Nell Zink: Doxology and Suzette Haden Elgin: Native Tongue
(Feminist Press, 2019)
Addressing perceived injustice and giving us metaphors to understand suffering and redemption is some of the work modern fiction can do. Two recent novels that work to do this are Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue and Nell Zink's Doxology. While these novels are widely divergent in theme, tone, and style, both strive to address aspects of the modern world and limitations within women's roles within American society and both feature strong female characters who ultimately carry the narrative.
Elgin’s classic feminist trilogy (recently re-released by Feminist Press), takes place in a (not so far-fetched) dystopian future where the 19th Amendment has been repealed and women are classed as legal minors with no rights of their own. Often, these women live lives of drudgery, forced marriage and reproduction, and verbal and physical abuse. The first novel in Elgin's trilogy, “Native Tongue,” is a highly readable introduction to Elgin’s world. There are decided commonalities between Elgin’s Fundamentalist Christian misogynist dystopia (where a specialist “race” of linguists breeds their women to exhaustion) and Margaret Atwood’s better known The Handmaid’s Tale. Elgin’s work focuses somewhat less on sex and reproduction as a basis for gender-based oppression and more on the freeing possibilities that lie within language. A group of “Lingoes” (slang for Linguists) women are secretly creating their own language. Living in the Barren Houses, where all women past childbearing age are sent, these women have not only created a safe community that supports them within the broader oppression of Linguist (and American) life, they are also doing work that speaks directly to central ideas of identity-building. In a world that devalues women’s intelligence, abilities, and sees them only as translators of “Alien Languages,” vessels for breeding children, objects for sex, or live-in maids, these women have forged their own identities in a language that will grow and live beyond and outside of their limited sphere; a language inaccessible and beyond the scope of male understanding. Language is central to the novel (and trilogy) and to Elgin’s world because Linguists hold the key to communicating with various “Alien Intelligences.” In an economy dependent on interplanetary trade, only Linguists can communicate with trade delegations giving the Linguist families power that both the government and average citizens resent.
That Elgin is writing in the early 1980s and in the shadow of the failed E.R.A. campaign, is clear in some of her terminology including references to the Women’s Liberation Movement (a term that has now come to refer specifically to a segment of 1970s feminist activism) and also her focus on a world structured around binary gender-based oppression and how that oppression is often enacted through gender-based language. Elgin was a fan of Cheris Kramarae’s Women and Men Speaking (1981), a theoretical work that builds on foundations laid by Hélèn Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Like Kramarae, Elgin believed that women were oppressed by the very words they speak and in need of a language outside of the standard world's languages. For Elgin, the trilogy was not just a revolutionary sci-fi novel but also a thought experiment and a revolutionary gesture: she created learning materials to aid any women interested in learning her created language (Láadan) and she hoped women would be inspired to forge a new way of speaking.
Each chapter in Native Tongue begins with an epigraph of text from a fictional historic source. These epigraphs help world-build and also create a clear history of the rise of the misogynist society that exists in the present day of the novel. While there is a lot of world-building and feminist-rhetorical work done in the novel, it’s important to note that it’s also a very engaging read. Many of the scenes are between the major male characters (shady government officials, male leaders of the Linguists) and there are some very compelling side narratives including stolen babies, homicidal housewives, family power struggles, and “racial” tensions between non-Linguist and Linguist populations. As engrossing as any well-written genre novel, “Native Tongue” entertains while it also shocks and illustrates the depths of oppression these women are forced to live under. But aside from all of this, Elgin’s genius resides in her ability to create compelling and memorable characters: the reader wants these women to survive, to succeed in their rebellions, and when terrible things transpire, it’s deeply upsetting. These characters will stay with the reader long after the last page—their lives, their joys and nearly unendurable suffering helping to humanize the deeply relevant and compelling feminist themes in the novel.
Central to the narratives in both Native Tongue and Nell Zink’s Doxology, is the life story of a young woman. In Native Tongue, it's the story of Nazareth, a highly precocious and talented daughter of the head of the Linguist clans. Forced to marry at a very young age, Nazareth finds solace in language and the companionship of other women. Her husband is physically and verbally abusive in a culture where no one will step in to protect her. When she experiences kindness from a male translator, she falls in love with him—only to be publicly humiliated. Eventually she contracts breast and uterine cancer and requests to be sent to the Barren House. Here she provides the impetus to a quiet language-based revolution. Where her life story could serve as a deeply upsetting example of the horrors of a world where women have no rights, her suffering instead leads to redemption and revolution.
In Doxology, Zink tells the story of two white “’80s hipsters,” their eventually famous rock musician friend, and their daughter. While the first half of the novel focuses on the 1980s through 9/11, the adventures of Pam and David and their friend Joe Harris (who is reminiscent of a sort of Kurt Cobain-Daniel Johnston mix with a little Jeff Buckley sexiness thrown in), the second half of the novel is far more interesting. Pam and David have a daughter, Flora, somewhat by accident and she becomes the heart of the novel. Raised in New York's still gritty Lower East Side with Joe as her babysitter, Flora is bright, ethically inclined and poised to save the world; or at least to save her parents from themselves. But things take a dark turn when Joe dies a predictable heroin death—blamed by Pam and David on his cartoonish girlfriend Gwen (who comes off as a caricatured mix of Courtney Love and Kate Moss). Because Joe dies on 9/11 his death isn't discovered by Pam and David for days after they have already left New York. They have the resources to take Flora and leave town to escape to the idyllic Cleveland Park (a tony suburb of Washington, D.C.) to stay with Pam’s upper middle-class parents. There Flora discovers suburban life (clean sidewalks, a yard, trees, sky, etc.) and the decision is made to leave her with Pam’s parents where she can attend a good private school away from New York City.
Eventually Flora goes to college where she has affairs with a professor or two and decides she wants to help save the planet. Travelling to intern with an NGO, she discovers the dark side of this work and begins to drift. She returns to her grandparents, joins the Green Party, thinks about grad school and ends up sleeping with an aging lobbyist (Democrat) who helps her land a job on the Jill Stein campaign. Until she gives up on grad school, her dreams, and herself, Flora truly is a compelling character but by the end of the novel, she's made the same poor decisions her mother made and while we love her and want her to be happy, it's hard to keep rooting for a girl whose lack of self-care is almost a mimic of her mother's.
There are deep and compelling moments throughout Doxology but there are also deeply troubling moments—Pam and David and Joe seem to live in a Lower East Side that is largely (and inaccurately) white but the “’80s hipster" is described as not capable of gentrification (a stance that is never clearly explained). Pam is an alcoholic and doesn't use birth control so it's no surprise when she gets pregnant; David's reaction is sweetly supportive and romantic and we like him just a little bit more. But for Flora to repeat the same behavior (sans alcohol) is surprising—a young feminist woman who doesn't use birth control is surprising, a young feminist environmentalist who would rather eat steak at Peter Luger's with her middle-aged lobbyist boyfriend than follow her dreams and go to grad school seems hugely out of character.
But this novel is still a good albeit somewhat madcap and maddening read: the sagging downtown loft, the weird keyboard art-rock, the evil record company executive and equally evil groupie-girlfriend, Pam as high school dropout, Ian Mackaye obsessed drunk DC punk who chances into wild success as a coder in Manhattan, the middle class white flight from NYC post-9/11, all of these are elements that make this an entertaining book. Zink works to illustrate the suffering of individual grief overshadowed by the city-wide grieving post-9/11 and she does try to give her characters a little redemption: the love between Joe and young Flora and Flora and her father are stand-out moments in the book. We want Flora to be happy just as we wish Joe could have survived. We want Flora to be the beacon of hope at the end of the novel that she often is from the time she first appears in Pam and David's world. We want there to be some kind of redemption for these people and, by extension, for all of us. But Trump is elected and Flora (and everyone around her) collapses into a sort of fugue state of denial. Perhaps the central flaw in the novel is that throughout there is an overwhelming cynicism that cuts through joy and hope and leaves us wondering, did these people—did we—learn nothing on 9/11? For those of us who either could not or would not leave the city in the days after, there may be some critique of those who, like Pam and David, had the means and desire to get out. That David returns to the city to try to cope with Joe's death speaks to a level of courage but it's not enough. And that Flora is left with so little of her desired future to hope for speaks both to the limitations Trump's America imposes on women and also to a failure on Flora's part to demand more.
In Native Tongue, Elgin strives to create a language for women in an effort to move past oppression into a hopeful future; in Doxology, Zink provides moments of transcendence but there is no true “doxology,” no hymn of praise present here, save the individual moments of love between Flora and her father. Perhaps that’s all we can hope for in Trump’s America: redemption through the recognition of individual love and not hope for a broader redemption through the revolution from oppression Elgin and others so hoped for.