In ‘Vox,’ women’s silence should speak volumes
The jacket copy of “Vox,” the buzzy speculative fiction debut of eminent linguist Christina Dalcher, includes no fewer than three references to Margaret Atwood and her seminal novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The comparison is inevitable enough that Dalcher includes a nod, when her protagonist, neurolinguist Dr. Jean McClellan, recalls reading the back cover of an unnamed dystopian novel before her own world went full Gilead. Jean dismissed the premise outright: “This would never happen. Ever. Women wouldn’t put up with it.”
In Dalcher’s near-future United States, women don’t get much say. They’ve been effectively silenced by a theocratic government controlled by the puritan, misogynist Pure Movement. “This is how things are now: We have allotments of one hundred words a day.”
Women and girls – even small children – are fitted with metal bracelets that track their word count and shock them if they go over. They’re also sequestered from reading material and removed from the work force. Unless of course they break the law – then they provide labor as prisoners.
Before the Pure Movement took over, Jean was complacent, happy to leave politics to others while she focused on developing a cure for aphasia – a language impairment caused by brain damage. (She didn’t even vote in the disastrous presidential election. She spends a lot of time wishing she’d listened to her gay former roommate, who was, for some reason, in love with her.)
When the government shows a sudden interest in her work, Jean agrees to go back to the lab in exchange for the temporary removal of her word counter, as well as her 6-year-old daughter’s.
The opening line gives away most of the present-day plot: “If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement…in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them.”
“Vox” (Berkley, 324 pp., ★★g☆) is heavy with back story and flashback, about a third of it spent setting the stage. The best parts of the novel are in this slow-moving first section, when the potential is more or less intact. Some of the dynamics are fascinating – Jean’s concern for her daughter’s linguistic development, her resentment of her husband and sons. (“I don’t hate them. I tell myself I don’t hate them. But sometimes I do.”)
Dalcher’s premise is intriguing, especially in the hands of a linguistics expert, and it provides a good deal of momentum until the government lab conspiracy phase kicks in.
Then, the author rushes through the interesting bits in favor of a thin, clumsily constructed thriller plot. After all that setup, almost all of the female characters – not just Jean and her daughter – are free to speak for most of the book. There also are several extraordinary coincidences involving Jean’s husband, her son, her neighbors, her mailman and her mother in Italy.
It seems there are only about a hundred people left in this country, with someone she knows on TV at any given time. The writing tends to lack subtlety. The minute Jean gets her counter removed, for example, she argues with her husband, who says, “You know, babe, I wonder if it was better when you didn’t talk.”
What should be a gut punch lands like a glancing blow. It just feels like one more piece of this thought experiment. Not uninteresting, but ultimately unaffecting.