Lucy and Todd

Naomi Alderman–The Power

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 18, 2016 at 10:23 am

Teenage girls all over the world have suddenly developed electro-magnetic powers that can be unleashed on anybody who bugs them. The effect of these electrical jolts ranges from a tingly sensation to scarring, shock, pain, permanent disability, dismemberment and sometimes death. So girls have all the ‘power’ now. Older women soon start zapping too, and thereby move into high office and make millions. It is the end of patriarchy as we know it: almost overnight, women’s tolerance of bullying and sexual harassment sinks to zero, and men start dropping like flies. They now become the world’s cowering victims, servants, slaves and playthings. Men have to adapt swiftly to their new lowly status, and to kinky, often catastrophic, types of sex.

In this viciously topsy-turvy form of female supremacy, it’s men who aren’t allowed to drive cars or own businesses, men who are scared to walk around at night, men who can’t vote. They are the sex objects, reduced to abs, pecs and glutes, and called sluts. They probably multi-task too. Boys dress as girls, to seem more powerful. Obituaries of men focus on the famous women they’ve influenced. And an American TV anchorwoman is encouraged to wear glasses, to give her gravitas, while her much younger male counterpart, an airhead, is only allowed to report on things like apple-bobbing.

There’s a strenuous attempt to see the idea through its various ramifications (though it takes men an awfully long time to think of wearing more rubber). This is no feminist utopia, nor, despite a few amusing switcheroo moments, much of a satire. Power brings out the worst in Alderman’s women. They don’t pause for a second to suckle babies or make art or try living in harmony with nature or any of that soppy matriarchal jazz. All they seem interested in is rampaging, murdering, running drug cartels, appointing themselves pope, prez, queen and goddess, and generally being jerks.

This plot-driven horror fantasy only gets more crude, cruel and icky, providing an unending parade of gang-rape, eyeball destruction, fish electrocution, and many other sadistic forms of torture, including a kind of ritual male castration, equivalent to FGM, and the minutely detailed demise of a man torn limb from limb. Male supremacists, with the help of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, John Knox, Fathers4Justice and a jihadist or two, could not have written a more damning denunciation of female ascendancy than this.

Why did Alderman do it?

She’s got a fun sideline going in illustrations of archaeological finds, and the online misogynistic backlash is wholly believable. But Twitter trolls are just nerds — they’re dull. There’s far too much about religion, and the writing can be shaky: ‘Her face was dry like there was a stopper inside holding it all in.’ Any literary adventurousness cedes to saggy apocalyptic derring-do, with the good guys wandering the woods, using whatever technology they have left in an effort to evade maniacal matriarchs. It’s for kids. By the end of it all, you’d really rather men stayed in charge.

LE

This review appeared in the Spectator on Nov. 5, 2016

Colson Whitehead–Sag Harbor

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 18, 2016 at 10:13 am

The summer of 1985 is a halcyon one for Ben, 15, and his brother Reggie, 14, left alone in the family’s vacation house. The town of Sag Harbor, New York, is the plain face of “the Hamptons”, one of the weirder places on earth. In winter it is bleak potato farms, in summer the desk and playpen of writers, actors and arseholes from the world around: in Ben’s words, “the Hamptonite Undead”, who stop at nothing to satisfy their opulent summery urges.

Strange and brave that a community was founded here by black professionals from the city in the 1930s. “I’ll wager on this,” Ben says, “the sunsets closed the deal for that first generation … my grandparents and their crew … that first generation asked, Can we make it work? Will they allow us to have this? It doesn’t matter what the world says, they answered each other. This place is ours.”

Whitehead proves himself, among many other things, a poet of the American summer and its aspirations. In these cherished, toiled-for houses, Ben and his city friends live summer and adolescence parallel to the rest of the world. The place means everything to their parents, and to them. To let anything, even money worries, “interfere with Sag, your shit was seriously amiss”.

Within days of being left in charge, the two brothers have eaten all the frozen dinners they expected would sustain them. So Reggie throws himself on the mercy of Burger King and Ben gets a job at Jonni Waffle, a wonderful, nauseatingly evoked emporium of American dessert bilge – “the beginning of my exile from decent people”. Yet in Whitehead’s hands this place, reeking of burning sucrose, is the perfect theatre for every anxiety of puberty: monetary, digestive, racial, sexual and criminal.The nostalgia the young have for family things is acutely done: the dependable look of rakes in the basement, or how it feels to gather up your stuff at the chilly end of a day on the beach. And there is a guilty, haunted Ben who looks down on his maturing self from outside, a kid never allowed to forget he goes to a fancy white school – “most of the year it was like I’d been blindfolded and thrown down a well”.

Day to day, Ben broils in the anxiety of any 15-year-old: “The new handshakes were out, shaming me with their permutations and slippery routines. Slam, grip, flutter, snap. Or was it slam, flutter, grip, snap? … Devised in the underground soul laboratories of Harlem, pounded out in the blacker-than-thou sweatshops of the South Bronx, the new handshakes always had me faltering in embarrassment … I had all summer to get it right, unless someone went back to the city and returned with some new variation that spread like a virus, and which my strong dork constitution produced countless antibodies against.” For Ben is a dork. The musical currency in his milieu may be rap, but he listens to the Smiths (as well as alluding to his Dungeons & Dragons past – “a means of perpetuating virginity”).

But this remarkable novel goes far beyond gentle musings on awkward youth. This is Ben on the meaning, to him, of the cataclysmic shift from rap to hip-hop: “Something happened that changed the terms and we went from fighting (I’ll knock that grin off your face) to annihilation (I will wipe you from this Earth). How we got from here to there are the key passages in the history of young black men that no one cares to write. We live it instead.”

In this elegiac, spirited prose there are echoes of Melville, one of the first to write about Sag, and others, too: Thurber’s ability to celebrate a troubled family through satire, and Cheever’s melancholy geography of class. Compared with his own brilliantly stark, insinuating writing in The Colossus of New York, Whitehead’s language here is relaxed and playful, a tribute to youth. But Ben’s take on life is a fond, proud, nervy shout, and a triumph of rueful reason.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Guardian on May 16, 2009