In the hotel room carpeting that is my life, The Female Man was a major event. It’s among the most important-feeling events of my career as a reader, but it’s also the kind of book that sounds crummy on paper.
But here goes.
The Female Man takes place in four worlds inhabited by four different women who share the same genotype and whose names all start with the letter J. There’s Jeannine Dadier, who lives in 1969 in an America that never recovered from the Great Depression; Joanna, who also lives in 1969, but in an America like ours; Janet Evason, an Amazonian beast who lives in an all-female world called Whileaway; and Alice Reasoner, or “Jael,” who’s a dystopian warlord from a future where women and men have been launching nukes at each other for decades.
When all these women get together throughout the course of the book, you come to realize that all their realities are “worlds of possibility” with no linear relationship to one another. So, although some of the book takes place in the future, no one woman’s world is supposed to be “our” past or “our” future. Rather, they’re each inter-dimensional travelers. Not to mention that they’re all manifestations of the same woman, spread out over time, situation, and possibility.
It’s complicated. Janet, faced with a world populated by men, balks. Jeannine becomes complicit in Jael’s war. Joanna, exasperated, calls herself a Female Man, ostensibly to separate herself from being identified as “just another” woman. Jael attempts to set up anti-man military bases over space and time. The women travel from place to place, to Janet’s world, Joanna’s, Jael’s.
There’s nothing straight about the book, in any sense of the word. Russ’ style is epically woozy, disjointed, and, for lack of a better word, “feminine,” unconcerned with structure or the rigidity of narrative. Unsurprisingly, too, the novel plays heavily with voice, with characters playing multiple roles, and speaking from diverse points of view. It’s usually impossible to identify who the speaking “I” is, which is maddening until you learn to realize that “I” is the key to power and all that fiddling with it is an attempt to speak to a universal (albeit feminine) point of view all while eradicating whatever prejudices are built into our language: “I, I, I. Repeat it like magic.” In a sense, the traditional authority of The Novel is futzed about, as very few concessions of logic and characterization are made to the reader: Russ even espouses, “to resolve contrarieties, unite them in your own person.” In short, you are forced to loosen your grip, which in turn throws out all the usual assumptions about readers having a “right” or “getting to” know what’s happening and why.
This is actually, to me, the most subversive gesture of the novel, despite all the other, more vitriolic points about power and gender dialectics (athough some of that stuff can be fustian in a “hell yeah!”-empowering kind of way). Here’s a book that’s telling you all kinds of heavy shit, but it’s not condescending. It holds the insight firmly in its grip and it won’t just give it to you. It demands to be decoded. It demands consideration. It demands, most of all, to be read with both feet firmly planted on its own turf.
This is why it works so well as science fiction, which is a genre that demands a hearty suspension of disbelief from its readers. As readers of SF, we are ready to believe a great deal of improbable things, but we are rarely asked to indulge a writer’s style so profoundly. And yet, why not? Isn’t that why we’re here — to experience things which readers of traditional fiction scarcely know exists? Joanna Russ says “try harder.”
Samuel Delany noticed this, too. In a 1977 review of Russ’ work (which is cryptic but presumably positive, since he mentions The Female Man in Dhalgren), he asks “What does one do with an SF novel like The Female Man, which demands its politics be taken seriously, and presents those politics without naivete or bombast, but rather through a whole host of distancing devices that make it an “epic novel” in almost exactly the way Brecht used the term “epic theater”?
Which is to say: No Fourth Wall.
Which is to say: No Walls At All!
NEXT BOOK: SAMUEL DELANY’S DHALGREN