Book: Vox by Christina Dalcher (2018)
Preferred Reading Environment: Somewhere you feel comfortable screaming, crying, and hating the world
Reading Accoutrements: Read this book with friends! Trust me, you will want to talk about this book with friends
Content Notes: Prison camps, Religious extremism, Violence
Since I read Fahrenheit 451 my freshman year of high school, I have deeply enjoyed reading dystopian literature. The best part is that there is so much dystopian literature out there, I get tired of reading them before I run out of books to read. Most of the dystopian books that I read are “classics” – Bradbury, Huxley, Atwood, etc.- but I recently came across a debut novel with a plot that caught my attention. I’ve never read A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, but I’m told that this book is similar in nature – it just has a different twist.
Vox takes place in a not-so-distant-future America where religious extremism has taken over politics. It started with a pushover president elected to office because of a televangelist’s endorsement and quickly led to the restriction of women’s rights to have bank accounts, to go to work, and finally, to speak. By the time Vox begins, it has been a year since women and girls have been restricted to saying only 100 words per day. Schools have been segregated by gender and the curriculum includes Christian propaganda describing the “proper” roles of men and women in society (e.g., women belong in the home, men belong in the workplace, etc).
The protagonist of this story is Dr. Jean McClellan, a cognitive linguist, the mother of three children, and the wife of a man who works in politics. She is trapped in the life of a house-wife, forbidden to read or write, limited to speaking only 100 words per day. She carefully chooses her words now, because when the counter on her wrist hits 101, she is shocked every time she speaks. While Jean uses all 100 of her allotted words every day, her six-year-old daughter goes to bed every night having spoken less than 40.
I wanted to put that into perspective, so I did a search online and there are a lot of articles with a lot of different answers to the question, “How many words do we speak per day?” One said the average person speaks 7,000 words per day. Another article stated that women speak 13,000 words per day more than men. A third said the average number of words was 15,669 for men and 16,215 for women (in case you were curious, that means there was no statistically significant difference between the total number of words spoken between genders). While these numbers vary wildly across a spectrum, they all agree that people speak thousands of words per day. Now imagine limiting yourself to 100.
It makes me want to throw up just thinking about it. If I couldn’t read or write or speak or travel or work, if all I could do was cook (from recipes in my head, because I’m not allowed to have recipe books or cards or access to the internet) and clean…well, I wouldn’t last long, that’s for sure.
But honestly, the part that freaked me out the most wasn’t the struggle of the grown women who were used to speaking thousands of words per day. It was the stories of the girls who were being raised in a system that rewarded silence. In this version of America, female babies are immediately fitted with a counter. The school Dr. McClellan’s daughter attends often challenges the girls to speak the least number of words among their classmates and rewards zero-word days by giving the students ice cream cones.
Humans develop language skills in their first 8 years. From the age of 3 months, babies learn how to communicate their needs based on their interactions with the people around them. If a child’s language development is limited early on, it hampers their ability to communicate later. This system was built to completely remove language from half of the population in future generations.
Excuse me while I punch a couple of pillows…
Throughout this book, Jean remembers the signs she ignored leading up to the new laws. She frequently flashes back to her college roommate, an activist who warned Jean that her rights were being threatened. Jean called her “hysterical” (and she didn’t mean funny). Jean honestly didn’t believe that the government would be able to take away her rights until it had happened.
She followed the same pattern with her oldest son. She didn’t believe that her own child would ever support such a radical movement. Yet, every day he went to school he was fed religious propaganda until he truly believed that women were meant to be seen and not heard, to stay in the home, to care for the needs of their husbands. One day, Jean realized that she didn’t trust her son any longer.
All of the characters in this book are fallible. Jean and her husband buried their heads in the sand until it was too late. Jean’s college roommate was so reactionary that she alienated everyone instead of helping her cause. I didn’t really like any of them.
I have always believed that it is a sign of good writing when your reader doesn’t like the character but keeps on reading. I did not like Jean, but I wanted – needed – her to tear down the oppressive system she was trapped within. I didn’t want to see it happen because I liked Jean as a character, but because the situation was so untenable that it had to be corrected. You don’t need to like someone to see their humanity and know that they deserve the same rights as everyone else.
When I finished this book, I joked with a friend that this is why I don’t read horror books. Dystopia is horrifying enough for me. If you want a book that will terrify, anger, and inspire, you will enjoy the fury that ignites in your gut while you read Vox.