Be­yond ex­tremes comes delu­sion

The Carhul­lan Army By Sarah Hall Faber & Faber, 224pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Daniel Stacey

THERE is a genre of dystopian fiction fo­cused on gen­der that needs to be brought to ac­count, and for lack of a bet­ter term prob­a­bly de­serves to be called fem­i­nist nar­cis­sism. Rang­ing from Mar­garet Atwood’s earnest col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, The Tent , to Doris Less­ing’s more hu­mor­ous and spiky The Cleft , th­ese sto­ries cel­e­brate the phys­i­cal and men­tal strengths of women by cre­at­ing sce­nar­ios in which they can be con­trasted against the flaws of men, flaws that are posed in ridicu­lous ex­tremes, ex­ploded be­yond their real di­men­sions, made ab­so­lute, over­bear­ing, in­escapable, ter­ri­fy­ing and grotesque.

Th­ese works are about pre­sent­ing ab­so­lute eth­i­cal an­swers to ques­tions of gen­der and power by am­pli­fy­ing and car­i­ca­tur­ing so­cial ills, in­stead of ap­proach­ing sub­tle mod­ern in­equal­i­ties head on. As a strat­egy for a novel of ideas, this for­mula is too easy and too tired.

In the most re­cent ex­am­ple of this trend, Sarah Hall’s The Carhul­lan Army, a peak oil cri­sis and a dash of global warm­ing has set Bri­tish so­ci­ety cir­cling the drain: misog­y­nist dic­ta­tor­ship re­sults. Women are forced to have con­tra­cep­tive coils sur­gi­cally in­serted to con­trol pop­u­la­tion growth as part of the re­con­struc­tion process. From the coils hang wires so that thug­gish mon­i­tors can gawp at vagi­nas to check that the de­vices have not been taken out, a brutish hu­mil­i­a­tion car­ried out on the street, in the work­place and in the back of po­lice cruis­ers.

A rene­gade band of women have formed a prim­i­tivist com­mune in the high­lands near Rith, a small rural town­ship in north­ern Eng­land. A wo­man from the town, sim­ply called Sis­ter, flees Rith to reach the com­mune, at which point the novel turns into a mix­ture of rus­tic en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist man­i­festo and erotic les­bian fiction, set to an omi­nous back­drop of ab­stract, brood­ing mas­cu­line author­ity.

‘‘ Fifty per cent of the world’s fe­male pop­ula- tion were get­ting raped; the fa­nat­ics had the rest bound up in black,’’ opines the com­mune’s leader, Jackie Nixon, of the out­side world, con­trolled by what is by now sim­ply known as the Author­ity, a dic­ta­to­rial gov­ern­ment run by the For­ward Party.

De­spite our so­ci­ety’s as­ton­ish­ingly adap­tive level of tech­no­log­i­cal change and in­no­va­tion, de­spite our high lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion, de­spite the rapid and demo­cratic ex­change of ideas in which we are all in­deli­bly bound as part of the fab­ric of our glo­ri­ous mod­ern lives, this is sup­pos­edly a chill­ing po­ten­tial fu­ture that awaits us. That men would will­ingly ac­qui­esce in such a night­mare fu­ture is un­ques­tion­able. It’s what we want af­ter all, isn’t it?

The an­swer of course is no, and the an­ti­dote is for read­ers to stop sto­ically nod­ding their heads at the of­fen­sive para­noid fan­tasies of mis­an­thropic fem­i­nists ev­ery time they start obliquely ham­mer­ing home their sex­ist delu­sions about the es­sen­tially sub­hu­man na­ture of man.

The equiv­a­lent would be a dystopian novel about a fu­ture where women have taken over and have forced men to work end­less hours for lit­tle or no pay to sup­port their var­i­ous friv­o­lous pas­times. Men flee to the hills and form a spe­cial com­mune, free from their mon­strous over­lords, where they can work less and spend their leisure time en­gag­ing in rea­soned de­bate and guilt- free gay sex. Mean­while, the fe­male dic­ta­tor­ship con­tin­ues to run so­ci­ety into the ground. Re­la­tion­ship coun­selling be­comes com­pul­sory and dou­bles as a form of state mind con­trol, trans­form­ing men into dis­ori­ented sex­ual lap­dogs. Those who don’t com­ply are deemed emo­tional ter­ror­ists and liq­ui­dated. Men live in fear, in guilt, work­ing re­lent­lessly for the pur­suit of a form of hap­pi­ness that is never de­fined for them, at­tend­ing end­less state ther­apy work­shops where they are bom­barded with lita­nies of self­im­prove­ment projects by chif­fon­wrapped dem­a­gogues.

The book could be called The Blokes Brigade and act as a story about the tri­umph of the beau­ti­ful male spirit over the harsh and vi­cious en­ergy of the world of women.

Flip­pancy aside, there will al­ways be a place for nar­ra­tives ex­plor­ing ex­treme sce­nar­ios of op­pres­sion of women by men, it’s just that talk­ing about the prob­lem of gen­der equal­ity shouldn’t be a li­cence to treat fel­low hu­mans like a con­fed­er­acy of vi­cious sim­ple­tons and bar­bar­ians whose main of­fer­ing to the lives of women, when ev­ery­thing is tal­lied up, is that of an im­mutable source of op­pres­sion, threat and evil. Hall’s novel has merit for its at­tempts to look at some of the more sin­is­ter sides of the fe­male psy­che, to delve into what one char­ac­ter refers to as dark tourism: ‘‘ what holds peo­ple back. And what doesn’t. And how far th­ese things ex­tend.’’ But largely its approach to gen­der feels like car­i­ca­ture. Daniel Stacey is a Lon­don- based lit­er­ary critic, writer and mag­a­zine ed­i­tor.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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