Wednesday, July 4, 2018

"The Power" by Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman’s The Power came at just the right moment. As #metoo is heard everywhere, Alderman’s novel posits a world where women’s physical strength suddenly surpasses--greatly surpasses--that of men. Her novel explores what would happen to our understanding of men and women if women could physically dominate.

The crux is, of course, whether men and women are biologically different, or if any difference stems from men’s greater physical strength and sexist socialization. Alderman’s answer appears to be simple: if women had the physical advantage, women would become “men,” and men would become “women.” It’s the simplicity of her response that both bothers me and is somewhat intriguing. In her speculation, absolute power does corrupt absolutely, and once women are given that opportunity, they dominate and destroy men as savagely as the worst male oppressors and tyrants.

Now, presumably there are some women who wouldn’t act this way (just as there are many men in history and modern times who treat women with respect). And in fact, the female protagonists of the story aren’t real villains. But, as the novel doesn’t follow any “ordinary” women who gain power, we don’t see typical married couples, for example, trying to navigate a relationship anew once one person’s position has changed.

Instead, the novel follows only the people with the most outsized influence on the changing world. There’s Allie, who becomes the spiritual cult leader Mother Eve; Roxy, a gangster’s daughter who takes on the family business; Margot, a politician with increasing aspirations; and Tunde, a journalist covering the uprisings in less developed areas of the world and the only male narrator.

The the three female narrators have largely negative relationships with men, so it’s not surprising when they use their power to take control from men. But, again, I wanted to also learn what would happen to women who had power but had had largely positive relationships with men.

Allie, who of anyone has the most influence on the changing world, felt undeveloped as a character. She’d had a rough upbringing, but becoming a cult leader overnight? Roxy made the most sense in terms of her character arc, and her end-of-the-novel connection with Tunde worked more for me than I would have thought.

One of the most interesting elements of the novel was Alderman’s take on physical strength and its connection to sex. Women’s newfound power almost immediately takes a role in sexual relationships, both as a tool for pleasure and torture. The graphic scenes of women raping men were grotesque and difficult to read.

The book was surprisingly violent and gory, perhaps done so to emphasize that any depiction of women as docile, sweet, or passive is socially structured rather than innate.

Ultimately The Power wasn’t quite what I was hoping to read, but in defying my expectations, it perhaps gave me more to think about.