Book of the Month: Vox by Christina Dalcher
review by Emma Watson
Following in the red-caped footsteps of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Christine Dalcher brings us Vox: a dystopian USA, where women are only allowed to speak one hundred words per day. Any more, and volts of electricity will course through their veins.
Much like The Handmaiden’s Tale, Vox reads like a warning: socio-political ignorance and complacency will be our downfall. The novel alternates between Dr Jean McClellan’s life now as a stay at home mother of four and her life as a neurolinguistics student at Georgetown (Dalcher’s alma mater). Having been forced to relinquish her academic job in favour of a Stepford Wives existence, Jean is clearly dissatisfied and frustrated by her new life. Who can blame her? She is a highly educated women, reduced to one hundred words per day. Jean is therefore ideally placed to offer a complex and insightful response to a life with restricted speech. Yet, Dalcher’s dialogue is insipid, and she fails to take advantage of Jean’s potential to inspire.
Early on in the novel, we learn that as a graduate student, Jean’s best friend and flatmate is the tenacious and radical, Jackie: Vox’s very own Cassandra who predicts the rigid patriarchy and limited female agency that is to come. While Jackie wages war on campus, marching and protesting for women’s rights, Jean is ‘Bubble Girl’, busy holed up in the library or shacked up with her new boyfriend. Either way, Dalcher presents Jean as politically apathetic. Rather than engage or even fight against external threats, she prefers to architect an insular and internal life, decidedly blocking out anything unsavoury. In our digital age, Jean’s ‘Bubble Girl’ persona is relatable; when everything is easily accessible at the tip of our fingers, it is incredibly easy to say no. No to that march or no to that protest, because years of scrolling and swiping and following have taught us that there will be another march and there will be another protest. Nevertheless, Dalcher raises a valid point: ‘you can’t protest what you don’t see coming’.
"It begs the question: what would you say?"
Yet, you can arguably see what’s coming in Vox. This might be a result of my own cynicism or the fact that I’ve read a lot of feminist dystopia, but the novel suffers from an endemic case of derivativeness. Firstly, resembling Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, in which lesbians or so-called ‘gender traitors’ such as Offred’s friend, Moira are sent to the radioactive Colonies as slave labour, Dalcher’s dystopian world sees Jackie sent to a conversion camp as punishment for homosexuality and confined to a life of silence.
Secondly, whilst electricity for Alderman represents the ‘power’ that women emit through their hands (which, in turn, triggers a matriarchal revolution), Dalcher rewrites electricity as the tool with which oppressive patriarchy can quite literally limit the female voice. Dalcher’s dystopia is also too similar to the USA today to stand on its own within the so-called ‘fem-dyst’ genre. For one, the conservative President and his former model wife are clearly a like-for-like Trump and Melania. Then, there is the weirdly charismatic pastor-villain character who could be the love-child of the Southern Baptist preacher, Billy Graham who argued that Christ intended women for home and hearth, and the tele-evangelist pastor, Joel Osteen.
Oppressive patriarchy is pervasive in Vox, having infiltrated the bastion of womanhood: the home. For example, it is Jean’s husband, Patrick who ‘carries the keys around like a weight’ to cupboards filled with books Jean and her daughter, Sonia are forbidden to read. A less stressed yet pertinent aspect of Dalcher’s dystopia is that women are banned from both speaking and reading. As a linguist herself, Dalcher focuses on the consequences of stagnated speech development, especially in the case of Sonia. Yet, she fails to explore the consequences of female illiteracy, which would surely be as damning and catastrophic. While Patrick seems an impassive custodian of the keys, it is his eldest son, Steven, who champions the ‘Pure Men’ ideology. This is, put simply, an ultra-Christian extremism that, for Dalcher, finds its origins in the ‘Bible Belt’ Deep South of the USA. Evoking a kind of Hitler Youth crusader, Steven has been indoctrinated to believe a misogynistic strain of Christianity, where the only path for women is to marry and procreate. This is, of course, pending the woman is a virgin when she gets married. Premarital sex is not only taboo, it is punishable. This is what Steven’s neighbour, Julia, finds out after sleeping with him. So insidious is the ‘Pure Men’ ideology that Steven believes it is his civic duty to inform on the girl he likes. In this way, Dalcher touches on broader concepts of gender equality and religious extremism. Yet, her attempts to put a mirror up to our society to incite change are unsubtle at best.
In the style of Vox, I’ve summarised the novel in under one hundred words…
‘Female dystopia’ is certainly a buzzword today and with the likes of The Handmaiden’s Tale, Vox is in good company. Yet, whilst Atwood transcends socio-political changes over the past thirty years, this reader doubts Vox’s staying power. For a novel titled the Latin for ‘voice’, it ironically suffers from clunky dialogue and largely forgetful or derivative characters. Not dissimilar to a glossy TV script, Vox reads like a daydream Dalcher had after watching Elisabeth Moss’ Offred. It is more shiny than solid, with the plot secondary to its provocative dystopian concept. It certainly begs the question: what would you say?
Emma is London-based with a Masters in French literature and an unwavering love for hot chocolate.