Red Clocks opens up in a time not so far from here, in a political landscape that is detrimental to the health and well-being of the women of America. The setting feels all too real, and eerily familiar. One can so easily see the turns in the road that will lead us from here to there.
This reproductive dystopia (though a dystopia only for the female-bodied) is an immensely powerful novel, as well as a lesson on the ways we unnecessarily define and limit people, their bodies, and their lives.
Showing us this world that is far too close for comfort is Leni Zumas, a talented writer teaching creative writing in the MFA program at Portland State University. Zumas relates the most to the character of the Biographer, due to her attempts at childbearing in her own life. Zumas labeled her characters (Biographer, Polar Explorer, Wife, Mender, Daughter) in an attempt to show “the inadequacy of labels” due to people’s bearing of multiple identities in their daily lives, while being reduced to only one. Author of Farewell Navigator and The Listeners, Zumas brings her readers a riveting chapter in the lives of women who could so easily be our own daughters.
Each chapter is dedicated to the first person view of a character. The writing style is in bits and pieces, a few paragraphs here, a page break and then a passing thought, another page break and a paragraph summary of an event. Each break in words shows that the novel is written in moments, setting the pace of the characters’ daily lives with passing thoughts, a buzzing in the back of the mind, a stirring of emotion under the surface.
Red Clocks takes place in the setting of the everyday. The characters aren’t in the middle of a country- or world-wide war. There are no bombs dropping, no terrorist invasions in the larger sense. And yet, every day is a war on women’s bodily autonomy as Amendments are made. Every day is like a bomb dropping in the life of each character. Terrorists invade women’s bodies, decide their fates, all while avoiding eye contact and dismissing the value of autonomy. In this sense, the story of Red Clocks is not so different from the stories of women today.
The Characters and the Dystopia
The main character, the Biographer, is a feminist, teaching her students (including the Daughter) about the inequality of the sexes, teaching about strong women and the importance of complete control over oneself. Yet, she finds herself going against her own teachings as she experiences a kind of hypocrisy towards others based on what they have that she desires most. One can’t help but wonder if these conflicting emotions found a home in the author’s own mind, a desire to procreate, a need to uphold personal feminist values. For that, I applaud Zumas, as it is difficult to discuss the conflicts within us, fearing the judgement of others as well as our judgement of our own selves.
The Biographer is awaiting the days two amendments go into effect. One is banning single mothers from being able to use medical resources to have children. An amendment banning the use of IVF has already taken effect, in order to have “fewer single mothers … fewer criminals and addicts and welfare recipients” (pg. 119).
The next amendment, her last hope to have a child on her own, is Every Child Needs Two, which will stop single women from being able to adopt children. This means women with children being trapped in marriage, a denial of the millions of strong, independent, single women who raised wonderful children like my own husband, even with the world working against them. This is a reinforcement of the nuclear family, and the idea that there is only one right way in which something can be done.
Unaware of these amendments, or perhaps simply not caring about something that does not apply to her, the Daughter spends the novel trying to solve the problem of her pregnancy, a bodily state that she did not consent, though she did consent to sex. An
intellectual and math wiz talented at finding the problems in the ideas of others, she does not want the child adopted, especially as her own adoption left her with too many questions and no answers.
Being adopted myself, many of my own personal opinions found themselves reflected in the Daughter, who quickly became my favorite character. Rather than spending her time fighting the Amendments, the Daughter finds herself fighting against the Pink Wall, an effort by Canada to stop all pregnant American women from crossing the border for abortions.
The other characters consist of the Wife, trapped in an unhappy marriage, with two children babysat by the Daughter, and an uncaring husband who teaches alongside the Biographer. The Mender, a woman who holds the secrets of so many main and secondary characters, finds herself the object of a witch hunt, after reportedly helping a woman abort. Last is Eivør, a polar explorer who’s biography chapters, written by the Biographer, open up each part of the book. The unfinished paragraphs and sentences unfold a story of a woman who is showing a disappointment to her mother, whose value is determined worthless by men in charge.
I adore this book. I love the writing style, the politics and ideas, the characters, the conflicts. In the same vein as The Handmaid’s Tale, I found this book easier to understand, as it seems a reflection of the current state of our nation, while the environment of The Handmaid’s Tale seems a bit farther off.
With a large diamond vulva gracing the cover, one could easily sum up this book with, “She is submitting her area to all kinds of invasion without understanding a fraction of what’s being done to it” (pg. 7).
There isn’t a single thing I would change about this book.