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'The Book Of Joan' Is A Dizzying, Dystopian Genre Mashup

In one of my favorite paintings of Joan of Arc — created by Jules Bastien-Lepage at the end of the 19th century — a disheveled, flush-faced teenager stares into the middle distance in the tangle of a garden. Behind her, faint images of saints emerge from the foliage. Unlike so many other paintings of Joan in which she's clad in armor and wields a sword, this one shows the time and place where her mind opened, and she encountered the thing that would both define and destroy her.

It should come as no surprise that in an era of large-scale uncertainty — economic instability, terrifying leadership, environmental peril — fiction continues to look at what has come before and imagine where our terrors will take us. In Lidia Yuknavitch's latest novel, The Book of Joan, dystopia is created anew and draws on historical precedent.

In the near future, a space station called CIEL circles the dying earth like a bloated star, peopled by hairless, sexless, mutated humans baroquely decorated with skin grafts. Christine, nearing the end of her life — everyone aboard is euthanized at age 50 — and her friend Trinculo fight to create a space for themselves in a nearly unrecognizable iteration of humanity.

Across Christine's skin is etched the story of Joan of Dirt, a young woman with a mysterious blue light in her skull who hears voices and has an ability to manipulate the elements. The station's population believes Joan to have been martyred — burned at the stake, like her namesake — but Christine and Trinculo know better. Soon, they find themselves on the opposite side of the station's charismatic leader, Jean de Men, who orders Trinculo's execution.

On earth, a still-living Joan and her fellow fighter Leone make their way across the blighted landscape. On CIEL, de Men attempts to restart human reproduction, resulting in full-scale body horror. His obsession with life is myopic and blunt — he fetishizes reproduction and control but not life in and of itself — which evokes a particularly unpleasant strain of real-life political discourse. (And, like the names Joan of Dirt and Jean de Men, feels a tad on-the-nose.) As the station's politics heat up, and Joan begins to understand the full capacity of her powers, her story and Christine's begin to accelerate toward each other.

One of the pleasures of 'The Book of Joan' is its take-no-prisoners disregard for genre boundaries.

One of the pleasures of The Book of Joan is its take-no-prisoners disregard for genre boundaries. Its searing fusion of literary fiction and reimagined history and science-fiction thriller and eco-fantasy make it a kind of sister text to Jeff VanderMeer's ineffable Southern Reach trilogy. Yuknavitch is a bold and ecstatic writer, wallowing in sex and filth and decay and violence and nature and love with equal relish. Fans of her previous novel, The Small Backs of Children, will recognize these themes and their treatment.

The narrative is lithe and changeable as a fish, even at one point flopping over and inverting point-of-view; going from Christine in first person and Joan in third to Joan in first and Christine in third. ("She is now in the terrible position of witness," Yuknavitch writes, "as if her agency had been given a new point of view.") The effect is dizzying and, at times, disorienting, but there is always a vibrant forward motion to the text, and a ferocious, unmistakable perspective: Even in the wreckage of a post-human nightmare, humanity never really changes.

Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, will be released in 2017. She has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta and elsewhere.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carmen Maria Machado
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