How many words do you speak in a day? A scientific study from the University of Texas, Austin, put the average figure at around 16,000 words a day for both men and women. In Christina Dalcher’s début VOX, women are permitted to speak just 100 words a day. Each must wear a bracelet around their wrist, capable of delivering a powerful electric shock as soon as the daily word limit is exceeded.
It’s a terrific hook for this commercial feminist novel set in a dystopian near-future America, where the conservative, religious right has risen to total political power. Dalcher writes of the Bible Belt as "that swathe of Southern states where religion ruled", expanding across the country, "morphing from belt to corset". The new US president is in thrall to a preacher named Reverend Carl Corbin, the leader of the Pure Movement, which believes in traditional gender roles and that a woman’s place is in the home.
The angel in the house
Over the telephone from her home in Norfolk, Virginia, Dalcher tells me that the Pure Movement in her novel is based in part on a late 19th-century/early 20th-century movement in America called the Cult of Domesticity. "The idea was to go back to Biblical roles, to separate men and women," she says, explaining that women were expected to conform in four ways; piety, purity, submission and domesticity. She adds that there is a modern version of the Cult of Domesticity active in the US right now; the True Woman movement, part of a larger religious campaign called Revive Our Hearts. Later, I look up the website and find its manifesto, which includes the following, rather chilling, statement: "We are called as women to affirm and encourage men as they seek to express godly masculinity, and to honor [sic] and support God-ordained male leadership in the home and in the church."
In the world of the novel books are forbidden to women, their bank accounts have been transferred to the closest male relative and all female employment suspended. So Jean McClellan, once a leading neurolinguist, is now occupied with running the household and helping her children—three boys and a girl—navigate this new society in near-silence. Her daughter Sonia is six years old, an age where she should be soaking up language like a sponge and chattering non-stop, but she too is restricted to 100 words a day, a deprivation with potentially catastrophic consequences.
"I think that women especially will read VOX and think the horrible part is being limited to 100 words a day," says Dalcher. "But in my mind the horror actually comes from thinking about what is going to become of the next generation. What is going to happen to these little girls who aren’t learning language in time?" A limit of 100 words for someone who can already speak "doesn’t take away your language faculty, or remove your ability to think, to rationalise, to process information. But if we take language away, take the linguistic faculty away, by not ensuring that children acquire it by a certain age during the critical period, then we are really in trouble, right?"
In writing the scenes featuring Sonia, Dalcher, who has a PhD in theoretical linguistics, found herself thinking of a famous case study which she came across at the beginning of her academic career. "Genie" was a "wild child" who was rescued from her abusive and neglectful parents in California in 1970, after nearly 14 years of almost total social isolation; she had no language, nor, psychologists and linguists discovered, any hope of acquiring it.
"Genie was severely abused and neglected. She was denied language, which is what is happening with these little girls in the book. We only see Sonia but we know that Sonia goes to school with other little girls and there’s a whole generation that we can almost imagine—projecting two generations into the future—a time when women have lost their language faculty completely. The older women who had it have died off, and where would we be then? We’d have this situation where men were really running things, and women were, I don’t know, like pets! That to me is much more horrifying than being limited to 100 words."
Jean is offered a reprieve out of the blue—her voice is given back—when the President’s brother has a skiing accident which affects his speech. She is suddenly addressed as Dr McClellan again, her bracelet is removed, and she is invited back to her old lab, where she used to lead a team working on a cure for aphasia (a language and communication disorder resulting from damage to the language centres of the brain). But she soon discovers she is part of a much larger plan: to eliminate the voices of women entirely . . .
VOX (Latin for “voice”) grew out of a piece of flash fiction, which Dalcher defines as "very, very short stories . . . Sometimes as few as 100 words". She started writing the novel in 2017 but not, she says, as a response to the Trump administration. (Although, in a nice topical touch, supporters of the Pure Movement drive around in cars with bumper stickers that read "Make America Moral Again".)
VOX owes a debt to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which Dalcher first read when it was published back in 1985, and re-read last year before starting her own novel, prompted by trailers for the hit HBO TV series: "I’m not a big television adaptation person, so I thought I’ll just go read the book instead." She is a big fan of Atwood’s writing: "She writes scenes that almost stand alone, like little slices of a great whole. You don’t need the whole context to appreciate the beautiful lyricism of her writing. So, more than the content [of The Handmaid’s Tale], I was actually studying the form; how did she deal with flashbacks, how did she build the world, how did she interweave the now and the past? That to me was very insightful."
Advance reviews of VOX have been very positive. Dachler sees her novel as "not so much a call-to-arms but a call to pay attention", and to "not necessarily live our lives as though everything is going to be the same tomorrow because that’s not the case. The fact is that our lives really can change in a heartbeat. We saw this with [Donald Trump’s] executive order banning travel from Muslim countries to the United States. Everything changed very quickly.
"Also, what I would love is for a reader to take away something about how precious this commodity of language is and how we take it for granted. I’m not just talking about free speech, or the ability to go out and march...but I’d like readers to contemplate how much we depend on our language faculty and what would happen to us if that were taken away."