Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

If I say the science fiction in Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road (2014) isn’t quite science fiction enough, I mean the remark in the same way I mean that the Xindi arc in season three of Enterprise wasn’t quite Star Trek.  That third season was bold, exciting television–the kind of television they should have been producing all along–but it was only tangentially-tied to the Star Trek universe, and even those tangents were loose.

Byrne’s novel is certainly ambitious.  She aims to create, not the great American novel, but the great World novel, by positing an Earth in the year 2060 that is culturally-saturated by India and China.  The idea’s been played with before:  Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle depicts an Earth upon which Japan and Germany won the Second World War.  Fans of the sci-fi television series Firefly will recall that, mixed in with all the tropes of the American Old West, was a strong sense that the cultures in conflict there had once been deeply influenced by China.

There were spaceships in Firefly.  There are none in The Girl in the Road.  There is, however, a bridge of self-renewing energy powered by metallic hydrogen that spans the Arabian Sea and connects India with Djibouti in Africa.  A woman named Meena uses the bridge to escape people she thinks are trying to kill her by various means (including by snakebite), but not before trying to commit suicide by jumping in front of a commuter train.  Her mentally-unstable condition calls into question the truth of her claims about her life being at risk, but her decision to take the bridge turns Byrne’s novel into a quest tale that is, by far, the most exciting element of her work.

Interwoven with Meena’s escape is a parallel tale from thirty years earlier involving transporters of an early form of metallic hydrogen.  The two transporters, Mohammed and Francis, discover a stowaway, Mariama, who is trying to escape slavery and the cruelty of her master in Mauritania.  The three of them are soon joined in Senegal by Yemana, a woman who becomes Mariama’s protector.  Part of the worldwide scope of Byrne’s novel is attained through the meanings associated with these character names: Meena, Mariama, and Yemana are all Earth goddesses; Mohammed and Francis are prophet and saint, respectively.  Byrne eventually brings these two parallel tales together, but not before some long excursions into Ethiopian life, Indian philosophy, the dynamics of female bonding, and the effects of seeing a dead girl in the road.

To my mind, these excursions were quite interesting but, for other readers, they prove troubling and problematic.  Byrne did quite a lot of research for The Girl in the Road, immersing herself in the culture and languages of Africa and India as much as possible.  She lays to rest (for most people) the issue of whether a writer not born into a culture can write about that culture perceptively.  I had already settled that question in my mind long ago:  she can.  But not everybody is satisfied with the result.

They are not satisfied, either, with the way in which the relationship between Mariama and Yemana is developed.  There is a scene of love between the two which comes perilously close to rape.  If it is not rape (I do not think it is), it is at the very least the depiction of the exploitation of a young girl by an older woman who ought to acknowledge the consequences of an act the girl is too young to realize.

My own most significant dissatisfaction comes from the manner of the resolution of the problems Mariama and Meena face.  We know that the destiny of the two women is–and must be–linked together, but that resolved destiny, tragic as it is, is little different from the resolutions of dozens of mysteries we might read.  Byrne works very hard to create a world in which the primary voice we hear is female, and what a refreshing change that is.  Yet, the actions of those females, operating within a matriarchal society, are not fundamentally different from the way in which women act within the patriarchy.  Your lover spurns you?  Do her in; kill him, and be as bloody about it as you like.  Alfred Hitchcock would understand this mindset; I, and more than a few women, do not.  For all the inventiveness Byrne shows in connecting her tales, she does not overcome this fundamental weakness.  For years, the claim has been made by Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, Marilyn French, and a multitude of others that the matriarchy is superior as a way of life to the patriarchy.  If that is so, The Girl in the Road does not show it, and that is disappointing, particularly in a science-fiction novel.  If matriarchy is ultimately to show that superiority one day, the foundation of that superiority must be in better, non-violent conflict resolution.  Otherwise, the matriarchy will remain what it is at present:  the patriarchy, run by women.

We may get to the future I envision.  We won’t get there by 2060, and we won’t get there by the blueprint Monica Byrne lays down.  She takes us part of the way there, but the way is blocked, not only by a girl in the road, but by a host of behavioral issues our present world has yet to overcome.

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2 thoughts on “Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

  1. Hi John, I just read your review and all I can say is I couldn’t have put it better myself. I also went back and reread some of my own thoughts from Goodreads, and here’s the gist… As far as the plot goes, it seems ambitious to begin with, but gradually degenerates into something implausible, micro-leveled, and vaguely soap-opera-ish. Which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, except that we’re not given a single character to root for and indeed care about. This is a story of abuse, specifically abuse against women, but not even the victims make sympathetic characters. The two narrators, both unreliable, inspire quite an array of unpleasant emotions and on occasion a pronounced sense of nausea. As regards the men, the prevalent perspective seems skewed toward generalization to such an extent that they come across as caricatures.Toward the end of the book I found myself questioning the author’s comprehension of abuse. Her take rather seems to amount to a lot of bombastic yet empty rhetoric.

    To sum up, I didn’t love this book at all. I didn’t love the characters, the direction in which the author took them, and especially the abuse issue. You didn’t think it was rape, but I viewed it as such, and sadly the way it was introduced, explored, and concluded made it quite difficult to read on. You and I both loved A Little Life, and that was a horrendously difficult narrative to stomach; yet at no point did it fill me with the emotions Ms. Byrne’s book did. Quite frankly, it has left me feeling unclean.

    As for the characters, they were artificial, hollow, unimaginative; their actions lacked the depth and sinuousness of the truly great who, even when evil to their very bones (or, perhaps, especially then) provide fascinating incursions into a world of social, psychological, and ethical concepts and force the reader to think, imagine, and learn new things about his or her own self.

    In any case, this is my two cents 🙂 Sorry I took a while to get back to you, I’ve been doing some traveling… I am reasonably well, although my son is going through a difficult time and it’s beginning to take its toll on us too. I’ll email you one of these days!

    Be well, my friend 🙂

  2. Ramona, thanks for your detailed response. (I did not expect so much :)) It is good to know that my reactions are not wholly aberrant. Evidently, a lot of people liked this book, and there’s a lot about it to like but, as you say, the characterizations leave a lot to be desired, in addition to its other weaknesses. Because I’m a man, I’m biased toward a male-centric view, and that puts me at risk of missing something fundamental in a female-centric work. I do not think, however, that I missed much in this case.

    For me, the scene of love (I do not think it can be called a “love scene”; it is, at most, an “awakening” scene) wasn’t rape because Mariama wasn’t taken by force. She consented; but, as I implied in the post, it wasn’t informed consent by a sexually-mature partner. Yemana knew better, but violated her anyway. Feminists will typically celebrate such moments as the claiming of sexual freedom and the claiming of one’s body for one’s own (and that’s fine), but that kind of celebration is not what this moment’s about.

    If one of the meanings of Byrne’s novel is that, in the future, women truly can and will behave differently and in a superior way from men, then they must not only act differently from men, but also think differently from men, displaying a more sensitive consciousness of who is and is not mature, of who is and is not an appropriate sexual partner, of who is and is not aware of what our goals in life ought to be. And if Byrne didn’t intend her novel to make the claim of feminist superiority, then what the book really is is just a typical murder mystery of our 21st century, and the science-fiction backdrop is unnecessary. I believe, however, given what Byrne has said about the importance of cross-cultural contact, she *was* aiming to create a feminist work in this novel of the World. But Yemana and Mariama fail the test of this higher standard for me. They’re just slightly dressed up contemporary women who behave as angry women with motive and opportunity just might behave.

    I’m glad you’ve had the chance to travel. Keep going as long as it makes you happy. I’m sorry to hear that your son is having a difficult time. His parents are patient and wise, and I am fully confident all of you will pass through these troubles soon. I know also, however, that dealing with the care of another does take a toll on us, so always look out for yourself, too. If I hear from you, it will be a pleasure. In the meantime, you and your family are in my thoughts.

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