Friday 17 March 2017

The Power - Naomi Alderman

  The first time I read The Power I read it quickly and I enjoyed it. I decided it would make an ideal group read for the 6th formers introducing them to issues around feminism and oppression – a discursive text that would raise issues I suspected they wouldn’t have thought through extensively. Beyond that I felt a mild dissatisfaction. I felt betwixt and between – a novel of ideas that didn’t feel at all strange or disorientating mashed up with a fast plot-driven text of broad brush strokes whose characters, because they felt more like caricatures, I didn’t care about. The reread this week was in the hope of finding the layers that have made it an important text for readers and critics I admire, and a way of firing up my, sadly underused, critical faculties. I’ve found that there are elements that I like and admire about the text but if anything the reread has crystallized doubts I already had. I will assume you’ve read the book – what follows contains spoilers.

First I find myself somewhat suspicious of the framing device that bookends the novel: who is writing? we ask – Neil a figure from the future created by Naomi Alderman. So what is it that Alderman is telling us about Neil and his view of the past. For Neil this a historical novel, a project of reimagining and of using the sources, theories and ideologies at his disposal to document what went before. What subtleties are in the text to help the reader decode Neil’s bias, his aporias, his theories? How do I separate out Neil’s ideological inconsistencies from Alderman’s? This should be fascinating: such a device could be formally mischievous and ask difficult and interesting questions of the reader but in The Power it felt too easy, too cheap a way to add a layer of ambiguity without giving the reader the tools or the clues to manage these crucial distinctions. There is a strong possibility that this is THE set of questions that will determine your reading of the novel. If you can explain the problems in the text as Neil’s problems and misunderstandings, then you might appreciate the novel more than me. But I don’t think you can.

   There are narrative choices that worry at me a great deal: Saudi Arabia as the choice for the first great riots; and then later a visit to India; Moldova as the sight of much of the action; organized crime as a lever for much of the action; rape, abuse and trafficking as the main emotive levers that drive the plot. All these choices flirt with clich√© but more importantly they divert us away from complexity and from the intersections of power that that make that complexity so difficult to rationalise and comprehend. None of these narrative decisions help to destabilise troubling binaries – the US as sophisticated barbarity vs the coarse barbarity that thrives on the periphery; the even the greater complexity of the West vs the greater simplicity of the East. Take the idea that Saudi Arabia would be the first place to ignite or that it is the correct choice for this text to focus on. It becomes a lazy shorthand for OPPRESSION rather than giving a sense of how women’s oppression intersects with profound religious belief, with class tensions and the privileges of wealth. It’s easy to hate the Saudi Arabian state for all kinds of reasons, and I do, but its use here doesn’t help me to understand the world’s complexities in any depth whatsoever.

Moreover, there is no sense in the book of how class tensions would play out more generally. How would conservative and Conservative women behave in the West? How would progressives – a left liberal alliance perhaps, combat the tensions and violence? How might men and women unite? How would the institutions of capitalism respond?  In a book that is a huge What if?, and a heady provocation, there are far too many ideas that go unexplored.

However, I’d go further - the text doesn’t know how to answer them or doesn’t judge them to be important enough. Late in the book Neil inserts some more portentous philosophizing in to his account, echoing the religious and scriptural tone of other parts of the text. Roxy and Tunde are wondering how humans could behave SO badly:

“One of them says, ‘Because they could’

That is the only answer there ever is” (287)

And then at the start of the next chapter:

“These things are happening all at once. These things are the one thing. They are the inevitable result of all that went before. The power seeks its outlet. These things have happened before, they will happen again. These things are always happening…..For the earth is filled with violence, and every living thing has lost its way.”

   Neil injects into his narrative the sense of history as circular and a religious understanding of the world that is moral and inevitable combining reactionary ideas about original sin and human nature. There is the sense in the book of course that the primacy of religious understanding in our world would mean that massive changes or catastrophes will be understood by large numbers of people in religious terms and manipulated and used by others. Good, that’s one of the things I like about the text. But there is nothing in the text that even begins to suggest that agency and organisation might combat these forces and ideas. Fine, on one reading this could be part of Alderman’s vision of the future - that Neil cannot imagine human agency, organisation or resistance. But I don’t think that’s a wholly satisfactory conclusion. In the final exchanges Neil can question what is natural, he is sensibly cautious about the merits of evolutionary psychology, he can hypothesize about gender and argue over history: “the way we think our past informs what we think is possible today” (334). I think the unresolved contradictions and gaps are Alderman’s.

   The book’s epigram is from Samuel: “The people came to Samuel and said: Place a King over us, to guide us.” But ‘the people’ do not take on Samuel’s warnings. Late in the novel we learn that the voice in Allie’s head may have been that of Samuel – in this I admire Alderman’s construction of Neil’s cleverness: what a fabulous conceit. Samuel lays it all out for Allie in her great moment of crisis (318-320) and the bottom line is this: everything is really complicated and ‘the people’ always want to defer to powerful leaders. A reader could easily accuse the text at this stage of being somewhat trite but I won’t go that far – there is an element of humour in the passage that unburdens it somewhat and I like the way some of Samuel’s language here mirrors part of the Book of Eve (330). No, the main problem is that nowhere does the text try to answer why ‘the people’ will always defer to the powerful, if indeed they do. The reader might be reminded of a Churchill quote “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. For politicians, and despairing liberals, the problem, and the solution, always comes back to the poor judgement of ‘the people’ rather than the institutions and structures that impoverish, alienate and deter wide sections of our communities.

   Neil’s account provides us with some evidence of course, you see the slick operations of US capital as Margot climbs the slippery pole to the top and increasingly becomes embroiled with the military industrial complex; you see the inanity of the media; you get insights into the influence of religious ideology – this is especially well done since his account returns again and again to those segments of religious language: “The end of all flesh is near, because the Earth is filled with violence. Therefore, build an ark.” (325) ; you get to see the opportunism involved with Imperialism, on various sides. But it really is all incredibly superficial. There is also the mystery of power. It’s a while since I read Foucault but I remember being annoyed by the notions of diffuse and omnipresent power that cropped up again and again in critical theory when postmodernism and post structuralism were the dominant discourses back in the day. The text infers a similar entity but it’s one I don’t accept; complexity – yes, of course, but something that is infinite, scattered and inexplicable, no.

   It seems to me that The Power might be one of those texts that has already been outdone by our mad, perverse and apocalyptic days. It’s not just that climate change overshadows everything, though it does, but that the crisis of capitalism and neoliberalism, accelerating technological change and many other factors are creating the conditions for new expressions of older phenomenon. I’ve realised, reading the Clarke books this year, that I want texts that help me understand what is emerging. And I’ve realised, more than ever before, that this is probably a really stupid expectation. Authors face the same contradictory ideologies, they have the same desires and hopes, they are open to the illusions of liberalism, the prospect of despair, the bias of the media. I hate Brexit and the racism it has unleashed but I recognise that Europe is no answer either. You only have to think about the bodies amassing in the Mediterranean and the way Greece was crushed to understand that it is a bosses Europe that has no great interest in the wellbeing of the majority of its citizens. I hate Trump but despise Clinton and all she stands for too. You want your USA back? Seriously? That’s the USA of war and racism, of police brutality and guns. I could go on and on and on but the reality is this: business as usual means we are utterly screwed. Climate change will accelerate and exacerbate tensions over refugees and war, over food security and energy provision, over nationalism and borders, over every part of lives. And it is accelerating faster than most of us can dare to admit. Can we fight back the current crisis so that new democracies will be able to make sensible decisions over the environment? Is that the question? Whatever your answer I suspect the victory of Trump and Brexit, the possibility of Le Pen, means that Alderman’s narrative choices are even more questionable than I would have otherwise considered.

So what am I trying to say? I suspect that writing SF is a harder job and more unforgiving than ever. And for me that means going through a process of finding anew what I think is valuable and resisting the idea that there will be many texts offering me the answers and ideas that I crave or perturbing me in affecting ways. Reading Mike Harrison leaves me bereft, troubled, shattered, prised apart. Reading Ali Smith or Penelope Fitzgerald leaves me happy, hopeful, measured, joyful. They do so with techniques, precision and understandings I struggle with. They are profound and exciting.

I don’t expect all texts to achieve those dizzy heights. Nor do I forget the limits of bourgeois art. We live in confused and conservative times – I don’t expect a bubbling up of revolutionary ideas or techniques – how could I? Nor do I forget the omnipresence of commercial pressure, new books pushed on us by a calendar of hype and promotion, shortlists and prizes. So what then becomes compensation enough if you don’t find full satisfaction with the ideas expressed in a text? Fine writing? Formal experimentation? Political engagement? The weird and the uncanny? Emotion? Empathy? All of these actually, though I don’t pretend to understand the alchemy involved in separating out the great from the good. And I think that this is a question that intersects with notions of taste. A lifetime of reading and watching films makes me feel, for the most part, that I can trust my taste and my impressions. Yet I can still occasionally be seduced by grandeur and (false) gravitas. I can be seduced by art I don’t understand and sometimes it will be far less profound on closer inspection. I can be swayed too be shitty arguments, especially when they are reinforced by a constant media blitz. Perhaps most of all there is the problem of limited knowledge, restricted horizons and so on. Mystery and uncertainty can be tempting and bewitching but sometimes you just come up against the limits of your own knowledge.

So apologies for focusing on the negatives. I’ll repeat: The Power a good novel, well worth your time: It’s already on a number of longlists. I’ve enjoyed thinking about it – I have pages of notes - and I’m looking forward to those discussions with the 6th formers when the paperback comes out. Do any of them really believe that women would do a better job of ruling than men? Do they appreciate the power and divisiveness of simple choices (of say, a referendum)? Where do they think power lies? And so on. Really good, important questions. There are subtleties that I really enjoyed too, especially the passages early in the book when the evocative smells of the emerging Power blend into passages of religious prose. I like the ironies and reversals in the final exchange between Naomi and Neil. But for me the text doesn’t encompass or explore the complexity that Samuel asserts and there are not enough pleasures or discomforts in the text to win me over or inflame my curiosity.

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