Book Review – Vox

  • Title: Vox
  • Author: Christina Dalcher
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 12/17/2018

**Spoiler Alert** Imagine if armed storm troopers of a new Conservative Christian government came into your place of work and removed all the women there – at gunpoint. Imagine if you were a tenured professor of neurolinguistics – and suddenly, you were simply a wife and mother with all your previous earnings and property transferred to your husband. Imagine having your passport taken from you and your daughter denied her first one? Imagine having to wear a gadget on your wrist that counts every word you say, and if you go over 100 – you get an electric shock. Imagine your daughter going to an indoctrination school where she’s taught sewing, cooking, and gardening – and a little math, but it’s illegal for her to learn to read or even to have books, and your son goes to a purity school where the Bible is used to teach him how men are better than women, men have the right to control women, women are meant to be submissive to men, and it’s women’s fault that men had to come along and shut them up.

This is the world that Dr. Jean McClellan wakes up it. For a novel that seems like the natural successor to The Handmaid’s Tale, Christina Dalcher’s Vox actually has a surprisingly bubbly narrator. Despite the story being set in Washington DC, Jean sounds like a California blonde. But she is a brilliant neurolinguist and before losing her job at gunpoint, her research specialty was Wernicke’s aphasia. She and her team, consisting of another woman, Dr. Lin the chairperson of the department, and an Italian research fellow named Dr. Rossi were researching a cure for Wernicke’s aphasia, which is an acquired disorder in which people use the wrong words when trying to communicate.

Jean experiences daily horrors – her son, Steven, coming home to announce he’s joined the Purity Movement (basically the Hitler Youth). Later he announces he will marry the girl next door before he turns 18 because then he will get a $10,000 bonus for marrying before 18 and $10,000 for each kid he and his wife have. A few days later, Steven cries that he “did something awful”. That night, an armored car pulls up to the house next door – and the girl, Julia, is dragged away. Her hair is cut, she’s paraded on TV in a grey dress, and she’s shamed for having premarital sex – which is now a crime. She will be sent to a work camp, with a counter on her wrist set to zero instead of one hundred. She’ll spend the rest of her days as a mute slave.

Steven tells his mother that he and all the other boys were made to swear and say “dirty things” at the TV in school when Julia was put on display and that the teachers gave them sheets of paper filled with words they had to use in letters to Julia. Late that night, an ambulance arrives next door. Olivia King, Julia’s mother, queen of the local neighborhood Purity Wives, has electrocuted herself with her own counter. She recorded twenty words into a recorder. Set it close enough to her wrist counter for the voice to be picked-up but far enough away that she couldn’t move it or stop it and put the recorder on a loop. She’s taken from the house unconscious, her hand burnt to a crisp. We can guess she’s dead, though it’s not crystal clear in the novel what happened.

In another vignette, Sonia, Jean’s daughter has a nightmare and screams out in her sleep. Both Jean and her husband rush to the bedroom and her husband clamps his hand over his daughter’s mouth to stop her from talking and getting shocked to death. Jean has used all her words for the day and can say and do nothing to comfort her daughter.

The next day, Sonia gets an award of ice cream at school. Jean checks her counter and realizes her daughter hasn’t spoken a word – all day.

In between the vignettes of terror, Vox also tells the story of Jean and her college roommate – an African American Lesbian named Jackie. Jackie is always joining causes and handing out political leaflets and trying to get Jean to help her. But Jean is too busy to care about politics. In the new regime, Jean knows that Jackie has also been sent away to a work farm to live with a gay man for a bedroom mate in the “conversion” camps – and to do heavy unpaid labor. Jean at times seems to think Jackie was “silly” with all her campaigns, but she also knows that ignoring a steadily declining situation is what lead to this new regime.

The novel flips between describing the daily horrors of Jean’s new life, and memories of her old one. Then government men show up at her door. They take off her counter and tell her the president’s brother had a skiing accident and has brain damage – in the Wernicke’s aphasia area. They try to talk her into joining a government team to come up with a cure. Jean’s given 24 hours to think about it. Jean tells them “no”. She’s then fitted with a new counter, one that decreases her daily word count by 10 every time she swears. And she’s given a sheet of “daily affirmations” she must say every day. They all describe the superiority of men over women and how God wants it that way. It’s nearly too much for Jean.

The next day, she’s given a chance to join the team. Jean asks for and gets a few concessions that weren’t offered the last time – her daughter’s counter in removed. She’s allowed to take her daughter out of school and teach her at home on the days she’s not working. She signs a contract and gets a decent salary, but of course, it goes in her husband’s bank account.

Jean goes to her new job. Lin and Dr. Rossi are waiting for her. The lab is very well equipped – and there’s no way it was pulled together in a few days. This is clue number one. It also turns out that Jean, Dr. Lin, and Dr. Rossi had already discovered a cure for Wernicke’s aphasia – a cure Jean hid when she lost her university job. There are enemies all around the three, but gradually as they go through the motions of research, allies seem to appear. But one of the prime enemies is Morgan, a “scientist” who had attempted to get a job in Jean’s department – he’s not intelligent, incapable of doing hard research, and difficult to work with as well. It’s not stated outright, but he’s the type of man with no talent of his own who blames women for his “not getting a good position” – never mind that the women in question have three times the experience he does, and four times better research skills. Morgan is of course highly placed in the new regime. When Jean’s a few minutes late on a Saturday because her babysitter, Olivia King has died and she needs a new one on short notice – Morgan tells her, “See, … this is why the old way didn’t work. There’s always something. Always some sick kid or a school play or menstrual cramps or maternity leave. Always a problem.” Jean’s just seen her next-door neighbor commit suicide – and found out she herself is pregnant. (Her greatest fear is that it’s a girl.) That’s Morgan in a nutshell.

Lin disappears from the team. Jean tries to find out what happened but doesn’t until close to the end of the book. Jean and Dr. Lorenzo Rossi are also secret lovers, picking up their affair from when they both worked at the University – and he’s the father of her child. As an Italian, he’s able to get her a fake passport and keep trying to get her to leave with him. She doesn’t want to leave her remaining children (Steven runs away from home after Julia is taken away to “find her”.)

Jean and Rossi try to find out what’s going on – they know there are three teams – White, Red, and Gold. they know they are the White team. Slowly they realize that the regime isn’t simply after a cure to Wernicke’s aphasia – they want a way to cause it, and a way to make the Wernicke’s Project water soluble. Jean realizes they want a bioweapon. And she realizes just how dangerous it could be if the Conservative Regime could take away the power of speech completely from anyone they want to take it from. Imagine for example if an airline pilot suddenly couldn’t communicate with air traffic control.

This is when Jean also begins to discover there is an underground. It starts with her mailman of all people – and his wife. His wife and daughters have fake counters, live on a farm, and the wife becomes Sonia’s babysitter while Jean works. One of the guards at the government building where she works is also in the Resistance.

Deadlines are pushed up and a human subject, an old woman, is prepared. Jean’s cure works. And Morgan escorts her and Rossi out of the building. They are about to leave the building in Jean’s Honda with some samples strategically hidden on her body when Poe, a creepy quiet guy calls her back in. Jean’s been suspicious of quiet Poe the entire time.

Jean and Rossi are brought to a lower level – the Gold team. Everyone is male and wears a wedding band. They are working on a way to cause Wernicke’s aphasia. Jean thinks of refusing and she discovers to her horror why it’s called “the Gold team” – in a small room, Lin and her lover and Jean’s old college roommate are being held captive, all with zero counter bands on their wrists.
She and Rossi start to formulate a plan.

The novel rushes to its conclusion like a freight train, but it turns out that Poe is a double agent and working for the Resistance – and so is Jean’s husband. With Jean and Rossi’s help and their Wernicke’s aphasia-causing agent, they take down the president and his cabinet, leaving the Director of Health and Human Services as the temporary president. Jean’s husband loses his life in the battle. Jean heads to Italy with her lover, Dr. Lorenzo Rossi, and to have her child there. But the appalling revelation that the Regime was going to permanently silence women, LGBTQA+ people, and anyone the Regime felt opposed their views becomes public and there is backlash against the Purity Movement and a dismantling of what it’s done – in a single year, a year after an African American president was succeeded by President Myers of the Purity Movement.

Again, Vox is a surprisingly bubbly read. It moves fast and many of the chapters are very short. It balances scenes of total horror: Olivia’s death, Julia being dragged away and publically shamed on television, Steven explaining to his mother who has a Ph.D. that it’s her “job” to buy milk; with a fast-paced story of political intrigue. But the best part of the novel is seeing women, well, women and the men in the Resistance, getting their revenge.

And that is the intriguing thing about this novel. It isn’t a story of female heroes breaking an unjust system. It’s a story of a woman discovering the men who have realized that the Purity Movement and its Conservative Regime have gone too far. The solder at the government building joins because his baby daughter isn’t learning how to talk because of her counter. Del and his wife join, well, one gets the feeling they were always a bit “out there” but they also fear for their kids and the inevitable “ride to imprisonment or death” in a black van. Jean’s husband, whom she constantly describes as weak and a bit of a “pussy” is in the dangerous position of being a double agent – and probably pushed to have Jean on the project in the first place hoping she’d have a way to stop it. And we know little of Poe – but he’s also in the dangerous position of being a double agent.

I highly recommend this book. It’s a very fast read. It’s not the depressing dystopian near-future fiction you might expect, but more affirming. And get your friends to read it too. Plus the linguistics aspect is fascinating.

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