I had a random encounter with a stranger because of this book. This isn’t something that normally happens to me but a woman approached me because of what I was reading. During a short train ride this weekend, I was rushing to finish my chapter before I got off at the final stop. Prompting a fellow passenger to tell me I’d have to finish it later. She then informed me that she’d recently bought the book for her daughter but she hadn’t read it yet. I’m not used to this happening because I’m always fearful of popular fiction. Meaning I’m not normally reading books that are topping the best sellers lists. That wasn’t supposed to sound like such a weird and patronising brag. I just mean, I’m normally met with blank stares or bemused nods when someone spies the cover of my current read.
Imagine a world in which religious zealots take control of the President of the United States and carefully change the landscape of gender politics. That is the situation the women of America find themselves in during Christina Dalcher’s Vox. All have been fitted with a counter that allows them to speak only 100 words a day or they receive increasingly powerful electric shocks. Unable to read, write, or even use sign language, women are relegated to the traditional roles of subservient wives and mothers. When a chance event gives an ex scientist her chance to change everything, will Dr Jean McClellan find a way to change her fate?
Margaret Atwood has a lot to answer for. The Handmaid’s Tale changed the literary landscape in 1985 and, thanks to the recent and timely television adaptation, has started a trend in fiction. That trend? Feminist dystopias. We’ve had such a huge run of these types of books over the last few years and it’s definitely not stopping any time soon. I have to be honest, I’m done. The problem with over-saturating the market with a certain genre is that it leads to inevitable sensationalism and we all know that exaggeration isn’t the kind of thing to help you win an argument. Like the time I hangrily messaged my university housemates telling them whoever had finished the cheese had “ruined” my lunch. All it did was ruin any potential argument I may have had about sharing and just made me look like an idiot.
Vox is Dalcher’s angry cheese message. Yes, it might come from a valid place but it fell apart from the moment she started writing. It may have started as a way to persuade people to stand up and make their voices heard but it quickly descends into something else. This is just another book in a long list of feminist torture porn. The kind of books that go above and beyond to imagine a myriad of horrible things that its female characters can be subjected to. And I know I know. Dystopia doesn’t mean cute and fluffy but it’s getting so extreme. There are so many terrible things happening to women throughout the world at the moment that, really, we don’t need to think about what might happen in the future. If you want people to stand up and fight then just use what’s going on around you. This book doesn’t even try to start a narrative about taking away someone’s voice. There’s the issue of consent on top of that. All used for to shock but never developed.
This is just an experiment in just how unsubtle a writer can be when trying to make an important point. It’s all about grabbing headlines and getting people’s attention. Beyond the premise, the novel is ham-fisted. It blunders its way to an ending that even the laziest Hollywood action film writer would have shaken their head at. It’s a massive cliché. I mean that final scene is straight out of a Roger Moore James Bond film. It’s pathetic, rushed, and badly written. It feels as though she is using the same kind of tactics as her characters to get her point across. If this is a book hoping to get people engaged in politics then it does so by repeating it over and over and over whilst adding nothing to the narrative. It makes me angry that a book that tries this little is being hailed as an important piece of political writing. It isn’t.
But, I can’t deny that it’s gripping. I’ve always loved a cheesy action film and this is the cheesiest thing I’ve read in a long time. If you want to encourage women to start voting, then either show them a newspaper or just go back to Atwood. We’ve reached the pinnacle of feminist dystopia. Can we all agree to stop trying to beat it? Maybe we should write something hopeful? Something that shows us a better way of living? Something to help us get through the real times.