In ‘Vox,’ women’s si­lence should speak vol­umes

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Steph Cha

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.

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