Lidia Yuknavitch’s post apocalyptic novel The Book of Joan opens on an orbital platform known as CIEL floating above a mostly radioactive Earth. The event that devastated the planet also fucked with humanities morphology leaving people pale, hairless and without sex. Christine is one of these people, and like the thousands of other survivors who escaped to CIEL, her* life is monitored and regulated by the insane Jean de Men and his followers. Christine, though, doesn’t take well to subservience and in an act of rebellion has started grafting her story and the story of Joan on her skin. It’s an account she hopes to share to others on CIEL. Who was Joan? Well she was the “child-warrior” who fought a final, epic and apocalyptic battle against Jean de Men’s forces. The very battle that destroyed the majority of life on Earth…
The Book of Joan is at its best when it’s exploring Christine’s world up on the orbital platform, in particular the desire to be loved and take part in the act of love even if the appropriate equipment is missing. That last bit in particular is a major taboo on CIEL where –
Chief among the CIEL offenses are any acts resembling the act of sex, the idea of sex, the physical indicators of sexuality. All sex is restricted to textual, and all texts are grafts. Our bodies are meant to be read and consumed, debated, exchanged, or transformed only cerebrally. Any version of the act itself is an affront to social order, not to mention a brutal reminder of our impotency as a nonprocreating group.
When Christine and her loved-one, Trinculo, are caught in the process of simulating copulation, the authorities jail them and hand Trinculo a death sentence. This sparks Christine to push forward with her rebellion, bringing on others to share the story of Joan through etched words on their skin. It’s angry, powerful stuff and if the whole novel had been about this, had been focused entirely on Christine’s rebellion, her resurrection of a dead hero through skin and story, her embrace of sex and sexuality I’d have been a happy reader. But the introduction of Joan and particularly the over the top grotesqueries of Jean de Men interrupt the flow.
Joan’s back story is interesting enough, but when it’s revealed that she escaped her own death sentence and is scrabbling a life with her paramour (and bodyguard) Leone on what remains of Earth, the narrative becomes less interesting. Partly it’s because I found it hard to feel sorry for a woman who burnt the entire planet – whatever the motivation – and partly it’s that Joan never felt like an actual person but rather a plot device, bestowed magic gifts at a young age that are employed when required by the plot. Finally, though, with our actual planet on an environmental precipice, one that’s going to require a shitload of work from responsible Governments and citizens, the idea that a single person has the power to replenish the Earth – once she can get over her guilt and angst – felt like wish fulfillment and right now I’m not the audience for that sort of handwavium.
What also undermines Christine’s story are the monstrous machinations of Jean de Men. I don’t mind some gore with a grand guignol flair, but de Men is so unbelievable, trying to rear his own race of humans by literally cutting people open so he can recreate a vagina and reproductive system, it’s hard not to laugh (and be repulsed, Yuknavitch doesn’t shy away from being graphic).
The Book of Joan has lofty ambitions. It has profound things to say about love, gender, sex, and renewal. But I never found myself on Yuknavitch’s wavelength, confused and bewildered by a wish fulfillment heroine and a villain who’d have been more believable if he’d actually twirled his mustache.
* I should note that although sexless Christine identifies as female.