Once again I read a book that I thought really didn’t think its premise through. The last time this happened I thought the book was actually all together bad. This time it was not the case. The book was Naomi Alderman’s The Power.
I felt a great hemming and hawing right as I finished the book. Yea, I liked it. Boy, do I have a lot to say. But I want to make it very clear before I start the full on moaning – I liked it. It had me captivated like few things have in some time. I would recommend it.
The summary of the book can be laid out pretty briefly. Women and girls all over the world develop what is akin to a superpower in the form of being able to deliver an electrical shock. The cause of this is explored slightly but never developed (which I frankly didn’t have a problem with), and the story focuses much more on the consequences of the development of this power. Reading this, one is forgiven for taking Alderman to be a really dour person. This book is damn bleak, and later parts of it read like Andrea Dworkin’s cocaine fueled fantasies. Still, while it was a bit much at times it always felt in service of the story, and much unlike how I felt after reading some Joanna Russ, it seems clear here that the culprit is power itself.
Now let the moaning begin in earnest, which will entail a few spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Some of these points don’t matter all that much. The frame around the principle story didn’t add much for me, except to really hammer home the moral of the story at the end. It felt a bit blunt, and it felt a bit preachy. It did however, lay out the author’s theoretical framework for the novel, at least in terms of some questions of sex and gender. But frankly, I was picking up a lot of it from the main text, and I really felt like I could have done without the frame.
Another minor gripe with the story is the inclusion of a character that the narrative seems to hint is the biblical god. I was much more comfortable with the story when I thought this voice was just some kind of stress induced madness in the character’s head. This for me lead to far too many interpretations, depending on where your theology lies. The problem is that if you take the boilerplate 21st century understanding of the biblical god, there would be the implication that the actions it is leading to must be just. This is in pretty much the same way that the slaughter of the Canaanites is sometimes justified – god commanded it, end of story. Divinity is justification of actions, and I am reasonably sure the author is aware of this. The author may possibly have been making a distinction between Yahweh and Elohim in the gnostic sense, but that felt far too damn niche, and it really didn’t seem supported anywhere in the text. The implication of this one tiny detail is pretty damn massive to the reading of the text. But this was one minor point in the story, and even when this deity jumped from one characters head to the other, for the purpose of enjoying the story I just assumed it was just to similar cases of madness.
The real point I constantly came back to while reading it was the discourse of power itself. The novel operates on an underlying assumption that power stems only from physical violence. The world around us is full of examples of other forms of power. None of that is explored here. When there are power discrepancies in relationships, people find other ways of leveraging other forms power against the aggressor. This too is a form of power. I have seen any number of pretty awful relationships in my life, and while there was always a question of one person in the relationship having more power than the other, it was not always a matter of physical violence. This is why I wasn’t afraid to lob an accusation of dour at the author. Largely, this is the story of people accumulating and abusing power – either implicitly or explicitly. It’s people taking what they can because they can.
Frankly I thought an exploration from the side of people coming to grips with a certain sense of powerlessness would also have been interesting. That is not explored here. There is a hint of it through some extremist men’s rights movements, but it really just a stand in for the goony internet men that already exist today. Absent are the everyday ordinary people who pay taxes, go to boring 9-5 jobs, and are likely decent albeit boring people. We see flashes of them living in fear as the changes in society occur. At the risk of doubling or tripling the novel, this could have been explored in a lot more depth.
There were a lot of absences in this story.
The novel ended up reminding me of every piss-poor conversation I had in university with people who began with an opinion and did everything in their power to later convince themselves of it. This book begins with the assumption that the only human power worth having (or that really matters) is physical violence. That is of course, not the damn case, as anyone paying attention to recent political events should have noticed by now. Not to get all Karl Marx up in here, but if you want to see a power difference, just compare yourself to literally anyone with more money than you. That’s likely the most common power difference in existence.
(There was meant to be a paragraph about the massive amounts of rape and sexual violence in this novel. That’s what my notes say. Except I cant hash out my opinions from the notes, and since beginning this post a bad case of COVID laid me out for nearly a damn month. So we are just going to have to reduce things on that front. Sorry.)
The most minuscule of my gripe’s? What the hell were the publishers thinking putting ‘Electrifying’ on the cover?