Retrofuturist Feminism: Lidia Yuknavitch’s “The Book of Joan”
By Anne JamisonApril 18, 2017
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
Imagine the horror.
CIEL is populated by the desexualized, hairless, and ever-more-white remnants of humanity, those who were privileged enough to merit “ascension” to Jean de Men’s constructed world above the ravaged Earth. In CIEL, gender, class, and economic divisions have disappeared along with pigment and genitalia. Procreation is impossible, but people are ceremonially killed at 50 anyway (one true technological advancement of this new age is the ability to extract water from corpses). Non-procreative, non-penetrative sex (the only bodily sex now available) is illegal. Textual sex is the only sex allowed, and Jean de Men himself is the author of CIEL’s best-selling romance — critiqued by our narrator Christine, because “all of the women in his story demand to be raped.”
Responding with her own writing, Christine has helped assemble a “literary resistance movement” that embraces gender fluidity and its erotic and intellectual potential, “re-creating the story of our bodies, not as procreative species aiming for survival, but rather, as desiring abysses.” One such rebel is Christine’s best friend and lover, the exuberantly homosexual Shakespearean clown, Trinculo. Christine’s fantasies “involve Trinculo fulfilling his own desires while mine are ecstatically excluded,” while in reality, both inhabit bodies without sexual organs. Trinculo misbehaves by fashioning vaguely steampunk sexual machinery, talking dirty, laughing, and farting in the authorities’ general direction. Embodiment is rebellion (as well as some desperately needed comic relief).
This extravagantly and corporeally queer future is nonetheless governed by a now (always) purely ideological gender and sexual essentialism. CIEL’s control mechanisms range from brutal torture to grotesque medical experimentation to a literalized Foucauldian panopticon, in which holding cells are given the Orwellian moniker “Liberty Rooms” — and, of course, to propaganda. Media spectacle, including real-time show trials and executions or their virtual reenactments, wields a particular power, because people are so bored. Vestigial humanity’s lack of drive and diversity also leads to ever-increasing extremes of body-modification in the form of decorative skin grafts, which also constitute the world’s only potential writing surface: “Grafts were skin stories: a distant descendent of tattoos, an inbred cousin of Braille.” On CIEL, plentiful skin grafts function as class markers such that “the richest of us had skin like a great puffed-up flesh palimpsest.” On the grafts of her own skin, then, Christine sets out to chronicle the song of Joan: “Ecoterrorist. Murderous maiden who made the earth scream.”
Joan has become an icon in the sky world, her story and spectacular death central to both resistance and regime. Authoritarians need their dissidents and terrorists to mark the extent and necessity of their control, and those ruled need these stories as well, whether as justifications for their acquiescence or as articles of faith. Like her forebear, this Joan hears voices as a child, although not God’s. This Joan communes with the earth — often violently — as the political order collapses, and endless wars break out. Joan herself is weaponized, then martyred. “That moment, captured obscenely” was “enforced on” CIEL for years. CIEL polices interpretation of Joan of Dirt, and departures from the party line constitute the primary area of criminal enforcement. The “skinsongs” Christine burns into her flesh in secret are crimes, and this act of narration will be the 49-year-old author’s final rebellion. Except, this politically potent and necessary death was, as it turns out, what our own political moment might term fake news.
Rather than dying martyred in eternal youth, forever a child soldier, Joan is literally down in the dirt, clinging savagely to life on the “wrong marble” her Earth has become. Despite her matter- and logic-defying capabilities of disruption and destruction, the former child warrior can only wander war’s aftermath in an endless half-life, a future so bleak that cannibalism is rampant but hardly warrants a mention. What few humans remain — mostly stray children destined for death — are used by CIEL as raw material like any other matter. Raw is the word for these sections of the book — rubbed raw, fleshy, dirty, thick with mud, both the language and the world it creates (although the prose itself is distinctly cooked). This world’s Joan is scarred and strong, a fully adult Katniss Everdeen with bigger guns and no weirdly retro procreative ending waiting for her after the war. After years of dodging and fighting CIEL sentries and committing sabotage apparently for its own sake, Joan and her stalwart companion Leone are all but alone on the planet. Unable to save even the starving children she meets on her travels, Joan is nearly consumed by self-loathing.
Really, that’s just the set-up.
This book covers a lot of ground (and dirt) with varying degrees of narrative and conceptual success, but to detail which parts work and which don’t risks spoiling a story that can be riveting if difficult to piece together from its strands of sky and smears of blood and mud. Instead, I’ll explain what to my mind are the most powerful and even delicious aspects of this ambitious novel, aspects which admittedly have more to do with the narrative framing than with the way it all plays out. Having paid homage to what I believe to be The Book of Joan’s genius, I hope to sketch in broad terms my reservations without giving the game away.
The Book of Joan had me at Christine de Pizan, heroine, frame narrator, and namesake of that extremely unusual 14th-century woman who earned her living by writing. In her best-known work, The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine built a fictional and allegorical world peopled by mythic heroines and real women from history: extraordinary warriors, rulers, and thinkers as well as — explicitly — ordinary women from the lower and middle classes. Their strengths and virtues gave the lie to the rampant misogyny made bold and sexy by the era’s “best seller,” the Roman de la Rose. Left apparently unfinished by the 13th-century writer Guillaume de Lorris, the Roman was taken up decades later for a new purpose, co-opted and in a way colonized by its second and much more prolific author Jean de Meun (remove the “u” for pointed commentary). Abandoning the dreamy, more gentle allegory of its origin, the tale’s continuation turns to a more biting and explicit satire of sexual intercourse, courtly love, and the scheming and perfidious nature of the women it valorizes. Characters digress on theories of representation, signification, politics, sex, and gender. Like The Book of the City of Ladies that responds to it, Jean de Meun’s section of Roman de la Rose draws heavily on a vast range of historical sources and collected learning. Controversial but hugely popular for centuries, it also made Christine de Pizan mad, and she entered head-on into the controversy known as the “Querelle” of Roman de la Rose.
At least, so was the story taught by the feminist scholars that rekindled interest in Christine’s work. Somewhat later, decidedly less feminist medievalist scholars minimized her contributions to the “Querelle,” suggesting she meant them only in jest, and they played a minor role in the overall debate. Taken in combination with her allegorical works, it would certainly have been a long, impassioned, and remarkably consistent joke. The Book of Joan takes Christine’s critique very seriously, and a large part of my own pleasure in the novel lies in its placing this long-ago woman writer in a position of such relevance and centrality to urgent issues facing us today. Just as medieval Christine’s City refers to both an allegorical place and the book that constructs it, The Book of Joan is also its Christine’s book, the one of which she is telling the writing. Like her predecessor, she retells and responds to prior stories in keeping with medieval tradition and also incorporates (most literally) the material of her own life and challenges — a far less usual medieval move, especially for a woman. In this way, The Book of Joan’s allusive “narrative sampling” and rubbing up against its Christine’s (admittedly far more graphic and bodily) life details are themselves a sampling of the technique of her forebear.
So if the “grafting” conceit seems perhaps a too-heavy literalization of ’90s feminist theory and its preoccupation with embodiment and inscription, this kind of complaint is in keeping with those leveled against both Jean de Meun and Christine de Pizan. If a philosophical disquisition is interrupted by an anachronistic arachnid apparently crawling straight from the pages of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? onto Christine’s posthuman body, that kind of sampling is entirely in keeping with her medieval source. The white, hairless bodies of CIEL may recall the pale, stylized figures of illuminated manuscripts. Even the book’s less successful moments — its earnest, occasionally bombastic, and not particularly controversial asides about ecological catastrophe and the evils of war — make more sense if we see them patterned after these medieval antecedents. The Book of the City of Ladies and Roman de la Rose are works of allegory in which the abstract and the literal interpenetrate, and with its complex interweaving of sampled literary history, critical theory, and thick bodily description, The Book of Joan is taking pages (or grafts) from these works. Surely, that appropriation also constitutes an invitation to join in Christine’s new “literary resistance movement” and pick a “querelle” or two of our own.
Poststructuralist theory — with its suspicion of narrative, of the possibility of direct access to matter, its belief in the primacy of representation, of signification over signified — might easily be read as the villain of this story, with cynical Jean de Me(u)n as its theoretical forebear/descendent. CIEL, in this reading, is “The Prison House of Language,” where (literally) even the most bodily experience is mediated by language, a (totalitarian) regime of signs. Its championing of “difference” is exposed as one more corrupt dream of male-orchestrated transcendence, phallogocentrism by means of a violent exclusion of the female, the messy, the bodily. Stories, directly connected to the material, lived experience of embodied women, have the power to save lives and even planets. If you were at school in the ’90s, you have seen this war play out. Yet with its all its many sources, the novel itself is a palimpsest of theoretical problems and polemics, and they might be parsed very differently. In particular, a twist at the ending could be read to undercut much of what I have said here, and while I won’t go into why, it is an ambiguity I will enjoy for some time to come. Christine’s frame narrative is not binding: it has room to play.
The Book of Joan’s earth is a little thicker, a little muddier, and in part, that is precisely the point. Anti-humanistic and profoundly material, the truths of the abandoned world seem to draw on strains from thing theory and object-oriented ontology, both ascendant in our own new millennium, of which this world is projected as the not-nearly-distant-enough future. Such theories radically challenge any notion that humans should be considered as distinct from the rest of matter. Dirt and tree and atom should be understood to have their own perspectives entirely independent of our needs, equally valid and deserving of respect. Epistemology is the myth of our own supremacy.
The novel’s logics at once seem to embrace and challenge this worldview, making it difficult to plot a clear narrative or logical course despite frequent philosophical pronouncements. We might readily agree that by its behavior toward itself and its habitat, humanity has given the lie to any claim on centrality or specialness. We might agree the world would be better off if we remembered we are actually part of, rather than stewards of, our material surroundings. But one extreme extension of such logic leads straight to CIEL’s harvesting of bodies and use of children as so much fossil fuel, a practice explicitly and polemically presented as extending our own era’s practice:
but then the world has always made violent use of children. The rhetoric of protecting children from war, shielding those most vulnerable from our most horrific truths, was always a hypocrisy designed to protect the illusions that adults carry that we care more about our children than we do about ourselves.
To look at our world and its wars, which the book repeatedly evokes as recent history, and argue that claim is not true is difficult. However, from a strict materialist, thing-oriented perspective, why should children be valued any differently? The point may be that any assumption about matter being here for our use and support is as wrong as the same assumption about children. But the book seems to single out the military and material use of children as especially wrong — as if children are a special category of human, of matter, a turn less materialist than sentimental. I do not use sentimental as a pejorative, but materialists almost uniformly do. However, the elevation of sentiment — of love — as a human attribute more laudable than war or power is one of the less surprising conclusions the narrative would have us draw. Love turns out to be as central to this book as it is to its courtly medieval precedent, but unlike that Roman, The Book of Joan has not one ounce of cynicism about its topic. I think the book is trying to wed hard-nosed materialism with bodily celebration and recuperation of the sentimental. It would be impressive if it pulled it off, but I’m not sure it does.
The Book of Joan’s mélange of biological and ontological theories is filled with such contradictions, and some of these lead to my most serious reservations. Yuknavitch is a deeply physical, bodily writer, and so the logic of the prose itself valorizes the material world, which is fine. But foregrounding biology and “the natural” is dangerous territory for feminism, and perhaps even more so for transgender issues. While the book offers counterexamples — Trinculo’s sex toys and some biotech devices it would be a pity to reveal here — it does seem to condemn surgical and even decorative body modification as grotesque, even horrific. Neither the examples of gender fluidity drawn from the natural world nor the intellectual and physical orgies of Christine’s supposedly post-gender resistance movement are enough to overcome an aura of nostalgia for the traditionally gendered and sexed bodies that have been lost. They are not enough to overcome an essentializing logic of women as lifegivers (although this logic is hardly unchallenged). Nor are they enough to compensate for the real repulsion that seems reserved for detailed descriptions of (medically forced) hermaphroditism or the world’s (unnaturally) absent or shriveled penises. To be sure, forced, nonconsensual gender assignment remains a reality for too many in our own world, but the kind of bodies that here seem to provoke horror are, whether naturally occurring, chosen, or surgically created or imposed, nonetheless lived realities for many. Furthermore, one would think that these differences embody the very kind of biodiversity The Book of Joan clearly wishes to value and represent. Some of this underlying gender essentialism might arguably be another nod to historical Christine’s own highly gendered defense of women’s values and essential worth, and certainly much of the book works specifically to contradict it. Perhaps it is only “natural” that in a book that brings together so many different strains of history, literature, theory, and even science, some parts are bound to contradict others. If the book stumbles on the intersection of “difference” feminism, gender theory, and trans issues, that hardly makes it less relevant to conflicts arising in women’s resistance movements today.
Anne Jamison is associate professor of English at the University of Utah and the author of Kafka’s Other Prague (forthcoming, 2017), Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World (2013), and Poetics en Passant (2010).
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