“Think about waking up one morning and finding you don’t have a voice in anything.”
The jacket sleeve sounds like the start of a stand-up comedian set in a smoke-filled club. “Imagine that women are only allowed to use 100 words per day.” Just uttering the words would cause the audience to twitter in anticipation. But what happens if it isn’t a joke? What if it’s an actual law with harsh punishments to those who don’t follow? That is the premise behind “Vox,” Christina Dalcher’s sideways take on patriarchy run amok.
Jean McClellan used to be a top linguist and on the brink of solving the language problems patients suffer after a stroke. But then The Pure Movement hits the United States, led by the oily Reverend Carl. It seems the good Reverend wants to move the country back to the Stone Age where women are barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. And somehow, he achieves it. In just a year’s time, (one of the more improbable story elements), women are no longer allowed to work, have a bank account or own a passport. But the worst is being reduced to just 100 words a day. To make sure this is enforced, all females are given a bracelet to wear. Weirdly, they are allowed their choice of color; I suppose to make the bondage easier. The bracelet pulses with each word they use while a counter keeps track. It’s when they go over the limit that the fun begins with shocks that get increase in intensity as the extra words are spoken. There’s a dramatic event that happens to Jean’s neighbor that demonstrates just how powerful these bracelets can be to the unfaithful. On top of this, the men are being indoctrinated to the new order in school and Jean’s oldest son gets his Pure pin. Oh, the gullibility of young men. Again, this seems like the start of a comedy sketch.
Things change when the President’s brother suffers an accident. Jean is de-braceleted in order to pick up her work and find a cure. But nothing is as it seems to be. Jean realizes that her serum that brings language back is actually being used for a more insidious cause. The first sentence of the book pretty much tells you how things are going to end but gives no clue to the in-between.
It’s the in-between that stumbles a bit. The premise is interesting, although it seems a bit unfathomable that ALL the men in the country would just go along with the idea. There is no indication there was any revolt by the men, like they just shrugged their shoulders and said “okay”. We never really understand how Reverend Carl was able to pull off this shuttering of women in such a short time either (although the ‘whatever’ attitude of every other male in the country obviously helped). Vox jumps between the present and the past somewhat randomly and within the course of a chapter which can lead to a bit of confusion as to whether we are in the present or the past. And the Italian lover seemed out of place.
Then there were parts that sang. Jean’s six-year-old daughter Sonia single handedly demonstrates the effects of limiting words on a person. I was behind Jean in everything she did because I wanted her to save Sonia from being silenced. Two peripheral characters, Del the mailman and his wife Sharon, were not present enough for me. They were colorful and joyful. There were some small surprises (oh, he’s really a GOOD guy?!) and the tension towards the end was taut.
The comparison of “Vox” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is inevitable. They both deal with a patriarchal society and the effects on women. Atwood’s book (and I do mean book, not TV series) was nuanced and frightening. “Vox” has all the elements but lacks the depth. “Vox” kept my interest but “The Handmaid’s Tale” kept me awake at night. And that’s no joke.
Thank you for your time!