The Water Cure – A Feminist Dystopia

Title:  The Water Cure

Author: Sophie Mackintosh

Publisher: Doubleday (January 2019)

ISBN:  978 0385543873  

Just when it seems dystopian horror has had its moment, a new iteration emerges. The Water Cure, the Man Booker-nominated, debut novel of Welsh writer Sophie Mackintosh, depicts a distinctly female dystopia and arrives amidst the cyclical tides of the #MeToo movement.

So, what fresh hell this? Three sisters are raised on an island by their Mother and father, a man they all call King. The family lives in isolation, cut off and protected from a world where men carry a fatal sickness which afflicts only women. Or so the sisters have been taught. A lesson enforced by the broken women who stumbled ashore in search of the titular cure all through the girls’ shared childhood. But by the time we, the readers, enter the story, years have passed since the sick women stopped coming.

The women drank the salt water first, their faces pained. They threw up repeatedly into the buckets. Their bodies convulsed. They lay on the floor, but Mother helped them up, insistent. They rinsed their mouths, spat. Then they drank from the second row, glass after glass of our good and pure water, the water that came from our taps like a miracle, the water that the sprinklers cast out in the early dusk like a veil across the garden.

It is not explicitly stated how or why women suffer in this society – whether it is institutional, biological, or the same mundane misogyny of our world assigned greater urgency. The information is conflicting. Do the men carry a virus, or is this just male “cooties” the young women have been trained to fear? Grace, Lia, and Sky are shown a list of symptoms, which include “unexplained bleeding from anywhere, but particularly eyes, ears, fingernails.” But, this story is told primarily from the points of view of the two elder sisters, Grace & Lia, and it’s difficult to determine if they are reliable narrators. With no outside contact and only vague memories of the time before they were brought to the island, the sisters exist in a societal and family construct entirely designed and controlled by King and Mother.

The construct cracks when King fails to return from a supply trip to the mainland and the women believe him drowned. Within days or weeks of his disappearance (because time, itself, is a construct) two men and a boy wash up on the beach, interrupting the women’s mourning and exposing deep fissures in their family unit.

Mother — bereft and the keeper of dark secrets attempts to maintain what passes on the island for normalcy. “‘I would do anything for my girls,’ Mother says, stoic.” The history of her relationship to King is told in short bursts, in a style reminiscent of a Greek chorus and scattered throughout the book. Mother is an easy character to overlook, overshadowed by her three daughters. But it’s an important part of her role in the book, to speak for older women who find themselves invisible because they are no longer deemed desirable — first wives, actresses in their 40’s, stay-at-home moms.

Grace, we quickly learn, is pregnant. There is no question of who the father is because only one option exists. And Lia, as decreed by King’s law, has been designated “least loved” for the year – making her particularly vulnerable to the attention of one of the castaways. Only Sky, born on the island and innocent to the point of vacuity, seems unaffected by the intruders. But, then, we are never privy to Sky’s interior life in the way we are her two sisters’. She is more feral pup than a human girl, and it’s easy to wonder how the story might be changed if Sky had been allowed her own voice.

When we were younger, Grace and I played a game called Dying. It involved folding your body over and wadding your eyes up tight. It involved shaking. I was always the one who died – of course I was – so I lay in front of my sister as she threw salt on me.

‘We told you not to go out in the world!’ Grace would shout in imitation of Mother. ‘What did you wear?’

Just my body. Just the gown.

But even without Sky, Grace and Lia build a powerful and disturbing narrative. Lia, hungry for affection and love, always takes on the hardest tasks to spare her sisters physical and emotional pain. She is desperately lonely. Grace is an entirely different creature. Her interior life is everything. She exists as cold consciousness inconveniently contained within a female form. Grace’s contributions to the tale ring out over the text like the voice of an old testament prophet and, despite Lia being assigned the bulk of the chapters (including the entirety of Part II. Men), Grace’s chapters contain the most shocking revelations.

The three men (even the boy is designated a “man”) — James, Llew, and Gwil — expose the women in ways they can’t and don’t understand. Their rituals and therapies become absurd when performed in the presence of strangers. They are exotic, ever-so-slightly ridiculous creatures who do not know how to behave. And the oddity of their behavior is further exposed when we learn they are older than we believed them, or even they knew themselves, to be. The book’s tension comes from watching as the utopian glamour is stripped away layer by layer from their island sanctuary, revealing the twisted and ramshackle nature of the family’s existence. In some aspects, it is your typical “serpent in paradise” situation playing.

Mackintosh has said in interviews that she started writing with the question, what if masculinity were actually, physically, toxic? So we must accept the premise that the danger men pose in her novel is very real. In all other details, the world she describes is futuristic only in that readers are conditioned to assume all dystopias are, by default, set in a distant future. Nothing these women experience is so far removed from our own world as to be inconceivable. Their daily life is regimented by superstition and odd rituals, but so are the lives of the women trapped in misogynist cults and religious sects. Which is why The Water Cure is so canny. The same quality that makes Margaret Atwood’s work so chilling and seductive – describing a society where more is familiar than is foreign — imbues Mackintosh’s novel with a terrifying prescience. When James tries to convince Grace that “‘the world is not what you have been told… I mean, the world is very terrible, but you have been told a number of things that are untrue’”  she, the most clear-sighted of the sisters, understands that “the world has not been kind to him… yet he loves it anyway. It is a man’s place. His survival is implicit, a survival taken for granted.” Readers can recognize male privilege on display.

Reviews in the UK made the inevitable comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, but Mackintosh’ sisters possess a fierceness that I don’t remember in Atwood’s handmaidens. Anger and hostility underpin The Water Cure, as does a sense of tangible, feminine rage. Mackintosh is uncompromising in her message: Men are selfish. Men lie. Men manipulate. And so it comes as no surprise that James, Llew, and Gwil are not who or what they seem. Nor King. There can be no good men. Mackintosh goes all in and gives her characters over to their raw emotions. At the same time, she explores the classic female archetypes. Sky the virgin, Lia the whore and Grace the mother. Mother, herself, has evolved into the crone. Always recognizing that these archetypes are also patriarchal constructs and reminding us that each woman, with the possible exception of Sky, is complicit in her own and her sisters’ subjugation.

The Sacred Era by Yoshio Aramaki, translated by Baryon Tensor Posadas

 

Born April 12, 1933, Yoshio Aramaki’s writing comes to us from a different time. His novel The Sacred Era, originally published in Japanese in 1978, has more in common with classic American sci-fi short story writers like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—sharing their preoccupation with wonky metaphysics, biblical allegories, and performative misogyny—than with speculative fiction writers working in the present day. He leads readers down the same well-trodden genre path where impoverished young men discover they are, despite an often remarkable lack of initiative, destined for great things. But Aramaki’s brilliant leaps of imagination and use of experimental, non-linear plot structures are too ambitious for the resulting work to be dismissed as outdated or derivative.

Read my full review of Yosio Aramaki’s novel, The Sacred Era, over at the Quarterly Conversation.

The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Chinese by Darryl Sterk

From the Hardcover editionWu Ming-Yi, the Taiwanese author of The Man With The Compound Eyes, sets out to prove that these days the truth is stranger than fiction.  He pulls from his background as an environmental activist to describes a world facing environmental disaster. A disaster that resembles current events so closely that readers don’t need to expend their imagination to buy into the premise.  The events of Ming-Yi’s novel could become our reality within a decade and few would bat an eye.

Alice, the main protagonist, is a professor of literature in Taiwan.  She lives alone.  Her husband Tom and son Toto are presumed dead, having disappeared while on a climbing trip in the nearby forest.  Climate change and rising sea levels will soon make the  small house she and Tom built on the beach uninhabitable. Most of her neighbors have already moved to higher ground but Alice refuses to leave her memories. Engulfed by grief and surrounded by the encroaching ocean, she is preparing to commit suicide in the opening pages.

Atile’i lives on the island of Wayo-Wayo (the book’s jacket copy refers to it as a “mythical” place). Wayo-Wayo is isolated enough to have developed an exotic culture, but is not entirely cut off from the outside world.

Atile’i remembered another of the Earth Sage’s offhand remarks: ‘The white man may come and the white man may go, be we will live by the law of Wayo Wayo. We don’t need the white man. The gifts he left us are harmful , ill-gotten gains. There’s just this useless watch, a couple of books, and a few children like Rasula.’ The Earth Sage sighed and said, ‘But there may come a day when the other men who live upon the earth cause Wayo Wayo to vanish. You never know.’

Atile’i is a second son and, per Wayo Wayo custom, he (like all second sons) must leave the island in a talawaka, a canoe-like vessel, once he comes of age.  While it’s never explicitly stated – second sons die at sea.  The best they can hope for is to be reincarnated as killer whales.  The worst, jellyfishes, if they take their own lives. This is the fate Atile’i embraces, until he finds himself floating in his talawaka amidst the Great Pacific garbage patch.  Through ingenuity he manages to survive on the floating island of plastic until it collides with Taiwan.  Atile’i washes up onto the very section of coastline where Alice lives; the ecological catastrophe brings our two protagonists together.  As expected, each impacts the other’s life.  There is a lovely moment when Atile’i greets Alice as is custom on Wayo Wayo, “Is the weather fair at sea today?”  He repeat the question  so many times that after the sixth time Alice stopped answering him.  Hurt, he confronts her and explains that she must answer “Very fair” every time. ‘Even if it’s raining as hard as it is now, you still have to reply in this way?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Even if you don’t feel like replying?’ ‘Yes.’

We both gazed out at the sea, which seemed to be slowly bringing rain. Every so often a breaker would come rolling in. Following a silence of ten waves, Atile’i asked me another time, ‘Is the weather fair at sea today?’ ‘Very fair,’ I replied and for the first time I realised I could ask him back. ‘Is the weather fair on your sea today?’ ‘Yes it is, extremely fair,’ Atile’i replied. I don’t know why, but right at that moment we both began to cry.

If Wu Ming-Yi had confined himself to the story of Alice & Atile’i, adding one or two of the other plotlines instead of the several the novel contains, I believe The Man with the Compound Eyes would have been a better book.  My main criticism is the sheer number of ideas crammed into 300 pages.  The third person narrative moves through no less than 10 different character’s perspectives including, albeit briefly, the titular man.  As it goes on, the plot becomes crowded and unwieldy.  Characters, stories, ideas aren’t given the space to grow.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

The trickling of water through the fissures in the subterranean rock was suddenly drowned out when the mountain made an immense but also somehow distant sound. Everyone fell silent. Then Jung-hsiang Li shouted.  That wasn’t groundwater surging. Wasn’t loose rocks shifting or bedrock bursting, either. And it obviously wasn’t a vocal echo. It sounded more like when something bumps into a flawless glass vessel – from somewhere within the glass you hear a spider’s web begin to spread before the cracks appear. The sound vanished straight-away, and the only thing the people in the cave and control room could hear was the huff of each other’s breathing and the hiss of the radios.

Chapter I. The Cave goes unexplained, the characters unidentified, until we revisit the same event in a flashback roughly 197 pages later.  By that time most readers will have forgotten all about it (I did) or, worse, are unable to make the connection to the rest of the narrative. The shame is that just that storyline could have made a fascinating novel in its own right.  But, as it is written, it becomes easily lost among all the  other plot points which occur in the interceding pages:  the mystery of Tom’s & Toto’s disappearance; side stories about Alice’s friend Dahu and her indigenous Pangcah neighbor Hafay;  the fate of the Wayo Wayo girl Atile’i  loves.  There’s a lot to think about in terms of writing as well:  Ming-Yi dabbles in symbolism  (Toto collected bugs, the identifying feature of the man with compound eyes, the frequent appearance of moths throughout the book); nature is described – even by scientists – in shamanistic terms; there’s even a modernist plot twist inserted at the end.  Dizzy yet?  Ask five different readers and you could easily receive five different (and perfectly plausible) interpretations of what The Man with the Compound Eyes is about.

By the end we discover that it’s Alice‘s world that holds most of the surprises, but the journey to get to that moment of discovery is long and meandering. Darryl Sterk’s fluid translation throws a net over these disparate ideas and events, gathering them together into a surprisingly readable whole.  My criticism is entirely with the scope of the work – not the writing itself. And while a lot of things bothered me about this novel, more impressed me.  I hope  more of Wu Ming-Yi’s work will make its way into English.

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 307 90796 7

 

Note: For anyone interested in learning more about the floating island of trash that is central to the plot of The Man with the Compound Eyes and (more to the point) what we can do about it – check out this video. https://fund.theoceancleanup.com/

 

The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre, translated by Lucas Lyndes

The Swimmers is a short novel published this past September by Frisch & Co. – an e-book only publisher focusing on translated fiction. Ostensibly about the end of the world, it features no natural disasters, barren landscapes or bands of survivors fighting savagely over the few resources that remain. Azaústre’s vision is much more surreal, one could argue that it is meant to function as metaphor.  Jonás is a photographer who has grown too accustomed to interacting with the world through the lens of his camera. Which might be why his girlfriend left him and why his art career, once so promising, has stalled. He is an only child of divorced parents and carries that slightly clichéd aura of loneliness and isolation with him. The most important person left in his life is his best-friend, Sergio. The two have a relationship more like brothers than friends. They meet regularly at a pool in Jonas’ old neighborhood to swim laps.

Central to the novel are Jonás’ visits to the pool – with and without Sergio. These swimming sessions are integral to the structure and overall tone of the book.  In a wonderful article on the website Necessary Fiction (as a part of their Translation Notes series), Lucas Lyndes describes the challenges of translating a novel written under an Oulipian style constraint –

The novel’s protagonist, Jonás, goes to the pool almost every day, where he swims 2,500 meters. The book is broken up into 50 chapters, representing laps in the pool; as I learned during the translation process, an Olympic-size pool is 50 meters long, so essentially the book (50 laps x 50 m) is the equivalent of one swimming session. I read the prose, and especially the rhythm, as an imitation of the act of swimming. Most chapters start off a bit slow, with short(er), sharp(er) sentences, like diving in or kicking off from the wall, and then the sentences start flowing into one another, like strokes and kicks.

The carefully choreographed rhythm of the prose (apparent even without reading Lyndes) has a soothing effect and lessens the impact of the events driving the story.  People are vanishing into thin air.  Not to be confused with abductions and/or kidnappings – men, women and children in the city where Jonás’ lives are simply no longer there. Their disappearances are almost supernatural. First, other swimmers at the pool.  Then, Jonás’ mother. In quick succession: the daughter and grand-daughter of an older swimmer who Jonás meets regularly at a cafe; followed by a fellow artist and, then, the daughter of an underworld boss. As the pages pass the urban environment through which Jonás moves steadily empties.  Azaústre manages to create the feeling of a physical world expanding as, in almost direct correlation, Jonás sheds his personal relationships and connections. The disappearances come to represent an existential detachment.  At the same time they create discomfort in the reader – a primal response to the idea of non-existence.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre is a novelist and a poet; with the ability to evoke the full range of sensory details.  He’s particularly strong when describing abandoned places. He breaks down the space into units of time – individual moments which the reader explores with the protagonist. Beautiful, haunting imagery appears all throughout The Swimmers. Azaústre’s writing is a combination of Camus, a young Stephen King and the great Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone).  He challenges our preconceptions of reality in new and interesting ways.  He plays with the concept of negative space, twins, reflections and parallel universes.  But he does it in a way that seems to exclude the fantastic.  There could be a logical explanation for all this.  In the meantime, people and events constantly move in and out of the periphery of the story.

It’s five in the afternoon. The clarity of the foothills is enveloped by the specter or rain. There is no countryside beyond the city, just a wasteland, a barren stretch of dry earth. On the right-hand shoulder, the bus leaves behind a hamlet of moveable homes and shacks erected with miscellaneous materials from demolition sites. He sees no one, not a single face. They take off so quickly that later, after driving out of sight of the wood and tin huts, some of them made from old emptied-out bodies of cars and trucks, scrap metal with plastic curtains and tarp roofs, Jonas starts to doubt their existence, as if the expulsion from the city had turned them into phantasms, as fleeting as the rest of the bare mounds of earth.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre has unknowingly embraced Alan Weisman’s initial premise in The World Without Us – what if humanity were to inexplicably disappear? –  and stopped there.  Whereas Weisman explores the event’s aftermath, Azaústre is interested in the experience of disappearing.  Very little in The Swimmers gets explained or resolved, least of all where everyone has gone.  Instead we’re given tantalizing glimpses of another, untold story happening parallel to this one.  Even the characters feel it.  While explaining his mother’s disappearance to Sergio, we’re told that Jonás “felt as if he too was a witness to his tale, as if for a few minutes he had been able to contemplate his own narration…” Later, Sergio expresses “…that sometimes, when I think about it, I get the impression that out there, somewhere else, far away from this house, someone else is living my life for me.”

Everything about the novel – the prose style, the structure, the characters and settings – feels purposeful.  The author has a bigger idea in mind but it’s too much to absorb in just one reading.  I can’t say, definitely, what The Swimmers is about.  Upon finishing it I was left with an impression of thoughtful writing, a plethora of ideas, and the yearning to understand something that seemed important.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into it?   The Swimmers could just be one of those books that exists simply as the sum of its parts – regardless of our expectations (or desires) on how those parts should connect.

Publisher: Frisch & Co., Berlin (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 9891267 2 4

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Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated from the Japanese by Andrew Driver

PaprikaThe 2006 anime film Paprika, based on the Yasutaka Tsutsui Japanese novel and its subsequent manga adaptation, has a cult following.   Unfortunately, the original book contains the very elements in anime and manga which I find most distasteful:  the sexual objectification of women, homophobia and a hysterical prose style.  Add to this a plot built on a dubious pseudo-science – i.e. dream therapy based on a Jungian model – and there’s very little left in Paprika to recommend it.

The novel’s heroine and namesake Paprika (a.k.a. – Dr. Atsuko Chiba) is the stunningly beautiful psychiatrist.  She and her morbidly obese colleague, Dr. Kōsaku Tokita, are shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for their research and work in dream therapy.  Dr. Tokita is the inventor of the “PT” (short for psychotherapy) device which allows Dr. Chiba to access, enter, and sometimes even perform treatment in, a patient’s dreams.  During its early development PT devices were illegal, and so Dr. Chiba created a cover identity named Paprika.  After the ban was lifted Atsuko Chiba still uses Paprika to treat high-profile clients, those whose mental illnesses might hurt their careers.  While Atsuko Chiba is intellectually gifted, poised and professional; Paprika is often mistaken for a teenager.  She speaks in a juvenile slang in order to put her client’s at ease.  She wears jeans and a tight, red shirt to her meetings.  The clients, invariably men, are all sexually attracted to her and she to them.

The plot rolls into motion when internal politics endanger the institute where Chiba and Tokita perform their research.  Tokita has created a new PT device, known as a PT mini, which allows for a kind of dream “wi-fi”.  But it is stolen while still being tested.  Someone is using the PT mini to “infect” employees at the institute with schizophrenia.  Should it be made public there would be mass-hysteria and the institute, and subsequently all Chiba and Tokita ‘s research, would be shut down.  Not to mention the innocent people being driven insane.

And so Paprika goes to battle in the world of dreams.  There she fights the bad guys with the help of two former patients – both middle-aged, powerful men – in a surreal landscape that begins bleeding into the real world.  The dream landscapes that Yasutaka Tsutsui creates are by far the most engaging aspects of the novel.

On one level Paprika is a fairly typical science fiction novel, with good using futuristic scientific technology to fight bad.  Taken on that level, the writing is no better or worse than the fantasy writer R. A. Salvatore.  But Yasutka Tsutsui was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and the English translation of Paprika is being published by Knopf Doubleday under the Vintage Contemporaries imprint – which leads readers to have certain expectations.  My expectation was that the quality of the writing would be on par with other Vintage authors, such as Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Orphan Pamuk or Haruki Murakami.  Instead, what I actually got was:

“Are there any other functions we don’t know about?” asked Osanai.  “If there are, you’d better tell us quickly.  This device is dangerous.  We need to control it rigorously, under high-level isolation and in all secrecy.  Please return all DC Minis in your possession to us.”

“Who’s this ‘we’ you keep going on about?  Would it be you and your gay lover?” Atsuko countered with a smile.  “I wonder if he’s at work yet.  There’s something I want to ask him.”

or

By intentionally withholding the discovery of a murder, Atsuko knew she was sinking even deeper into guilt as a co-conspirator in evil.  Even winning a Nobel prize might have been part of that evil.  Fortunately, though, she felt no such guilt about winning the prize itself.  She could therefore put on a brave face, drawing on her feminine ability to become impervious to evil as necessity demanded.  Atsuko waltzed into the Meeting Room as if nothing had happened.  While expressing dissatisfaction at her absence, the reporters had reluctantly started questioning Tokita and Shima.  Now they started to remonstrate and call out loudly to Atsuko, without even waiting for her to settle in her usual seat.

I’m inclined to blame the translator for the awkwardness and hackneyed quality of the prose.  But the juvenile attitudes and prejudices are all the responsibility of the author.  For example, when two gay men use the DC minis for sexual encounters they are treated as perverts – “They’re not playthings for gay sex games.”  But when Atsuko uses them to have sex with her clients, sometimes multiple clients at once, it is viewed with an abashed acceptance.  Perhaps most offensive is the scene where one character attempts to rape Atsuko – and instead of fighting back she reacts by urging him to do it and to make sure he satisfies her in the process.  Later in the book she will admit to herself (in a dream, because apparently everything except homosexuality is allowed in a dream) that she loves and is attracted to him (Paprika/Atsuko is attracted to and engages in sex with almost all the male characters at some point).  And she has sex with him, her would-be rapist.

Therein lies the problem with Paprika.  Yasutaka Tsutsui has created a strong, capable and intelligent female character in Dr. Atsuko Chiba.  Then, he housed her sexuality in Paprika.   And, according to Tsutsui, it is permissible for the male characters to sexually objectify Paprika – she (literally) becomes the receptacle of their fantasies and desires.  Because, we’re not accountable for what we do in our dreams according to Yasutaka Tsutsui.

That may be good enough for some of his male readers, but it’s guaranteed to leave most female readers cold.

Publisher:  Vintage Books, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 307 38918 3

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