I’m not sure I can write about this book without giving any spoilers. I mean, I could say this: The Power is a science fiction novel in which, because of unknown side effects of a chemical used during WWII, women develop a new organ in their bodies, a skein under their collarbone that gives them the power of electricity. The novel explores, through the stories of several women and one man, the way this power helps women be physically equal to men in strength, and thus irrevocably alters the power structures of the world. It forced me to look at my own relationships with men, most closely with my husband, in a new light, as well as to wonder how I would be as a person, both within society and within my relationships, were I equally as powerful as men.
Or I could say: this novel is batshit crazy and I loved every second of it.
Or: I listened to half of it on audio, and read the second half because my Overdrive checkout expired before I could finish. I really liked the reader for the audio edition. She did a great job at changing her voice to represent each of the different characters, and her pacing was perfect. But I also think that listening to the audio without also looking at the book lessens the story, because it is interspersed with images representing art from the time of the story, and seeing those pieces adds to the overall experience. I’m actually really glad I “read” it both ways.
Or I could also say: The Cosmopolitan review that says the novel is “The Hunger Games crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale” makes me doubt that the reviewer has read any of these books. Yes, I know The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale are books/movies/TV shows that people recognize right now. They’re cool. But The Power is not a blend of those two stories. Aside from the fact that they are all three about women, and science fiction, and I guess there is a scene in The Power that is similar to a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale wherein women wreak havoc upon men…but, no. Reviewers who compare the reviewed book to what is popular without actually making any connection make me absolutely annoyed. (I almost wrote “infuriated” instead of “annoyed” but, come on. It’s a book review. There are many other things to spend my infuriation upon.)
But what I really want to write about is how the book influenced me, and to do that I have to write about many of the plot points, which would ruin the novel for you. So! If you haven’t read The Power by Naomi Alderman, but you want to, then stop reading right now. Well, stop reading my blog (momentarily), go get a copy of the book, and start reading it!
OK! I’m writing now with the assumption that you have read the novel, so I can just refer to plot points and characters instead of describing them.
I have always, at my heart’s core, been a feminist. I have been interested in women’s stories for as long as I can remember loving stories; I have found the patriarchal structure of my religion inhibiting since I could just begin to see and understand it. Luckily, my mother also has a feminist streak, and she taught me (and my three other sisters) that our woman-ness should never stop us from doing something, even if society made it harder.
But I married a white Mormon boy who grew up in Idaho, with very conservative parents. With—and I think this is the key, honestly—a mother who was kind and loving and intelligent, but who never stood up against her husband. I remember her telling me once that she had always wanted a down comforter for her bed, but she had never had one because her husband didn’t like them. And that seemed to me one of the saddest things about her life, that her opinions and desires were always second, because that’s the natural order of things, right? The man has the power and the choice the woman has is to accept the way he uses his power or to push back. And where is pushing back going to get you? Divorced.
(That seems critical of my in-laws, and I suppose it is, in a sense. But I also acknowledge that we are all products of our environment, to some extent. So my father-in-law, who was a good man, would likely never realize “huh, I could treat my wife differently” unless someone told him that. And his wife, who was kind and also good, would never tell him because maybe she couldn’t even see it herself.)
It has taken me a long time. Lots of talking, discussing, arguing, yelling, epithets, slammed doors and long, furious, solitary drives just to get the hell away. It has been work. But I think I can say that my husband is a feminist. Of a sort, of course. He understands women’s issues, the way that we are treated as less-than in society, the discrimination, the threat of violence. He can speak the language. But, like Offred realizes in The Handmaid’s Tale, even the good men are easily corrupted. Take away the pressure I am always putting on him and maybe he’d be happy to slide into his father’s role and keep me in his mother’s. In fact, it comes up over and over and over again, still, in the way he talks and thinks. It is ingrained: men have more power in relationships. They often make more money, for example. Their aging bodies are not considered as repulsive and shameful as women’s are, so if there is a divorce, men know they can always find someone else to love them, probably even someone younger and prettier and definitely with bigger, firmer boobs, fewer wrinkles, no elephant skin on their knees. “Women’s work” still is a trope in our society, and even though my husband is actually really good at helping with cleaning the house, I always feel like I should have to thank him for it. (And not in a friendly, thanks-for-helping-me way, but in that uncomfortable-gratitude sort of way, like him vacuuming or unloading the dishwasher is a gift he has deigned to give me, the person who really should be doing it because, you know: woman.)
I continue with this work. I won’t ever not be who I am, a woman who believes I should be treated equally and who will continue pushing her husband to see that. Also, and this is important, trying to teach my sons to see and understand this, too.
But what if, like the women in the novel, I didn’t have to? What if there were equal power, as in the story?
Because the women in this society have a power that makes them physically equal with men (and perhaps even stronger in some ways), they are able to fight back against all of the ways women have been lesser than men. My favorite scene in the book is after Margot has had the test to see if she has the power or not, and she successfully beats the test. In a conference room with the governor and another men, discussing how they will move forward, she realizes she could kill them both.
“That is the profound truth of it…Nothing that either of these men says is really of any great significance, because she could kill them in three moves before they stirred in their comfortably padded chairs…It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”
The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.
And that really is the crux of it, isn’t it? The crux of the power imbalance, whether we’re thinking of physical strength, the threat of divorce, the pay gap. Every women’s issue I can think of comes back to that: the power to hurt is a kind of wealth.
I have been both energized and infuriated while reading this book. (There. That’s the proper place for fury.) Energized because it has made me think: what would happen if we could just, somehow, have equality? But infuriated because the story made me see on deeper levels the way women are still impoverished. And the way that quite often, women themselves enable the poverty. That pat on the head from someone more powerful is a strong source of internal validation, isn’t it? And how, perhaps Naomi Alderman is exactly right: the only way we will ever have equality is if we are first as physically strong as men.
Except, women having power doesn’t lead, in the novel, to equality. It leads to further violence. Violence of a particular feminine sort, violence based on all of the millennia we have endured under men’s power. I want the women in the novel to use their power for good, but I don’t think they do. Maybe Roxy, but only because she loses it. (Roxy losing her skein: I wept at that part. Sorrow and fury.) Don’t we get to learn something from the many years of victimhood? Does society only work if one side is in charge and the other side held under? Are there only patterns that the side in power repeats, no matter who is actually in charge? And aren’t women entitled, a bit, to some revenge?
What really would happen if women ran the world?
Of course, this is not really what feminism is about. Feminism is about equality, not dominance. “Women in charge of the world” is the fear of conservative hearts everywhere, so I really hope many of our elected officials never read this novel or they’d be terrified, their worst fears confirmed. But it is also my worst fear: that if we never can achieve equality, if one side always must have the power, and if power always corrupts, then my faith in women being (I confess) more apt to do good in the world is faulty. And Alderman tells me exactly that, that it is, by the framing structure of the story.
Besides. I don’t have physical power to equal men’s. I don’t know how to change the whole world, like Eve/Allie does.
What I have is what I have to come back to: my relationships with men. Especially my relationship with my husband. And likely he’s baffled by my recent fury, by my proclivity to spark against the smallest provocation. Because deep down, I know that while he listens to me, he tries to understand, he even points out the male/female balance problems he sees in the world, while he is a good man, he still has more power than I do. Than I will ever have. Because he could beat me if he wanted to. (He doesn’t want to, or, he never would choose to, but still. Like Margot knows, he could, and that makes the difference.) Because he makes far more money than I do. Because the thought of divorce is painful for me of course because of the splitting of two lives…but also, if I am honest, because I would crumble away in the reality of whatever woman he chose after me, who would be the opposite of me in all the best ways. Because while I am not afraid of solitude and have grown used to loneliness, the thought of facing a world in which I am alone because I am a used-up, wrinkled, grey-haired woman who of course no one else would want to be with, is utterly terrifying. Is worse than the understanding of my powerlessness.
And because those thoughts are so shameful to me because they illustrate my weaknesses.
But mostly because he does, like all other men, have a wealth. A huge store of ways to inflict pain.
So this novel? This novel made me angry. At my husband, at my sons, at the way the world is. At myself. It made me want, so badly, some kind of power that I don’t have. Something that could level off the possibility for inflicting pain. Or even something that would give me an edge. Just a small one. What would that feel like? To know I could inflict some pain, too, and so to be distanced from the threat of my own pain?
It made me angry. It didn’t give me any answers, but I don’t think it tried to. It just said: what if women controlled the world? Would it be different? Would women still be good? Or is it also true that “goodness” (whatever that really is) can only be found, really, in the side with less power? And what does that say about goodness itself?
In another review, Cory Doctorow says that The Power is “easy to read, hard to put down, difficult to forget.” I think for me, the last point is the truest. I don’t think I will forget this reading experience. I think I will be changed by it. It made me question:
am I good?
Am I controlling?
Do I have any power, and if not, how can I get some?