Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Book Review: The Power, by Naomi Alderman

As I write this, I am still conflicted about The Power. It is a thought-provoking examination of patriarchal violence and power imbalance between genders, but in the same way the autopsy of a live pig would be a thought-provoking examination of animal anatomy.

The premise of The Power is fairly straightforward: one day women spontaneously manifest the ability to produce electricity. Only women have the Power, and the story follows a cast of characters from all walks of life as a new social order emerges from the resulting tumult.

Except that's not quite true. The Power, written by Naomi Alderman, is a fictional exchange between the character Naomi (a writer) and her friend, the character Neil Adam Armon (a writer in the Men's Writing Association). It opens with a brief exchange of letters between Naomi and Neil, where he states that he has given her his latest manuscript to review. It is "not quite history, not quite a novel. A sort of 'novelization' of what archaeologists agree is the most plausible narrative." We are then treated to the manuscript of his book, The Power, which recounts a version of the events 5,000 years prior that lead to the downfall of human civilization and of what is implied to be a new bronze age. It starts when women spontaneously manifest the ability to produce electricity from a new organ near their neck.

There's quite a lot to talk about, but before we get into it a disclaimer: The Power depicts sexual violence in detail, against both men and women, and though I will try to keep the descriptions at a distance I will be quoting directly from a few of the relevant scenes. I feel this is necessary to show that the work's depictions of this violence are problematic. Of you want my general thoughts on it, skip to the conclusion.

The work intends, quite blatantly, to satirize and critique the structure of modern-day patriarchy by putting women in the place of men; thus shining a light on the harmful attitudes and actions that have been normalized in our current society. The opening and closing letters between Niel and Naomi do this quite successfully. After Naomi reads his work she states that she "has some questions," and proceeds to be condescending and dismissive of many of the points Neil raises. The irony in her statements is quite clear: "I feel... that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought on the evolutionary psychology of it?" Naomi ignores or dismisses most of his rebukes, implies he is being too "sensitive," and even ends her last response with the suggestion that he publish "under a woman's name" in order to break out of "men's literature." It is simple, familiar, and effectively enraging satire of the attitudes women face in reality.

Yet this framing is quickly forgotten once the actual story in The Power begins. The line between Neil and the real author Naomi Alderman is blurry; though supposedly 5,000 years and a nuclear cataclysm removed from our modern day, pop-culture references abound in Neil's The Power. There are explicit mentions of YouTube, CNN, Fox News, a reference to the Wesboro Baptist Church. Real world locations and political realities are replicated, such as woman in Saudi Arabia being unable to drive (a reference already outdated), toxic internet culture, the dialect of London mobsters, etc. There is no attempt to imagine what an actual "novelization" of an alternate history might be—Neil's accuracy implies he has perfect access to all information about the culture and political landscape he is depicting; which he does because Naomi Alderman does. The two authors often become indistinguishable in terms of their perspectives.

This would not be an issue if the satire in the actual story were as effective (or perhaps focused is a better word) as the closing letters, but what could have been a visceral and scathing examination of women's oppression is undone by confused philosophy, generally bland writing, and a tendency to replicate problematic tropes without actually offering any critique.

However, before we can address these issues in detail, we need to go through the actual plot.

[I should also state before I continue: when I speak of Naomi Alderman, I do not mean the Naomi Alderman who is a real person and physically wrote this book. I mean the concept of the static author of this text, who we can imagine has clear intentions and a singular, unchanging vision. Real-life Alderman has no doubt moved on; her thoughts have shifted and changed, as do all of ours. This post is not a criticism of her. It is a criticism of her work.]

Plot Summary
The Power begins on the day Roxy Monke discovers she has the power. Her family is involved in the London mob, and on this day her mother is murdered by a pair of rival gangsters.  She shows her new found power to her father and her brothers, and they plot to take revenge against the man who ordered the hit.

Tunde Edo is a young man who breaks into journalism by being the first to film a woman using her power to defend herself in public. He then seeks out more stories about the power, and finds himself a witness to the overturn of governments and patriarchies worldwide. He starts collecting material for a book about the emergence of this new power. He believes it will be his magnum opus.

Margot Clearly, an American mayor, must keep stability and calm in her city as the power awakens in young girls around the world. As more is learned about the power, she realizes her daughter Jocelyn has an abnormal condition that makes her power fluctuate greatly outside of her control. She also learns that girls can awaken the power within older women, but when Jocelyn shows her how it is done, Margot decides to hide the fact she now has the power from the public.

Allie is the foster child of Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor. Mr. Montgomery-Taylor regularly abuses her while his wife does nothing to stop him. After acquiring her power, Allie murders Mr. Montgomery-Taylor and flees their home at the behest of a voice inside her head. She is taken in by a Christian covenant where she adopts the persona of Eve. She discovers that she has a uniquely precise control over the electrical currents she produces, and soon claims to be a prophet, performing 'miracles' that no one else recognizes as the use of her power. She states that "God is neither woman nor man but both these things. But now She has come to show us a new side to Her face, one we have ignored for too long," and uses the appearance of the power as a sign to prove her claim.

Each of these characters go on fairly separate journeys, but their paths do cross near the story's end. 'Mother Eve' quickly gains a following, as the voice in her head advises her and speaks of a 'soldier' who will come to help her spread her new religion. That soldier is Roxy, who makes her way to America after taking revenge on her mother's murderer. Together the pair spread Mother Eve's doctrine worldwide. Eve is soon globally recognized and becomes an influential figure in the newly formed nation of Bessapara, which emerged from Moldova after it's first lady, Tatiana Moskalev, killed her husband and aided a woman-lead rebellion against his government. Tatiana becomes an abusive and power-hungry ruler, and Allie/Eve begins plotting to replace her with a more reasonable leader: Roxy. To this end, she starts using her power to subtly mind-control Tatiana, even as the tyrant mounts a northern campaign to push back the remnants of the overthrown Moldovan military.

Meanwhile, Roxy has learned that it was her own father who really ordered the murder of her mother, and when she confronts him about it he states that her mother had betrayed him previously. She lets him live, but usurps his position and proceeds to build a drug-trafficking empire through a monopoly on 'Glitter,' which enhances a woman's electrical output in addition to it's mind-altering effects. She agrees to Allie's plan to usurp Tatiana, however before they can enact it Roxy is betrayed by her brother Darrell, who was secretly still working with her father. They remove her skein (the organ responsible for creating their electricity) and transplant it into Darrell. Roxy manages to escape and is left on foot, wandering powerless near the mountains of Bessapara.

Tunde, after rising to prominence covering uprisings in Saudi Arabia and India, as well as the days before Tatiana's rise in Moldova, finds himself a witness to the rise of a fascist state in Bessapara, as men are stripped of their rights and made second-class citizens. He stays in the country, wanting to gather more material for his book. This proves to be his downfall. As the law becomes increasingly sever he begins to fear for his life. He tries to contact a friend to get him out of the country, but is met with the surprising news that he is supposed to be dead. He finds his obituary in the newspaper; and learns that a colleague, Nina, has stolen his work and published it as her own. Before he can attempt to clarify the situation he is forced to flee into the wilderness, losing his cellphone in the process.

In the forest, Tunde meets Roxy after she saves him from a cult. The two make their way to a refugee camp, but it is attacked by a fanatical faction of Bessapara's army. The two escape as the camp is massacred, and eventually make their way back to a city. Roxy uses what connections she has to smuggle Tunde out of the country, and then confronts Allie, stating that she needs to use her influence to stop the carnage in the northern region. Allie, however, believes the only way to stop the chaos is to "start Armageddon." The two part on bad terms, as Roxy, now without her power, is unable to convince Allie to change her mind. Roxy returns to London, awaiting Tunde, and prepares for the end of the world. Allie, having taken the throne from Tatiana, rallies her followers to continue the war.

Margot and Jocelyn's story is fairly simple: Margot uses everyone and everything in her life to advance her political career, much to Jocelyn's detriment. After acquiring the power, Margot starts a series of "NorthStar" training camps for girls with the power. She enrolls Jocelyn, hoping the other girls will teach her daughter how to better control her power. NorthStar grows into a private military organization as Margot becomes first governor then an influential senator. She aids the war in Bessapara on Tatiana's side, and Jocelyn is deployed there as well. Jocelyn, conflicted over her lack of control and angry at her mother, sets out on a hunch to investigate strange activity in the nearby mountains. There she finds Darrell, who is now running Roxy's drug-smuggling operation. They fight, and she is grievously injured, but Darrell reveals that he has stolen Roxy's skein in front of the other factory workers—the women are enraged, and tear him apart. Margot, upon hearing of her daughter's injuries, realizes that she has neglected her duties as a parent. "Burn it all down," she thinks.

The ending of the book is left somewhat vague, but Margot uses her position to influence the president to get involved in Bessapara, while Allie uses her Mother Eve persona to accept the aid and escalate the conflict to international levels. A nuclear apocalypse is implied to follow, and we return to the ending letters between Niel and Naomi.

The Writing
As a drama, The Power is severely lacking. The main characters have fairly simple motivations (Roxy wants revenge, Margot wants political power and to 'fix' her daughter, Allie follows the voice in her head, Tunde wants fame), and secondary characters are weakly characterized at best. The twist in Roxy's story is the prime example of this. We never get much insight into her family, so the betrayals by her father and then her brother lack any emotional impact and are never foreshadowed. When we do get her brother Darrell's perspective, all we see is a paint-by-numbers third act villain. His only goal is making money ("We'll make a killing, Dad.") and his only traits are pride, impatience, and stupidity.

The minor characters are so forgettable and interchangeable that Roxy herself notices, describing a woman she works with as "a systems analyst with a blunt bob—Lucy? Charlotte? They all have roughly the same name." When Allie meets girls at the covenant, we see them only long enough to learn that they are victims of abuse, and then they never appear again. One would expect a book criticizing patriarchy to treat its woman as complete characters, but few of either sex exist beyond their function in the plot.

Even the prose has some basic weaknesses. Too often there is telling where there should be showing, and a lot of redundancy where both are employed at once. In a scene between Tunde and Roxy, after they have escaped the attack on their camp, this line occurs: "This makes him laugh. And his laughter makes her laugh... and something is broken between them then, and something is a little easier." The second half of that line is unnecessary. We do not need to be told they are at ease with each other because that is what their laughter shows us. Earlier, when the raiding army kills one of the woman in the camp, this line occurs: "They overwhelm her easily, and kill her with a particular brutality..." and it is then followed by a brutal description of how exactly they killed her, thus making the first sentence unnecessary, and lessening the following description by preparing us for it.

A few instances of telling would be nothing to note, but huge swaths of the plot and even character beats are delivered this way, reducing their impact. One of the strangest instances is when Margot's power is revealed. She is running for mayor and in a debate with the incumbent, Daniel. Daniel attacks her by insinuating she is not taking good enough care of her children, and she becomes so enraged that she loses control and shocks him with her power. Before this point she had kept her power a secret, as women with the power were barred from holding public office, and that secret is one of her primary worries in the story until that point. However, we do not see this pivotal moment from her perspective. Instead, the incident and its fallout are given entirely from Daniel's campaign manager, Morrison, who never appears again outside of this one chapter. Although we learn more about Margot (she cares about her daughters so much she loses control), it is from a disconnected and strangely dehumanizing perspective. Morrison refers to Daniel as "Morrison's candidate" or "the candidate" and only thinks of Margot as "she" during the debate. Further removing the emotional impact of the scene, the debate between the two candidates is told to us with little actual substance as to what was actually said: "The candidate's a different man now... comes out fighting on question after question... He sounds like the natural heir to the Founding Fathers, and she comes off as defensive. It's good. It's really good." Being given only this summary undercuts her outburst because there's no build-up. We only see the final insult: "We can't expect you to understand what this means for hard-working families... You've left your daughters to be raised by NorthStar camps. Do you even care about those girls?" We can understand that Margot is angry, but we do not feel it, and so it's hard to feel anything but confusion as she is rewarded for her slip-up by getting elected at the end of the chapter. Morrison gives us the only commentary on the upset:


It turns out the voters lied. Just like the accusation they always through at hard-working public servants, the goddamned electorate turned out to be a goddamned liars themselves... but when they went into the voting booths... they thought "You know what, though, she's strong. She'd show them."

There's no sense of tension from either candidate, and no insight into what Margot thinks of her mistake (we never get any reflection on the moment in later Margot chapters either). We are simply told a page later that, 'eh, it didn't really matter in the end.' The scene shows us how public perception has shifted but it is underwhelming from a dramatic standpoint and absolutely abysmal as a character study.

Perspectives often bleed into each other. Each chapter is titled with a perspective character's name, but quite often we abruptly switch between their perspective and that of a nearby character with little rhyme or reason. In one instance, Allie performs a faith healing on Jocelyn. We follow Allie's thoughts as she does so, but then this line appears in the middle: "Jocelyn, though she rarely prated, prays now." We then jump back to Allie's perspective. There's nothing wrong with an omniscient narrator, but the switching happens so inconsistently that it only breaks the flow of the writing when it does occur, especially since chapters are named after certain characters only.

Although the storytelling in The Power is on the weak side, it does manage to be compelling in its themes and imagery, thought not always for good reason.

Characters & Role Reversal
Throughout the novel there is frequent and pointed power-reversal of the sexes. Margot sexualizes young men she encounters/has power over; Tatiana makes men in her country second-class citizens; Allie becomes a worldwide spiritual leader that rivals the Pope. Yet as often as it might be enlightening about the real oppression in our society these reversals just as often justify or ignore the status-quo that gives rise to it.

Roxy (perhaps the most nuanced character in The Power) starts out seeking vengeance for her mother, kills several men who she believes are responsible, and then ultimately decides to forgive her father twice, first for having her mother killed and then later for his role in helping Darrell steal her skein. The why of her forgiveness goes mostly unexplored. When she learns of her father's deed, she decides to spare him, and explicitly acknowledges her attempt to end the cycle of violence that defines her mob life. Yet her first act is to step in as the new head of the system that created this cycle ("Roxy Monke's taken over this business now. You know who she is? You know who her dad is?") and when Darrell and her father betray her she is punished for her mercy. The takeaway seems to be that she should have expunged her father when she had the chance, or learned that no men are ever to be trusted. In the end she is powerless to stop the apocalypse, and seems to forgive her father because... well, no reason is given. Exhaustion? Family loyalty? We get no exploration of her mind or emotional state whatsoever. She says that she has "learned [her] lesson," but what that means is unclear. She was already willing to show mercy and the narrative reprimanded her for it

(As an aside, there is some whitewashing of her family's role as a mob. They traffic drugs and murder people but deal "not in flesh, that's a dirty trade." So they do crime but, like, good crime. It's a strange conceit in an otherwise unflinching portrayal of power and violence.)

Tunde, our only male perspective character, frequently finds himself under the power of other female characters. In his introductory scene he receives a shock from a girl after they share a kiss, which leaves him numb and humiliated. He starts his career by filming a woman who shocks a man harassing her in a store. After he becomes a novice reporter, he is coerced into a pseudo-striptease to prove he is unarmed when he tries to film a woman's riot in Saudi Arabia. He later has sex with Noor, the woman who watched him, being used as a symbol of her liberation, and he feels at once "afraid" and "turned on." His next big scoop is covering the uprising in Delhi, where a mad woman (she is described with "eyes rolling in her head" and "a bad, wide smile") tries to rape him before he is saved by a group of other women. He later is said to have PTSD from his attack, and he feels guilty about this, thinking that "nothing worse has happened to him than to anyone. There is no reason for him to be afraid, no more reason than any other man."

Tunde's character gives us a sympathetic face to the victims of the new power imbalance (and by extension, to the victims of real-world misogyny/patriarchy). However, few men are given much characterization besides Tunde. The only significant protesters to the new power dynamic that so often hurts Tunde are all either crazy conspiracy theorists or white supremacist types trying to bring the world "back the way it ought to be." When Tunde is taken to interview one prominent leader of such a group, his escort is described as "men who've watched too many movies. This has become a thing now: men's movie clubs, in living rooms and back rooms of bars. Watching particular kinds of movies over and over again: the ones with explosions and helicopter crashes and guns and muscles and punching. Guy flicks." While this and a few other criticism of toxic masculinity ring true in isolation, they serve to portray any and all resistance to the new oppressors as malicious and misguided. There is no sympathy for those in the new underclass who are seeking equality and protections. The reversal of society is portrayed largely as a victory over these (rightfully) acceptable targets.

When Tunde's work ("his essay. His photographs") gets stolen by Nina (his "girlfriend" who gets so little characterization I got her confused with Noor and had to double-check if she'd been mentioned before), it is clearly meant to parallel women like Rosalind Franklin whose work and contributions are often ignored or stolen by men who receive the credit. Naomi even points this out in one of her closing letters: "And I see what you've done with Tunde—I'm sure something like that has happened to thousands of men down the generations." Yet the framing of this instances makes it feel like Tunde got unlucky with his choice of girlfriend, not that he was a victim of a system of oppression. Until that moment he enjoyed fame and notoriety as a reporter, and none but Nina are to blame for the theft. Moreover it is disconnected from the world Neil inhabits. The circumstances of Tunde's erasure are so fantastic that "something like that" happening more than once is rather unbelievable. The suggestion that Neil publish under a woman's name is a far better, yet briefer, encapsulation of this idea. It shows oppression coming from a pernicious attitude, not extraordinary circumstances.

Margot, our corrupt politician, offers a different perspective of how power is abused. She uses her position to help build a de-facto private army by the end of the book and is portrayed as self-interested, ambitious, and greedy. Yet it is only Margot who seems to be the problem. Daniel, whom she replaces, is perhaps a bit incompetent but we see so little of him that I can't tell if he's supposed to be a better or worse person. At the very end of the novel, the president of the United States wishes to "extend an olive branch," and de-escalate the conflict in Bessapara, but it is Margot who tells him to "send them a message." What role Margot's superiors or inferiors might have played in her rise to power and the violence she promotes and enacts is simply absent. It could easily be read that, had a better person simply been in Margot's shoes, things might have ended more favorably for humanity.

When Roxy discovers that her other half-brother Ricky has been raped she gets revenge for him by attacking the woman who did it. During their comeuppance, the woman claimed that "He was asking for it. He begged us for it..." clearly using the language of victim-blaming and rape apology that exist in modern society. Yet instead of criticizing this language or the ideas behind it, the book simply replicates them without comment. Ricky barely exists as a character outside of this event. His victimhood serves only to create an excuse for Roxy's violence against his attackers and leads to her promotion within the mob. There is no examination of his trauma or his perspective. "Ricky's out of the picture now," states his mother. He exists only to be raped and to be motivation for our main character. The whole scene is an inverse of the fridged wife trope, yet it fails to satirize it. All the elements that make it problematic remain, simply gender-swapped.

(Also, if we look at this scene from Neil's perspective, where men are marginalized as women are now, then he simply is using the trope uncritically. Yet his work is presented as critical and controversial; his statements in the end frame him as a voice of reason. Surely he would know better than to just undermine one of his biggest themes in this way?)

This same beat is repeated later on, when Tunde and Roxy witness the attack on their refugee camp. A woman rapes a man while her fellow soldiers surround them. The scene is described in graphic detail; we see each moment of this nameless man's rape, how he is humiliated and shamed by the women around him. The sexual violence is horrifying and grotesque, but it becomes as problematic as any other gratuitous rape scene because it does little else with the rape but portray it for shock value. The victim and perpetrator are nameless, the mechanics of his rape described in pornographic detail. It even ends with a cumshot: "When the woman comes... she throws her head back and pushes her chest forward and lets go a huge blast [of electricity] right into the center of his body."

(Again, if we look at this scene from Neil's perspective, it only gets worse.)

I have often criticized the portrayal of sexual violence in the books I've read, but that is not because I think it is 'off-limits' in fiction. It is simply the case that it is quite often done poorly.* It either reduces a character to their victimhood (such as Neuromancer or the character of Julie Mao from The Expanse novels), propagates misogynistic ideas (such as Stranger in a Strange Land), or just flat-out fails to portray its power dynamics in the way it intends (see: Autonomous). In The Power, the intent of all of our characters' journeys and the violence they experience/witness is to shock the reader into re-examining real-world violence that may have been normalized in their mind ("boys will be boys," "she was asking for it," etc.) but the novel fails to actually present the normalizing itself as problematic or even extant in most cases.

*(For examples of portrayals of sexual violence in fiction that are not poorly done, see The Handmaid's Tale, An Excess Maleor The Race).

In Roxy's chapter, the attitudes that lead to her brother's attack have not existed before that scene. The same is true of most other portrayals of 'internalized men-sogyny' or 'toxic femininity,' such as when Jocelyn voices concern about being perceived as "weak" due to her lack of control fairly late into the novel. This feeling is linked to advertisements that use displays of the power to sell products and "sell girls one other thing: quietly, on the side. Be strong, they say, that's how you get everything you want." Yet Jocelyn's concern seems to come out of nowhere; no other advertisements are shown; no other characters seem to have internalized these attitudes; we don't see her struggle with any previous internalized attitudes in relation to this. It just feels random.

A reversal of gender norms alone might have been successful for simply being shocking. For example, a story set in something like Neil's woman-dominated world where the power had always existed. But The Power is about our own world suddenly changing, so when Tunde sees a dead man in the forest and "around his neck was a sign with a single word in Russian: slut," or when Margot hears that "boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power," the effect is only confusion. Where did these slut-shaming attitudes come from, when men were thus far praised for sexual promiscuity? Why is society so ready to forget its gender stereotypes? What gave rise to these things to begin with and how did they change so quickly?

One might argue that Neil is writing about a society where gender differences or patriarchy did not exist before the power appeared, but that is simply untrue. When Roxy hears about her brother's rape she thinks "this is not what happens to a man. Except now it is." Early on, Margot displays some internalized misogyny when she wants to appear as "not just another woman in office with a soft, bleeding heart," and faces some sexism herself:
The other guy is a gal, almost ten years younger than Morrison's candidate [Daniel], hard-edged and hard-nosed, and they'd pushed her on that in the weeks of campaigning. I mean, she's divorced, after all, and with those two girls to raise, can a woman like that really find time for political office?
When Allie starts spreading her religion she addresses it directly:
You have been taught that you are unclean, that you are not holy, that your body is impure and could never harbor the divine. You have been taught to despise everything you are and to long only to be a man.
Even without such specific lines, the frequent commentary on current events breaks the illusion that this is supposed to be a fictionalized document from a future world. The Power sets itself up to imagine how our world would react to this change—yet it fails to do so.

I am not arguing that such a sudden shift in attitudes is impossible, or even unrealistic, only that it is not shown. Patriarchy exists in the world Neil portrays but only when the narrator wants to take a jab at it. Otherwise it has already reversed itself perfectly: "Have you seen the numbers on domestic violence against men? On murders of men by women?" Or: "Sometimes a bloke is better at that than a womanless threatening; they're better at diplomacy." The result is that the novel feels like a list of grievances more than a story or any substantive critique.

There are some exceptions. The following quote, spoken by a woman to a man, mixes old and new male stereotypes to justify potential genocide:
How many men do we really need? [They are] dangerous... less intelligent, less diligent, less hard-working, their brains are in their muscles and their pricks... Of course they're not talking about great guys like you...
The last sentence highlights how making exceptions doesn't lessen the evil from oppression. Those exceptions do not negate the injustice perpetrated against everyone else.

When women rise up in Saudi Arabia and then in Delhi, Margot worries about the turmoil, thinking about "footage on the TV of riots in far-away and unstable parts of the world, of women taking whole cities." This might be read as a criticism of bias against third-world countries (it is Margot saying this after all), but when we actually see the places she refers to we don't get much more nuance.

Tatiana, who is the most important person in the plot, never gets a perspective chapter and is a flimsy character in the few scenes she is in. At one point she states that the power is "an invitation to a new way of living." But half a page later she explains that this means she wants the "American dream, right here in Bessapara. We want to live freely, to peruse our own way of life;" hardly a new way of living, just one copied. She has an American prophet (Allie) bless her war of liberation, and is later betrayed when Allie mind controls her and usurps her throne.

When Allie visits Besapara, she is critical of Tatiana's abuse of her subordinates. She thinks that "Tatiana Moskalev will soon have outlived her usefulness. To the Holy Mother" and plans to replace her with Roxy. The problem she perceives is a bad person, not a bad system. While this could be a criticism of Allie's own act of imperialism (she is an American taking over a foreign country on the pretext of liberation from a tyrant) the narrative justifies her actions by portraying Tatiana as abusive and undergoing "violent fits of rage... accusing everyone around her of working against her." While this could have been caused by Allie's attempts to fiddle with her brain, Tatiana's abuse and lust for power existed long before Allie might have exacerbated those tendencies. The novel justifies this takeover, framing it as liberation from a dictator.

Tunde witnesses uprisings, gets assaulted, kidnapped by a cult, and nearly killed by a rogue military, all in "far-away and unstable parts of the world," while Allie (the American) and Roxy (the Brit) do their best to reign in the crazy dictator of Bessepara.


"The army is fond of Margot Cleary," the narration states at one point. Later a reporter asks her if "another regime change in Saudi Arabia might affect your oil supply, don't you think?" These are jabs at America's imperialism, but it is hard to criticize a system when one is recreating it uncritically.

I haven't discussed Jocelyn much because her story is fairly disconnected from the rest. Her struggle with control of her power is a rough queer allegory: she is worried that girls perceive her as different while her mother wants to make her "just like all other girls." At one point Jocelyn is dating a boy, Ryan, with a "chromosomal irregularity" that means he has also developed a skien. Jocelyn is said to like girls, and is attracted to Ryan because he is feminine. When she shows mercy to a man who attacks the NorthStar camp she is posted at, the other girls tease her: "Has he got a skein? She wants to fuck him."

When Margot finds out about Ryan's irregularity she uses her political connections to slander him and make Jocelyn think he is a radicalized anti-woman extremist. She wants to "fix" Jocelyn so she can date "normal" boys. Jocelyn's reaction to this information is a breakup, but the action happens between chapters and we only get this summary:
She broke up with Ryan and he cried, and she found her face was dry like there was a stopper inside holding it all in. Her mom took her to a doctor privately and they gave her something to feel more normal. And she does, in a way.
This might have been an effective way to convey her numbness, but the pace of events in that scene is maintained throughout the novel so instead of standing out it only deflates the tension. This is also a good example of the weakness in secondary characters. Ryan gets less than a sentence of a reaction to their breakup and then we move on. His "chromosomal irregularity" is arguably an allegory for intersex people, but little is done with this idea. It is an interesting and logical consequence of the biological basis of the power, but we don't ever get any exploration of his experience and he ends up being little more than a tool to move Jocelyn's plot along. It is also strange that our only 'queer' characters are only ever presented in a heterosexual relationship. That Jocelyn "likes girls" never actually comes into play except to explain why she prefers her boys 'feminine'. She does not face any real-world homophobia, and the oppression Ryan faces is relegated to background noise.

Now, this could have been a choice to show the consequences of Jocelyn's relative privilegedshe is the daughter of a powerful woman, so when she accidentally kills a disarmed attacker, her superiors cover it up for herbut, again, we never get Ryan's experiences as contrast. He only exists to advance Jocelyn's story.

Jocelyn's story has some of the worst pacing in the final parts of the book. Her suspicion, investigation, and discovery of her mother's involvement with a drug-producing site in Bessapara happens in the span of a page and a half through exposition about how her friend Tom saw it on the internet/the news. After going through most of the story not really questioning much, she suddenly "knows that her mother's got into the habit of lying so completely that she doesn't even know she's doing it" and then wants to "e-mail Margot and say: If you don't back the fuck off and let me go and live my life, these are going straight to the Washington Post." It's not an illogical development, but there's no build up. We have seen the abuse Margot subjected her too, but we never see Jocelyn have a revelation about how she was treated. The whole beat felt like I missed a chapter.

The ending to her arc is also bizarre. She investigates the drug site, is confronted by Darrell, and in her moment of need her power fails her and she is left permanently injured before the end of the world. The narrative has punished her for trying to expose her mother's misdeeds. This is chilling if we read her story as an escape from abuse. If we read it as queer allegory then, yeah, Margot was kinda right. Jocelyn did need to be fixed because otherwise she would have survived. It also fails to frame this as society punishing herDarrell is just one asshole acting alone, and he is killed by a mob of women immediately afterward.

The intent, I think, of Jocelyn's final scene is to criticize blind faith. As mentioned before, Jocelyn is 'healed' by Allie in an earlier chapter. Allie performs her faith healing regularly, and it is unambiguously shown that she does them more for publicity's sake than for a desire to do good:
And the people who curate these events for her and make sure that the nerve damage isn't too sever for her to be able to do anything. Christian has a friend from the same hospital; a nice kid, even more of a believer than Christian himself, but, unfortunately, the break was too profound for them to be sure she'd be able to cure it. Besides, he wasn't right for the televised segment. Acne.
It is meant to be a criticism of faith healing/religion/cults, etc. Yet in this case all the miracles are real. Allie is making physical changes that improve quality of life, many of which last for months on end, or even seem permanent. It is moreso her dishonestly that results in Jocelyn's injury rather than the act of the faith healing or any aspect of the new religion. If Allie had been a more open person, perhaps Jocelyn would have been prepared for her power to fail and could have dealt with Darrell accordingly. (She could have brought, like, a gun or something. She's a soldier in a paramilitary organization near a warzone, after all.)

As it is, the theme of Jocelyn's story is muddled by its conclusion. It is queer allegory, but one that marginalizes its own, in-universe queer character (Ryan) in favor of the straight-acting character who only gets punished for trying to seek happiness and overcome the obstacles in her life.

When Roxy and Allie hear a woman has been beaten by police and left to die in a prison cell, they lead a mob to the police station to rescue her. After a tense stand-off, the only resistance offered is a "long, slow sigh" by the officer in charge. Later, Roxy and Allie repel a police attack on their covenant by stunning the officers before they can enter the building. There is no follow-up to either of these threads. The text simply checks another box in displays of oppression and moves on without really examining the why or how. Is police brutality due to corruption? Incompetence? A few individuals? Is it systemic? Does the police force need overhaul? Obliteration? Nothing is said beyond 'police brutality bad.'

Aside from Tatiana's fascist regime in the last few Tunde chapters, the presence of governmental power feels strangely understated in the novel as a whole. There are no repercussions for the attacks against police. When women riot in Delhi or Saudi Arabia, they seem to face little significant resistance. There is a war in Bessapara, yet it is only a rich prince who opposes them. Niether Russia nor China seem to care about the chaos around their nations and the U.S. and E.U. seem surprisingly uninterested in a new rogue nation with access to nukes. Also guns don't really come up as a problem in all these revolutions, even though women's electricity is fairly short ranged.

On the whole, though many forms of oppression are shown and denounced through the eyes of our characters, the text falls short of really examining how it thinks oppression operates and quite often plays into problematic tropes by replicating them without subverting or deconstructing them.

Allie/Eve
Allie gets her own section because she is often the mouthpiece of the novel's philosophy and her story has one of the most insane conclusions I've ever read.

With Allie we see more of this theme of replication/copying early on. She remembers when her foster father brought her to a slaughterhouse to show her chickens being killed in a scalding tank, and later later thinks that "she wishes she could have sent him alive into the scalding tank."

Throughout the book, Allie hears a voice inside her head that guides her actions and tempers her impulses. What this voice is is unclear. Allie thinks of it first as "mother." Then later as the voice of God, but the voice itself is fairly unconcerned with how it is perceived. It could be seen as the personification of the power. Whatever your interpretation, it often functions to move Allie from place to place or to prompt her to make decisions she would otherwise not consider, speaking to her desire to liberate women and bring about a new world order.

Allie's story features most of the criticisms of religion in the book. Allie claims to hear the voice of God and fakes 'miracles' to convert those around her to her new religion, which is just gender-flipped Christianity ("They're finding Scripture that works for them, rewriting the bits that don't.") As I stated above, the attempt to criticize is undermined by the fact that the miracles and even the voice of 'God' seems to be real, as all its predictions turn out to be true and benefit Allie (at least in the short term).

Here too the weakness of the writing becomes an issue. For example, early on, when the power is first manifesting in girls, one of the nuns at the covenant thinks that this "is the Devil working in the world, passing from hand to hand as Eve passed the apple to Adam." She suggests to the other sisters that, "We will lock the girls in their rooms until dawn. We should burn them all." The abrupt escalation is comical; we barely know this person and she's already crazy enough to murder children. We get no reaction from the other nuns when she says this and when she ends up dead the next day (Allie has overheard and killed her) they take her murder as a sign of Allie's divinity. We are left with the impression that they would they not have stopped her otherwise. Do they have no morals? Then why were they helping homeless children until now? Why is Allie, who is very willing to kill to survive, ok with their passivity in her would-be death? Why does no one recognize the possibility of the new electricity power in the nun's death (she dies of a heart attack)? The whole situation is glossed over and nothing ever comes of these events.

That last sentence applies to a lot of Allie's rise to power as Mother Eve (her tangles with police, the girls she first converts, her connection to Roxy's mob). The one thing that does come back to haunt her is her murder of Mr. Montgomery-Taylor, but it is in one of the most baffling, theme-unraveling twists I've ever read.

After Roxy tells Allie about the horrors she saw with Tunde, she declares she still wants to make peace. Allie's only response is to point out her lack of skein and say "Why would anyone take you seriously now?" This shows us she has bought in to this new system; she only values women for their power, and now that Roxy has none Allie stops seeing her as an equal.

In her parting words, Roxy tells Allie to check up on the wife of the man she murdered. The voice in her head is adamant that she not, but she takes Roxy's suggestion and calls Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor.

As it turns out, Allie has suppressed memories, and the conversation she has with Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor "pulls [them] from the back of her mind." Not only was she ALSO sexually abusing Allie, but Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor is revealed as the one who suggested and initiated her husband's own abuse. Allie was a problem child, and Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor states she was trying to "drive the devil out of [her]."

Allie states that, "it was her touch she felt every time Mr. Montgomery-Taylor laid himself upon her," and the whole scene re-frames the sexual violence against Allie as equally (or completely, as the above quote suggests) the fault of the woman in this scenario. It asserts that her foster father had no agency in his actions. He was just an object of his wife's abuse; a shark seeking meat. This further removes him from culpability. In the context of the novel's themes of reversal, this is clearly trying to state that power differences are bad regardless of gender or sex or agebut this all happened before the power emerged, when the world of The Power and our own were the same. It insinuates that women were always capable of evil in equivalence to men; thus it ignores the systemic cause of sexual violence against women and can easily be read as placing the blame equally on both sexes in real life.

I agree that anyone is capable of evil regardless of situation, but, like, I think that was obvious enough from the plethora of violence we've already seen throughout the novel. It also leaves unaddressed how those situations come about. Why did the foster care system let these abusers adopt? Why did Allie need foster care to begin with? She's Hispanic, was a parent arrested? Deported? Was she separated from her family at the boarder? No possible systemic causes are ever addressed. It's just one evil woman abusing her physical power presented as a revelation.

Allie "comes to pieces" at the return of her memories. She is "undone" and feels powerless before her abuser: "To denounce her would be to denounce everything. If she roots this out, she roots out herself." The whole twist feels dirty, Allie's suffering and trauma used for shock value. As a character, she doesn't get any more development or time to recover. Instead the rest of the chapter turns her into a mouthpiece for the novel's philosophy.

She asks the voice, "How am I to tell which side is good and which is bad?" Yet all we have seen any character do is replicate one 'side' by putting the old one in a dress. The voice in her head, at least, seems aware of this and states that the question is "the wrong question." It says that it is "complicated... there are no shortcuts." Yet without expanding on that it says: "You can't put anyone in a box," which is laughable when most of the characters we've seen are cardboard cutouts. It is lip service to stereotyping.

We then get this statement: "They say: only exceptional people can cross the borders. The truth is: anyone can cross, everyone has it in them. But only exceptional people can bear to look [truth] in the eye." So the voice believes that only "exceptional" people can change the worldit is an individual's cause.

The voice states that it is not "real," but exists to "tell you what you want to hear," and then immediately contradicts itself by giving us some backstory: "A long time ago, says the voice, another Prophet came to tell me that some people I'd made friends with wanted a King. I told them what a King would do. He'd take their sons for soldiers and their daughters for cooks... I said: Look, a King will basically make you into slaves, and don't come crying to me when that happens. That's what Kings do... What can I tell you? Welcome to the human race. You people like to pretend things are simple, even at your own cost. They still wanted a King." This is a reference to the Bible, the story of 1 Samuel 8, with the voice being a stand-in for God. The exact quote is given at the beginning of the book:
The people came to Samuel and said: Place a King over us, to guide us.
And Samuel said to them: This is what a King will do if he reigns over you: he'll take your sons and make them run with his chariots and horses. He'll dispose them however he wants: he'll make them commanders of thousands or captains of fifties, he'll send them to plow, to reap, to forge his weapons and his chariots. He'll take your daughters to make perfume for him, or cook his food or do his baking. He'll take your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves—oh, he'll take the very best of those and give them to his cronies. He'll take much more. A tenth of your grain and your wine—those will go to his favorite aristocrats and faithful servants. Your manservants and your maidservants, your best men, your donkeys—yes, he'll take those for his own use. He'll take one tenth of your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. On that day, believe me, you will cry out for relief from this King, the King you asked for, but the Lord will not answer you on that day.
But the people would not listen to Samuel. They said: No. Give us a King over us. So that we can be like all the other nations. Give us a King to guide us and lead us into battle.
When Samuel heard what the people said, he told it to the Lord. The Lord answered, Give them a King.
There's no King in The Power. The King is the power. "Why did they do it, Nina and Darrell?" Well, "because they could... that is the only answer there ever is." When the army kills everyone in the refugee camp, "they do it because they can." The only explanation we are given to any of the atrocities we see is: "The reason is because they can." ... "That's what Kings do."

As a broad statement about power I have issues with it, but even as the thesis of the text it is contradicted by the details therein.

At no point did any character express that they "wanted a King." The power manifests seemingly at random, with no trigger or invocation.

Roxy's whole arc flies in the face of this statement on power. She is the most powerful of all the characters and yet she is the only character invested in equality of the sexes throughout the story (she muses about "the stuff we could do together.") Even after she loses her power she has agency, she is still able to survive in the wilderness, save Tunde, and force Allie to a revelation, gross as it may be. She repeatedly has power over other characters (her father, Tunde, Allie) and chooses to treat them as equals.

The voice inside Allie's head states that things need to "start again," and Allie realizes that everything she has done is not enough:

The world is trying to go back to its former shape. Everything we've done is not enough. There are still men with money and influence who can shape things to their will.
This shows a lack of awareness of what is being portrayed. The world has retained its former shape because all we have seen any character do is replicate the power dynamics of patriarchy but with a gender flip. The last part is never shown to us; we have seen cultural change already. We have seen nothing but men unable to stop the reversal. Margot rises through political offices with ease. We never see any men able to "shape things to their will."

When Allie asks what to do the voice simply tells her that it no longer has "optimism" for the human race and that it is "sorry it can't be simple for you anymore" before abruptly leaving. We later see a voice appear in Margot's head, repeating a line from before to let us know it is the same voice. Margot sees that "the old tree still stands. There is only one way, to blast it entirely to pieces." When Margot hears about Jocelyn's injury "something hardens in her heart" and the last we see is her advising the president while thinking "burn it all down." Meanwhile, Allie wakes and "knows what to do." She calls upon America to "join us in the struggle"; and thinks that "the end of all flesh is near, because Earth is filled with violence. Therefore, build an arc." As much as I love going to excessive lengths for a good pun, the whole scenario is so contrived that it fails to evoke horror or despair or rage.

The apocalypse is presented as inevitable, by the the voice itself could have guided Allie and humanity to many other conclusionswe see it predict the future. We see it state opinions and ideas separate from Allie's own. We see it jump to Margot when Allie stops listening to it. At some point it made a choice to direct the world to this end, but why? Because it can? That's not enlightening. If it's so aware of "what Kings do," why does it not direct Allie or someone else to be better than before? All these statements about vague notions of power ring false when the conclusion about what to do is a shrug before self-destructing.


It's possible that the voice itself is lying, that it has worked toward humanity's fall and is only putting the blame on human nature to prevent Allie from realizing it. However, the Bible quote above is placed at the beginning of Naomi Alderman's The Power, not Neil's. There is no other King but the power, and no other character but the voice invokes the quote. There is no irony in its statements. It is not framed as an unreliable source, just an apathetic one.

There is more to unpack from Allie's story and the book's conclusion, but before we do we need to discuss some broader topics that I have this far skipped over.

Power & Woman
They named the organ of electricity, or the skein for its twisted strands... the buds of the skein have been observed using MRI scans in the collarbones of newborn infant girls.
The power that woman acquire arises from a physical difference they have from men. It is compared directly to the abilities of electric eels, and several explanations are given for its manifestation. Early on, characters believe it is "caused by pollution," and later a scientific report declares that it was "caused by an environmental build-up of nerve agent that was released during the Second World War" which "amplified a set of genetic possibilities already present in the human genome." When a woman uses the power, they and those around them experience a wave of sensations such as "bitter oranges," or "orange blossom. A wind gusts up and hurls a few white handfuls of blooms into the swimming pool;" it is "like rain," and its form is often compared to tree branches or roots spreading out; "an apple orchard."

The skein itself is anthropomorphized. Darrell experiences it, "like a... viper inside his chest," and it "whispers to him: She's only one solider. Go out and give her a fight."

All this frames the power as something natural, a difference inherent to humanity; "a power you can't give away or trade." One could even argue that it is nature's response to the devastation man hath wrought during the world wars. While all this makes for interesting world building (at least in principle), it becomes uncomfortable when the allegory for patriarchy is taken into account. By proposing the development of the power as 'natural' and then having all our characters use their power to simply replicate patriarchy, it frames the system it is trying to criticize as itself natural and inevitable; especially when it emerges, identical, for a third time after the apocalypse (Niel's present day seems little different from our own). "Blokes have got things they can do: they're strong. Women have got a thing now, too." Roxy herself implies power was naturally unequal before the awakening, that women did not have "a thing" before.

I claimed earlier that most secondary characters are weak and underwritten, but this goes a bit deeper than the occasional throwaway character. Outside of our perspective characters, women are portrayed as uniform and interchangeable.

When a victim of slave trafficking is described as "the woman who thought she was going as a secretary to Berlin before she  was... shown... what her job really was," it is problematic for the same reason Ricky's rape is. Her victimhood is her only defining feature; indeed her only feature. We get more details about her raping ("down on a concrete floor... over and over") than we do of her personhood, or even her actions after she frees herself. She is subsumed into the mass of women who rise up across Moldova and form Bessapara: "The armies of women freed from chains in those border towns are, broadly and instinctively, with Tatiana Moskalev." They are uniform, without distinction or identity beyond their past as victims of sex-trafficking.

When women riot in Saudi Arabia and Dehli, their revolts are portrayed as unified and single-minded. The violence they incite plays out like a revenge fantasy, but just as it portrays specific cultural injustices (such as women being unable to drive cars in SA or the conditions of the poor in Delhi) it paves over any nuance in response that might arise from those cultures.


For example, in Saudi Arabia, Noor destroys a car with her power, stating "they do not let us drive a car here... but watch what we can do." She then has sex with Tunde, showing she is now free to control her body and is more powerful than her former oppressors. But her oppression was justified by a cultural belief. Was she not herself invested in that belief to some degree? She expresses no apprehension or remorse. Her actions are presented as obvious, unquestioned. All the other women around her think the same as well:

A crackle pass[es] between their fingertips. The men flinch. The women stare hungrily. Their eyes are parched for the sight of it.
Were they all just waiting to rise up? If their hatred and understanding of the system was so uniform, why did they not try something like this before? What was stopping them? Do they not themselves experience any internalized sexism as Margot does?

The portrayal of India does give us one answer to this question, but it is vague: "there had been protests for many years... these things rise up and afterward it is as if it had never happened."  It tells us the current regime is oppressive, but doesn't really dig into many details. In Delhi we again get specific grievances:
It began in the places under the motorway bridges where the poor people live in blanket tents or houses constructed from cardboard and tape.
But the response is just another power fantasy and a reversal of systems:
You have to tear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you... They are the ones who should not walk out of their houses alone at night. They are the ones who should be afraid.
All the women are on board. All act ubiquitously.

Such portrayals ignore nuance in oppression and paint women as uniform and their experiences as interchangeable; it dehumanizes even as it tries to provoke horror or catharsis from real-world problems.


This becomes more uncomfortable when compared to how the power affects America. Far more time is put into showing the specific cultural results of the power. Margot's chapters detail how "they'd separated the boys from the girls on the fifth day; it seemed obvious when they worked out the girls were [attacking boys]," or how "Once you've seen [the damage caused by girls shocking boys] no mom would let her boys out of her sight." She sells her NorthStar camps by claiming "they create jobs. They keep girls off the streets. And they've given us one of the lowest rates of street violence in the country." We get frequent cutaways to new anchors or English-language internet forums. We see specific policies responding to the power, how society reacts to the power, and how culture changes as a result (though again, I feel those changes are abrupt and strangely unopposed).

So the "far-away and unstable parts of the world" get generalized, violent power fantasies while the American and British societies get diverse perspective characters and (relatively) peaceable, democratic societal upheavals.

At the very end, the narration states that women, uniformly, want to "Do it again. Different this time, better this time. Dismantle the old house and begin again." They think the only way to change is to obliterate. This is ominous, but the idea is hardly contradicted by anything in the novel. Allie thinks along similar line through the book: "If the world didn't need shaking up, why would this power come alive now? ... There is to be a new order. That the old way is overturned," and her revelation doesn't seem to change this. Margot actively works toward this goal in the end, now driven by Jocylin's injury. Roxy simply retreats into a bunker, not bothering to try to stop her friend. It is a bleak outlook, and I'm not quite sure what the point of it is. On one hand, it shows how such power imbalance leads to destruction, which supports the voice's statements, but on the other hand the voice is the one who wants this conclusion, and all of our cast embrace it with little objection.

The intent quickly becomes incoherent as the writing turns more and more to direct philosophizing.

In the voice's last conversation with Allie powerany poweris proposed to be the problem with the world. The narration itself later stats it inevitably causes harm:

When does power exist? Only in the moment it is exercised. To the woman with a skein, everything looks like a fight.

Further supporting this idea is the conclusion to Roxy and Tunde's story. After they escape the refugee camp they have sex ("They slide together simply, key in a lock"), and it is the only time Tunde is not frightened or hurt by the act. Symbolically, they are both without (the) power; only happy when they are both equalyet even that is not true. Roxy has mob connections and the privilege of being a woman. Tunde is thought to be dead and has no resources to fall back on. The power between them is unequal. Their sex is framed as an act of healing, and in the context of the novel's outlook on power, it show that it is not actually 'power' generally that is the problem, but only The Power. By ignoring the forms of real world power, it has contradicted its own thesis.



The power itself is given intent: "Power knows what to do. It has a logic to it... Power doesn't care who uses it... it just says: Yes. Yes, I can," portraying it as an uncontrollable force. Oppression is stated to be inevitable as well:

These things are happening all at once. These things are 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.

It is strange that power is talked about as of it were absolutely bad when a good chuck of the book portrays it as a liberating force. Was every use of the power a bad thing? Were those people asking for a King when they freed themselves from tyranny, sexual slavery, or second-class citizenship? Should we not have rooted for their freedom?

One might think that the closing letters would clear up this confusion, perhaps add a layer of irony to the whole endeavor, but here too the message is muddled.

Neil states that "the way we think about our past informs what we think is possible today. If we keep repeating the same old lines about the past... we're denying that anything can change." This frames the reversals throughout the book as intending to critique current attitudes, but none of the "same old lines" are actually in the text. We see women gain power and become oppressors in the span of ten years. This is framed as the natural course of things, and all opposed to it are crackpots or dictators. Culture and systems of oppression are ignored in favor of evil individuals selfishly bringing about the apocalypse. Problematic tropes are used uncritically both in and out of universe. It calls into question all the other, more ambiguously intentional reversals.

Neil goes on to say that:


The world is the way it is now because of five-thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent... but we don't have to act that way now.

He implies a natural state of oppression, only now able to be overcome since things are less "violent." I disagree with this portrayal of 'primitive' societies as more violent or somehow less capable of overcoming that violence. If nothing else, it ignores that the last 500 years of colonialism brought about and still perpetuate some of the worst violence in all of human history. This also ignores the text's own symbolism: the power emerges as a result of WWII; as a response to the greater violence of the modern world.

Neil raises a few points about gender, calling it "a shell game," but he does little to deconstruct or examine this statement. The closest the text come is when the voice tells Allie that "there's never been a right choice... the whole idea that there are two things and you have to chose is the problem." Which I can agree with, but it's not supported in the books themes, imagery, or characters. Nobody questions the reversals; Ryan is only a plot device; there's no real discussion of what gender even is. "Tap on it and it's hollow," Neil concludes. "Look under the shells: it's not here." An isolated, meaningless statement.


Neil/Naomi had the opportunity to write about all these things (ingrained power structures, gender, the way we think about the past) but didn't. The philosophy on display in the story and letters is vague and highly metaphorical. The imagery and themes at once support and contradict themselves. The framing is detached from its own story. Whatever message was meant to be transferred, about women, power or otherwise, is rendered incoherent by the time the novel ends.

Conclusion
Although The Power does successfully shock the reader with its depictions of patriarchy-but-in-reverse, it is unfocused, frankly incompetent, and fails to actually examine the mechanisms with which patriarchy oppresses. It waxes philosophical about vague notions of 'power' but is often contradictory in its text and symbolism. The story works to point out the violence and inequality of the real world, but it at the same time justifies it by postulating the power as inherent and unavoidable, and ignoring the complex reasons for oppression, instead focusing solely on the evils of individual or specific, isolated aesthetics (advertisements, internet trolls, America's desire for oil, etc.).

And yet, with ALL that said... I'm still not sure what to actually think about it. As I said before, were it only a story of a world already reversed, I think it would have been quite good. Isolated from the story, the letters between Neil and Naomi are quite effective. Or maybe shock value would be enough. Maybe without the philosophizing, the imagery could have spoken for itself. Maybe 2- and 1-dimensional characters wouldn't have mattered if the plot were more thrilling. But what is here is a mess. A provocative mess, but a mess none the less.

Or maybe I am unsettled by the reversals. Maybe I'm still too comfortable in my bias to accept such an idea even as fiction. Maybe it's just the writing that's poor and I'm eager to take its satire in bad faith. Part of why this post is so long is because I'm still trying to work out my feelings. I'm still not sure whether I would recommend this book, or even if I like or dislike it. I dislike pieces in it, a lot of pieces, but so much of it almost works, and I do broadly agree with many of its ideas. It does force the reader to confront the dynamics of power in our own world, and question our assumptions about women and the attitudes we have toward them.

If nothing else, it's certainly good for a book club. It's the sort of thing that needs to be discussed. Yet so is The Handmaid's Tale, or An Excess Male, or Kindred. None are quite as broad in their ambitions, but all are more captivating, more focused, and thus more impactful.

Or just, like, read a woman's history book.

Popular Posts