Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review of The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

Short review: eco-feminist manifesto

Long review: I find myself at odds with the vast majority of the rhetoric in the contemporary political scene.  I shake my head in amazement and fear at many of the statements made by both mega-conservatives and extreme liberals.  I do not think a wall along the Mexican border is an answer to America’s immigration/financial problems, nor do I think gender is fluid, something possible to ignore or forget.  Regarding the latter, I’m mystified by voices which would have us all be pan-sexual—in physical form and in orientation.  Such voices seem to be ignoring key elements of being human, namely that we are first animals, secondly civilized, and that understanding and working with this hierarchy as best we can is the way forward, not pretending it doesn’t exist.  But this is just one of the main reasons Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2017 novel The Book of Joan is so damn intriguing.

Heavily introspective atavism in space, The Book of Joan focuses on the life of Christine, prisoner in a panopticon orbiting Earth.  Earth nearly destroyed by nuclear war, she is sexless, genderless, and has had her skin reduced to a papery white by exposure to radiation.  Watched day-in and day-out by affluent overseers in the station, she awaits her fiftieth birthday, a point at which her body will be recycled for its water.  That day fast approaching, Christine decides to write a chronicle of her experiences on Earth with the despot Jean de Mar, the man who played a strong role in bringing about the nuclear destruction, and Joan, the young woman who opposed him.  Christine tattooing the story on her body, it’s only appropriate the resulting perspective is likewise corporeal.

Thus while I blanche hearing some liberals admonish the disassembly of gender, The Book of Joan approaches the idea in a way that is highly commendable.  Stripped of her sexuality, Christine more closely represents a universal form of humanity, and given the atrocities wrecked upon Earth by Jean and his followers, appears as a cautionary—not in the fashion that “nuclear war will neuter humanity”, rather in the fashion that avoiding such atrocities is a concern universal to all humanity, a concern that transcends people regardless whether they are male or female. That, is an aspect of pan-sexuality which we can stand behind. 

Despite its transcendence of gender, The Book of Joan remains highly physical, corporeal novel.  If it isn’t the contours or texture of the body, then it’s sleep, defecation, masturbation, and other simple body functions which occur and recur.  Beyond the aesthetics of beauty and attraction, the animal form emerges—our hungers, pains, thirsts, physical desires, etc.  And it’s delivered in prose so heavy as to crush.  From prosaic to purple and back again, Amazon reviewer J Martin has it correct when they say “Many sentences, and even whole paragraphs, seem to exist for the sole purpose of showcasing the author's virtuosity and do little to drive the action”.  At the same time, the prose is often highly appropriate: the subject matter is heavy, and the tone matches. 

But if there is anything The Book of Joan struggles with it is building momentum.  The unrelenting corporeal focus does not allow for the dynamicism necessary to ebb and pull story along.  In fact, the gravitas is applied so uniformly as to make me believe the narrative would have been better rendered at novella length.  Doing so would have prevented the body of the text from dragging while still delivering its massive payload of a message.  And, it needs be said, the ending communicates this message in beautifully subtle fashion—the novel’s heart and mind.

There are a couple novels I’ve read thus far in 2017 that will be on the list I consider for best of the year, and this is one of them.

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