26. A book you’ve heard bad things about: Vox by Christina Dalcher
List Progress: 17/30
In a near-future America where the religious right has taken full control of the government, all girls and women are fitted with metal counters on their wrists that track the number of words they speak. They are allowed 100 words every day, and for every work they speak beyond that, they are electrocuted. (They are also banned from writing or using sign language.) Vox, the 2018 novel by Christina Dalcher, has no illusions about being subtle with its messages. But for the first third or so of the book, I did find it quite engaging and was intrigued by it. Unfortunately, the plotting in the back half of this book was so haphazard and sloppy that it earned many of the negative reviews that I had seen floating around.
The plot follows Dr. Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist who has been cut down to 100 words a day for the past year, along with her young daughter. Jean is given an opportunity for a reprieve from her silence when the president’s brother becomes afflicted with the exact type of aphasia that she was studying before the shut-down and she gets a chance to make an impact in the fate of the country and her own life. While this is an interesting set-up, it also means that Jean as the POV character spends very little of the book with the counter on, side-stepping the core premise that drew many readers in. The book invites a lot (a loooooot) of comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but as if you saw very little of Offred’s actual life as a handmaid.
Aside from her involvement in the aphasia study, we also have Jean’s personal relationships: with her complacent husband Patrick who has meekly gone along with the new orders, her teenage son Steven who has become radicalized from coming of age in this new environment, her twin eleven year old sons who barely feature in the story, and her six year old daughter Sonia who barely remembers a life without a counter on her wrist. Her relationships with Patrick, Steven and Sonia add a lot of power to the first third of the book, but are shoved aside once Jean returns to her lab and can resume her affair with fellow scientist Lorenzo. Lorenzo is not nearly as complex of a male character as Patrick or Steven; he is more likeable but in a way that feels easy, and therefore less interesting. Sonia gets entirely sidelined and it is a big downfall of the story, as it continues to seem hesitant to engage with the counters as a premise.
The back half of Vox is just sloppy, in places bordering on lazy. Jean makes huge leaps of logic that happen to be right because the plot needs them to be right. Characters turn from foes to friends because it is easier for the plot to happen with them on Jean’s side. The times when Jean is being surveilled and when she’s not are utterly, utterly random, sometimes even within the same scene. It feels like all of Dalcher’s love and attention went into the first one hundred pages and then she banged out the rest, which leads to a very frustrating reading experience. This book desperately needed a back-to-front edit, focusing hard on cleaning up the ending with fresh eyes.
Most of those complaints are structural or character-based, but what of the religion question? Vox is very, very anti-religion, specifically anti-Christian, and it does not draw any sort of lines between denominations or degrees. In the world of Vox, all Christians are complicit in creating a horrifically abusive, misogynist hellscape of a country and this has been the source of a lot of the controversy surrounding the book. But looking at the book, at the world we live in right now, and at my own feelings…I cannot find it in me to be mad about Dalcher’s take. It’s extreme, but I do not think that the hurt feelings of Christians are really that needing of defense right now.
So that’s about it. This is a poorly-conceived book that wastes a lot of its good ideas, but I cannot say I regret reading it. It moves fast and the first third is genuinely engaging. But I cannot recommend it to others. It just doesn’t have the narrative chops.
Would I Recommend It: Go read The Handmaid’s Tale.