The Book of Joan, judged in the grand tradition of apocalyptic/dystopian fiction, is a joyless failure. A cold, and at times deeply disturbing, tale, it cannot be redeemed even by the luminous presence of Joan of Dirt — godless pretender to the throne of the historical Joan of Arc. Yet this book can’t be reviewed fairly in the tradition of apocalyptic fiction alone. It must also be judged in the tradition of erotica — in particular, lesbian erotica — and above all in the context of the phenomenon of its author, Lidia Yuknavitch.
But first, the novel. It contains two worlds: CIEL — home of the upper-class remnants of society who have fled a dying earth for the safety of a satellite cobbled together from space junk, siphoning what resources it can from an abandoned planet — and Earth — crippled and fading beneath a dying sun, home to the story’s peasant-class hero, Joan, a preternaturally gifted child warrior, worshiped by the rebel insurgents of CIEL.
The characters of CIEL are uniformly lifeless and unlikable – ugly in a physical sense because, possibly due to radiation, they have lost skin pigment, hair, and genitalia. Ugly in a nonphysical sense because they are impossible to identify or sympathize with. The protagonist Christine (nicknamed Christ) is driven to producing art on the surface of her skin in a futuristic version of tattooing. She works on composing a biography of Joan, first cringingly splashing her body with synthetic alcohol, then expertly contorting to burn words onto the small of her back, the hollow of her throat, her unsexed pubic area.
“If the reader looks to Earth for comfort, there is little to be found.”
It’s all a painful thing to read about and imagine, but like many stories of this kind, we aren’t supposed to imagine too closely how any of it is possible. When one runs out of skin, we are told, grafts are available, resulting in the presence of bulges, folds, layers, and globules of loose skin from head to foot.
If passion for art doesn’t gain your sympathy, perhaps pointless sexual passion, which passes for love in this world, will. Desperate and bereft, the players masturbate, cavort, and simulate sex in various kinky and impossible ways. And these are the novel’s most sympathetic characters – the villain, on the other hand — Jean de Men — prefers to sedate Earth-women and, via surgical robots, perform mass genital mutilation in the most graphic way possible. This is no country for the faint of heart.
If the reader looks to Earth for comfort, there is little to be found. Joan is a character only dimly realized. The most vivid comparison between her and the historical Joan of Arc probably lies in the partial transcript of her trial. The historical 15th-century document famously reveals a simple, humble, conspicuously intelligent young woman, whereas the dialogue in the fictional transcript more closely resembles that of an impertinent 21st-century teenager, full of shallow pseudo-wit.
The biggest disappointment about Earth, however – and it is my single biggest disappointment with the novel – is the absence of a memorable terrain. The desolate landscape of our childhood dreams — whose greatest benchmark is probably Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – is totally missing from this novel. Each scene is oddly circumscribed, limited to a cave, or a single tree, or the beach, all minimally rendered and lacking in emotional resonance.
The book has received several reviews that speak glowingly of the power of the novel’s ideas and prose. A reader might understandably ask if I find anything worthwhile about the book, and I must say I find one passage particularly beautiful and moving. This passage should be familiar to fans of Yuknavitch; it is Joan describing a vision: “I am alone in a child’s room, with a white-haired girl. . . . Three of the walls are violently bombed-out. . . . Somehow, a little desk has survived intact, set in front of what is left of a window. ‘La fenêtre,’ the little girl says, pointing to a place where a window used to be.”
This is the powerful trope of Yuknavitch’s award-winning novel, The Small Backs of Children — one of the most powerful, I think, that I’ve ever encountered: a very young girl-child, survivor of a bombing that annihilates her family before her eyes.
“How important is it that art shock our sensibilities, and can we define an optimum level of shock, or even articulate such a thing?”
Yuknavitch’s beautifully written Small Backs also contains a handful of scenes one could easily call pornographic, if not for the powerful context that surrounds them. Some readers who have rated The Book of Joan on Amazon complain that lesbian love scenes seem de rigueur in science fiction stories anymore (Yuknavitch is bisexual), but I suspect these readers are unfamiliar with the rest of Yuknavitch’s writings. The lesbian love interest between Joan and Leone in The Book of Joan is decidedly tame next to Small Backs or Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water.
So the problem, for me, becomes an intellectual one – a problem so fascinating, I’m willing to forgive even the emotional barrenness of this, her latest work, and eagerly await the next. What does this book, so different from her others, indicate about her artistic development? What is the line between porn and art? How important is her work in terms of breaking ground for lesbian art and culture? How important is it that art shock our sensibilities, and can we define an optimum level of shock, or even articulate such a thing?
I can imagine a way that this author could run with her most powerful work and become something lastingly great – but then, my ideas wouldn’t be Lidia Yuknavitch’s story. “I don’t know,” she writes in her memoir, “why women can’t make the story do what they want.” I await with great interest her own inspired choices about how to continue to push those boundaries.