Book Review: VOX

A couple of months ago, I read an article in the New York Times that listed several new books that had come out under a budding genre: feminist dystopian fiction. If you’ve ever heard of or watched “The Handmaid’s Tale” TV series (or read the book), then you have a fairly good idea of what kind of themes and content you will find in this genre. While I was reading the article, one of the books caught my attention: VOX, by Christina Dalcher. The summary looked interesting, so I decided to pick up a copy for myself.

To provide a brief summary, Dalcher’s novel centers on Dr. Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist living in a United States that is run by the “Pure Movement,” a Christian fundamentalist political movement that has gained control of Congress and the White House and has instituted a policy whereby women are only allowed to speak up to 100 words every 24 hours. This policy is enforced by women being required to wear metal counters on their wrists that are tied to their voices; these counters will deliver a small electric shock if the wearer goes over 100 words, which increases every 10 words the wearer says afterwards. Eventually, if the wearer says too many words, the counter is capable of delivering a lethal electric shock.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the novel. The novel forces you to think about certain issues, especially if you are not a feminist. For instance, does teaching AP classes on Christian fundamentalism bring us one step closer to a dystopian world where women are suppressed? Dalcher seems to think so, and so does Jean, who draws a timeline in her flashbacks that brought the United States to its current state. There are other instances in which Dalcher briefly brings up other issues that seem unrelated to the novel’s main themes but nevertheless play a part in the dystopian world. When Jean and her family (consisting of her husband, Patrick, and her three sons and one daughter) try to leave the United States when the counters come out, they avoid going to Mexico since there is a wall along the entire border, preventing people from leaving. Aside from being a subtle jab at President Trump’s proposed border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, I read this part of the book as “walls eventually keep people in, not out.” I imagine this part will irk some conservative readers and Trump supporters.

The first 24 chapters of the novel are where the readers will encounter the most “political” statements. The dystopia is explained and the main conflicts are laid out. Afterwards, Dalcher’s book mostly reads like a regular novel (mostly because she tones down the political content) and the plot moves forward, which is where the novel begins to fall apart. I have some reservations about the climax, which did not make much sense to me. But other than that, I really like the novel’s structure and how the plot moved forward.

Moving on to themes, several emerge in the novel, such as Christian fundamentalism, family, marriage, patriarchy, women’s rights, masculinity and femininity, gender and gender relations (particularly under a patriarchal dystopia) and the slide into authoritarianism. Many of these themes and conflicts emerge in particular scenes. When Jean gets her counter off, she gets into an argument with her oldest son, Steven, with whom she has several arguments throughout the novel and with whom she has a contentious relationship (Steven is a diehard believer in the Pure Movement’s ideals). During the argument, Steven tells his mother off, saying that it will eventually be illegal for women to insult men. In another scene, Jean gets into an argument with Patrick, where Patrick eventually wonders aloud if his mother would have been better off with her counter on. These two scenes struck me as gut-wrenching, not because it’s the main character’s own family beating down on her, but because of the circumstances in which the arguments took place. In both instances, Jean was propelled by the utter helplessness and verbal hamstringing she felt under the new laws, at times flirting with misandry because of the poor relationships she has with her husband and oldest son.

Another theme that is worth discussing is masculinity and what it means to be a man. Jean frequently compares her husband to a former lover, Lorenzo. Jean sees Lorenzo as having a backbone and willing to stand up for her, while Patrick is a more passive type, willing to let things happen. This is compounded by Patrick working as a scientific adviser to the president; while Patrick was not directly responsible for the counters, Jean still holds him in disregard because he does nothing about it. I believe that Lorenzo’s character is what Dalcher thinks is the ideal man and embodies a “proper” type of masculinity: Lorenzo is portrayed as smart, protective, strong, and romantic. I imagine Lorenzo is the answer that feminists like Mrs. Dalcher have to the “problem” of masculinity in our society.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in the themes that I discussed. I will add that the novel is a good follow-up or compliment to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has a similar dystopia to that of VOX. While it has its faults, Dalcher’s novel highlights some of the key issues facing America today with regards to gender and tackles them from a feminist perspective.

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Five Shockingly Conservative Novels

If you’re looking for books to read that are utterly free from sex or violence, then you’re going to have to ignore a big chunk of good literature that includes all epic poetry and the Bible. In the following novels, discerning readers may find little gems of traditionalism, individualism, and even a little Hobbesian philosophy—provided they’re willing to sift through the shock.

1. A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novella follows the young delinquent Alex, a gangster with a lust for violence and classical music who wreaks nightly havoc on the streets of a dark near-future London whose population seems dully dependent upon the state. Eventually caught by the police, Alex agrees to an experimental treatment in exchange for a reduced sentence and finds that he can no longer exercise his free will.

Sadly, Burgess’ book lives in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 1971 film version, whose overt psychosexual tones frighten off more conservative viewers. Kubrick and the original American publishers both cut out Burgess’ entire final chapter, which follows Alex’s final, voluntary redemption.

Although the story contains violent scenes and dabbles in the postmodern playground of language, A Clockwork Orange (especially with all 21 original chapters) hacks at the root of statism as a parable about how forced morality can never be truly good.

2. The Rainbow

In other works such as St. Mawr, D.H. Lawrence shows his disgust with socialism and the cheapness of modern love more explicitly. It can be hard to hear the same voice in The Rainbow, which was burned on the streets of London for obscenity. But don’t be fooled—although the book’s main heroine flirts with homosexuality and seems to embody the burgeoning feminism of the new century, The Rainbow puts untraditional love on trial and finds it wanting. The Rainbow ends with its heroine, now experienced, awaiting marriage as a transcendent force rather than a cheap social artifice. There’s no 1950s housewifery, but Lawrence’s meandering novel treats love with reverence and strongly affirms a deep, essential difference between men and women.

3. On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s controversial novel delights in the richness of America. The novel retells Kerouac’s real descent into the drug-addled underworld of the Beat generation as he travels with famous writers from coast to coast. From jazz music to the Rocky Mountains, Kerouac playfully and sincerely sees the country through loving eyes and just can’t get enough of it all.

Admittedly, the conservatism in the novel depends heavily on the times. Love for America used to be a common (if not believable) theme in liberal rhetoric, but the leftward dash towards globalism has abandoned simple patriotism to the right wing. Today, Kerouac’s simple, almost childlike appreciation of American beauty is a refreshing dose.

4. Lord of the Flies

Pessimism about human nature is the root of conservative thought, and Lord of the Flies encapsulates it perfectly. William Golding’s novel plops a lot of choir boys on an island and watches their civilized sense of humanity unravel. In a sense, Golding uses a story to explain what Thomas Hobbes argues in Leviathan: given utter freedom, humans are nasty, warlike things. The reintroduction of order at the end brings them right back to the supposed innocence of childhood that we enjoy in civilization.

5. Blood Meridian

Set in the lawless world of the Texas-Mexico border in the Old West, Blood Meridian contains some of the most grisly scenes in literature, all told in perhaps the most beautiful prose in American writing. The unnamed ‘Kid’ is our hero, an impressionable young runaway who falls in with a crowd of mercenaries who make their money collecting Indian scalps.

Blood Meridian is a complicated novel that resists interpretation, but the most significant conflict is a battle for the Kid’s soul between a priest-turned-mercenary and an otherworldly villain known only as the Judge. The Judge seems to be an embodiment of the impending modern age. Though a ruthless criminal of massive strength, the Judge is an amoral empiricist who speaks many languages eloquently and sketches all the creatures he sees in his little scientific journal. He sets himself as the enemy of the Priest, who desperately tries to convince the Kid to stay away from the Judge. It’s impossible to be too specific in a paragraph when interpreting a book as full as Blood Meridian, but beneath the horror of McCarthy’s world lies a suspicion for modernism and an elegy for the old.

Bonus: Hard Times

In the end, Hard Times is a feel-good novel that doesn’t really shock the reader like the rest of the books on this list, but because so many critics easily interpret Dickens’ work as anti-capitalist, it deserves a spot as a surprisingly conservative novel. Russell Kirk once called conservatism “the negation of ideology.” We conservatives stay dubious of any social theories that claim to save us, understanding that humans are too weak to come up with a good panacea and too complex to be pigeonholed by know-it-all scholars. Few novels preach this message as well as Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

Compared to Dickens’ longer and more complicated works, Hard Times can seem a little didactic. Yet, Charles Dickens still works his magic as a master storyteller with his trademark use of intersecting plotlines, vivid characterization, and a good, satisfying ending. Furthermore, the message it sends goes beyond a critique of industrialism. In addition to big business, Dickens accuses standardized education and the government for failing to recognize the beauty of the individual. Rigid philosophy and dependence on facts are the chief villains of Hard Times, and simple individualism is the hero.

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10 Novels Conservatives Should Read in 2019

It’s a new year, which means many of us have made New Year’s resolutions. While talking with a few friends, I realized that I have read very few fiction novels with conservative ideas and values. So after some research, soul-searching and hours staring at my bookshelf, I have compiled a list of ten books that champion, or at least analyze, conservatism in one way or another.

1. 1984 by George Orwell

George Orwell tells the story of Oceania, a country ruled by a totalitarian government and the ever-present Big Brother. Perhaps not the most uplifting story, 1984 deals with issues of human morality, perseverance in the face of persecution and the ultimate human desire for freedom. It conveys the undeniable message that humans seek freedom from restrictive government and a warning to future generations not to allow themselves to be controlled by the government or the media, all of which are important takeaways in a time of ‘fake news’ and political correctness.

2. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park is not Jane Austen’s most famous novel, but I believe it is one of her most powerful. It deals with the morality of the characters and champions Fanny Price for her modesty and morality. As always, Austen writes about traditional gender roles and the importance of morality and propriety in relationships, which are always refreshing lessons.

3. Antigone by Sophocles (I recommend the Rex Warner or David Grene translation)

One of Sophocles’ greatest tragedies, Antigone is essentially about the differences between what is the law and what is right. Antigone’s decisions throughout the play shows the audience the importance of one’s own morality and piety, but also the importance of familial relationships and loyalty.

4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women tells the story of the March girls, four sisters who live in Concord, MA during and after the Civil War. As the siblings grow up from little girls into women, they learn the importance of religion, charity and friendship. While it is a book that ends with a “they all got married and lived happily” statement, Little Women is, above all, about family and growing up to be good people.

5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel mainly deals with the topic of censorship. The society in Fahrenheit 451 is one in which all dissenting opinions are silenced and the population is forced into ignorance. While not so drastic as in the novel, today’s society has its own version of book-burning censorship in the form of political correctness.

6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Betty Smith’s novel focuses on a family living in Brooklyn before, during, and after World War I. It is about the Nolan Family and their individual struggles through poverty and other kinds of tragedies. The novel values family and hard work, and praises characters who have compassion for those in need. It’s a wonderful read about a tight-knit family, who perseveres until the end.

7. The Circle by Dave Eggers

While perhaps not the most well-written novel, this satire showcases everything that could go wrong with technology and the media. This book offers a look into something similar to the radical progressive ideology. While the company and its employees say that they are doing what they believe to be morally right, the reader and a small faction of the book’s characters realize that The Circle is a company that cares about power, not morality. They effectively run the world, all while believing that they are saving humanity from themselves. Just as many progressives claim that their policies are about morality, they too seem to care more about their own power than the freedom and happiness of the everyday man.

8. Shelley’s Heart by Charles McCarry

McCarry’s novel deals with a liberal president whose conservative opponent contests the election. While it feels similar, at first, to the Russian collusion theories, McCarry’s novel deals instead with the ins-and-outs of American politics and its politicians. While McCarry does not discuss conserative ideology, his novel does bring up ideas about ethics in politics. It is a fun, interesting read and definitely worth the time.

9. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

This comedy has many important messages for the modern conservative, especially after the media disaster concerning the Covington Catholic High School stories. One of the main characters, Claudio, receives false information from an untrustworthy source, and impulsively makes a decision which ultimately causes much grief for every character involved. In addition, Much Ado About Nothing focuses on the close relationships of family and friends, and the devotion (or lack thereof) between two lovers. It cautions readers to question their news sources, to think before they act and to love deeply before time runs out.

10. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Often considered a children’s story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe deals with themes that are still relevant to conservatives today. Emphasizing family, the book shows the importance of not only familial relationships, but also in forgiveness and acceptance. With his depiction of the battle between Good and Evil, C.S. Lewis also writes about the importance of morality and compassion.