they are effective, that is a sure sign that we should be reading them.