MAY 9, 2014
NEAR THE BEGINNING of Monica Byrne’s relentlessly kinetic debut novel, The Girl in the Road, her protagonist, Meena, comments that “some people are like superconductors … They have no resistance to the energy they receive. They just convey it.” This insight characterizes much of the initial experience of Meena for the reader, who is swept along by her headlong flight through a 2060s India, in which those with the right implants can read each other’s digital cloud profiles and her train journey from Keralam to Mumbai takes only two hours. Before boarding this train, she tries to kill herself by jumping in front of it and we are uncertain if this is a thriller in which an African migrant terrorist group has just tried to kill her by putting a snake in her bed or whether we should doubt her sanity and the reliability of her narrative. She tells us that her mother was six months pregnant with her when her doctor parents were killed in Addis Ababa by an Ethiopian dissident friend of theirs in the hospital where they worked. We also learn that she studied “nano and comp lit” at university but dropped out, that her preferred mode of self-expression is sexual fluidity, and that the only way she finds it easy to communicate is by imagining that she is talking to herself. Is she an orphan, a narcissist caught in arrested adolescence, or the bodily expression of the quantum indeterminacy of the “wavelike nature” to which she also lays claim? The potential course of action best suited to remedy the first two conditions, as tried and tested in stories immemorial, is for the protagonist to embark upon a journey of self-discovery. In this case, the particular yellow brick road chosen by Meena is also appropriate to the third of these possible conditions because it is a silver thread bobbing invitingly as it leads out from the Mumbai waterfront and across the Arabian Sea.
This thread is the Trans-Arabian Linear Generator, or TALG, a smart array of floating aluminium segments with solar panels on the sunward surfaces and dynamos between each segment that harness the motion of the waves to produce “Blue Energy, the successor to Green Energy”. This energy is imported to a recipient plant in Djibouti, at the other end of TALG, via the superconducting powers of metallic hydrogen, a material with a controversial history. We are told that despite catastrophic accidents in the past, the manufacturing process of this substance was finally stabilized ten years before and it is now considered stable “like an artificial diamond.” Aside from being a testament to the engineering skills of the Mumbai-based multinational, HydraCorp, the TALG also symbolises the determination of the now dominant world powers, India and China, to maintain their influence across Africa; its synthetic silk anchor lines parallel China Telecom’s SEA-ME-WE 3 undersea cable carrying data across the same route. However, the significance of the TALG to Meena is the almost-mythical status it has gained in certain alternative-cultural circles as “the Trail”, a walkable bridge to Africa. After successfully walking over a short replica length of the Trail floating in a swimming pool in the basement of the HydraCorp Museum, Meena manages to find her way to a clandestine shop, “the Mart”, which supplies the range of hi-tech gear necessary for attempting to cross the real thing. The two-page list of equipment that Byrne lovingly details serves as enticing hors d’oeuvres to the gripping description of Meena’s gruelling first night on the Trail. Generating interest by describing how practical problems are overcome – such as how one learns to walk on a metallic structure in constant random motion – is an old storytelling device but no less effective for that. As The Girl in the Road progresses, it is the regular updates on Meena’s epic journey on the bridge and the increasingly strange encounters she has along the way that provide the powerful narrative thrust of this novel.
Interlaced with Meena’s story, is the tale of another journey from 30 years or so earlier. Mohammed and Francis are in charge of three trucks driving across Africa from the west coast to the east, carrying barrels of what we later learn to be an earlier form of metallic hydrogen. As they set off from Mauritania, they discover a stowaway, Mariama, a Haratine girl running away from slavery and her violent master, and decide to take her with them on the long drive to Ethiopia via Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan. As we meet these new protagonists, it becomes apparent that all the main characters in the novel have names with powerful mythical or religious significations. While the men are prophets or saints, the women are iconic goddesses. Meena and Mohini, her former partner whose likely response to situations she always imagines, have the names of Hindu deities. Mariama is another name for the Christian Mary, and Yemaya, who joins the trucks in Senegal, shares the Cuban form of the name of a Yoruba Orisha, connected with the ocean and with motherhood, who has spread globally, particularly in the Afro-American diaspora. These correspondences serve to emphasise the universality of the novel. Byrne has clearly not chosen her settings in order to provide exotic locations, but to indicate how the global balance of power might shift over the coming decades. In her vision, the universal subject implied within fiction is no longer white and Western. How the characters, especially Meena and Mariama, respond to these correspondences and consciously construct their own mythologies becomes an important part of the novel. Certainly, Mariama comes to believe that Yemaya might even be the Yemaya. With the confidence and assets of a wealthy background, Yemaya does appear as something of a divine intervention into the others’ lives and she is the catalyst of an enchanted diversion from the combination of instrumental reason and financial logic that govern the day-to-day movements of the trucks. While their route is passing through Niger, she persuades Mohammed to let Francis drive Mariama and her north to Agadez in order to experience the Wodaabe Gerewol festival. The topsy-turvy world of these beauty contests, in which the women size up the men as objects, momentarily reverses the norms of society and creates a space in which utopian alternatives may take shape. Even as a Wodaabe woman uncovers the facts that Yemaya, Francis and Mariama are from different countries and adhere to different religions, the sense of their suitability to form a new kind of diverse family representing a potentially united and resurgent Africa emerges. Later, Yemaya tells Mariama that she will gain an education and become one of the ones to fight back against colonisation and we glimpse a new historical dynamic taking shape.
By Meena’s time, this change in African fortunes has happened and Addis Ababa has emerged as the center of a cultural and political renaissance. She tells us that “Africa is the new India, after India became the new America, after America became the new Britain, after Britain became the new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the new Punt, and so on and so forth. Now we’re back to Punt.” The idea that the circle of imperial expansion can be transcended by returning to its geographical and historical beginnings in the region of Djibouti and Northern Ethiopia has a millenarian logic to it. When Meena thinks about her reasons for walking to Africa, it is not just the possibility of discovering what really happened to her parents that compels her but also the prospect of leaping into a perfect future beyond her Earthly troubles. Her experience of Blue Energy becomes inextricably linked with this utopian impulse. For example, her comment halfway through the novel that “all of human interaction can be reduced to matter and energy transfer” immediately precedes her discussion of how Mohini and her only had sex as man and woman once during the final stages of Mohini’s transition. Further on in the novel, Meena discusses how Mohini and her mother were at the vanguard of an Indian cultural revolution in the 2040s which moved beyond transgender identity to include transracial identities, made possible by genetic modification, and a new sexual revolution, enabled by full-spectrum nanobiotics and perfect birth control. Here, Byrne projects the future as a series of accelerated moves towards not just the acceptance but the embrace of diversity and fluidity. The timeliness of her novel, and also its implication that this impulse to diversity may well be driven outside the West, is supported by the decision of the Indian Supreme Court in April 2014 to recognise trans people as a third gender.
While Meena’s narrative of walking along the wave-tops captures the sheer surface speed and exhilaration of living in the changing contemporary world, the story of Mariama traversing the African continent provides a complementary historical depth. As the trucks near the Great Rift Valley, Yemaya emphasizes to Mariama the importance of knowing about Dinkenesh, the Ethiopian name for the Australopithecus afarensis skeleton commonly known as Lucy: “She’s our ancestor. That means your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, all the way back, as far back as you want to go.” The repetition serves to highlight the indisputable matrilineal nature of human descent in contradistinction to the patriarchal genealogies that underpin hegemonic texts such as the Christian Bible. A similar shift in perspective is evident in the novel’s attitude to the physical universe with the Great Rift Valley described as “like the two legs of the mother goddess, opening” and the Milky Way figured as a yoni. By such means, Byrne creates a world in which her female protagonists have genuine agency. The result is not a simplistic representation of a land of milk and honey — both Meena and Mariama are shown to be capable of extreme violence — but rather a liberating and, at times, dizzying exploration of the human possibilities enabled once traditional norms are fully transcended.
At one point, Meena even tries to reprogram language itself by arbitrarily reassigning nouns, so that she refers to the sea as sari and to the moon as pickle. Eventually, hundreds of kilometers further on, incapable of all speech, reduced to drinking seawater, and naked, she reaches a hotdog stand called ‘WITNESS DOGS’, whose proprietor proudly tells her that he witnesses for empiricism. This all sounds very postmodern and one half expects the kiosk to vanish leaving only a slip of paper with the words hotdog stand written on it, in the manner of Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint. What actually happens is considerably more disconcerting. Over the course of a couple of days, the man helps Meena bring herself back to a point where she can confront reality, even the reality that she has been in flight from for the duration of the novel. Her response is to tear that reality apart symbolically by savagely smashing the hotdog stand to pieces and then walking off without thanking him. Reality is rejected in the same manner that Meena and Mariama refuse to give in to the voices that tell them that it would be “better just to end the story” or “you can just lie down in the road, anytime”. Even though their two stories do, as the reader suspects, inevitably intersect, there is no straightforward resolution to the multiple overlapping and entwined strands of the novel. The only respite offered by The Girl in the Road from the ceaseless storm of matter and energy transfer that characterizes life, is the still certainty that comes from steadfastly going on.