Beyond extremes comes delusion
The Carhullan Army By Sarah Hall Faber & Faber, 224pp, $ 29.95
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.