A Brief Critique of Power

2019.01.17 by Josh Erb; 899 words.

Author’s note: I made two personal commitments at the beginning of this year[1]. The first was to blog a bit more often. The second was to proactively read more books. These two goals dovetail quite nicely if I write a brief review of each book I read this year.

General Impressions

There is no denying Naomi Alderman’s ability to write a compelling story. I tore through this book in large part because the prose is gripping and elegant throughout the book. The premise of the novel, and her initial treatment of it in the first few chapters had me ripping through the book faster than I expected to.

Structurally, the narrative perspective and voice rotates among several protagonists, which feels like a common practice in most mass market works of fiction. I don’t begrudge Alderman this choice, though.

The final point that Alderman seems to make as the novel reaches its climax is an interesting one, and certainly one that was much more measured and considered than I expected - though it’s a fairly bleak one to make. Interestingly, whereas the common premise of most feminist[2] dystopian[3] fiction have emphasized privation of women’s freedoms, Alderman makes her point by doing the complete opposite.

We watch as the normative structures of power are quickly and precisely inverted. The reader can only watch in muted horror as this inversion, which initially holds the hope and promise a society different from our own, gives way to the same structure with different roles. This is a truly interesting point and one I’ve found myself contemplating after putting down the book last week.

So I'm giving it 3.5 out 5 stars.[4] For me, certain unquestioned premises in the narrative flow merit criticism. Alderman makes a handful assertions or leaps of logic that I first assumed to be authorial attempts at injecting ambiguity and unreliability into the narratives for particular protagonists. But I was disappointed to discover that these insertions were in fact cornerstones of the story that was unfolding.

By way of example, I found it particularly irksome that the first and only explanation for the cause of The Power turned out to be the actual cause. Maybe this comes down to reader preference, but I would have much preferred several conflicting accounts with no definitive answer ever being emphasized.

Sometimes science-fiction authors are hesitant to let doubt remain in their stories. I think this might be by virtue of the genre or maybe even reader expectations, but I would encourage authors to ignore the emphasis on providing “objective truth" in this way. Authors should be comfortable leaving some questions unanswered, it helps readers come to terms with the universe's lack of objectivity.

Gripes and Nitpicks

Setting aside the story and its execution for a moment, I have a few nits to pick with certain decisions Alderman (or her publishers/editors) made in terms of the actual printing and layout of the book.

Why do contemporary publishing houses insist on incorporating visual elements in the story? There is an increasingly common practice that I cannot support, and I'm noticing more and more that it has to do with the story including some sort of reference to digital forms of communication. Is the protagonist of this chapter receiving an e-mail from someone? The reader will never know unless we print this section in a sans serif mono spaced font! This section is supposed to be an internet forum? How will our poor author’s audience understand what’s happening unless we change the font and put all of the comments in annoyingly formatted CSS looking boxes?

I realize this is a question of personal aesthetics. But if I wanted information conveyed via a combination of text and visual elements, I would read a graphic novel[5].

Finally, there's the framing gimmick of the story being told as a historical narrative from 5,000 years in the future. Combining this with the “archeological” illustrations sprinkled throughout the book, really irked me. Honestly, I could live with the framing device, but the the illustrations could have died on the editor’s desk and I don’t think the story would have suffered for it.

Final Pronouncement

If you’re looking for a well written, entertaining book that will shock[6] your sensibilities about gender and society, look no further. Just know there are some little things that might nettle your literary sensibilities (if they are at all like mine).

Title Author Rating
The Power Naomi Alderman ✻ ✻ ✻ ✻
  1. They’re not “resolutions”. Please don’t call them that. “Resolution” has so many potential meanings that I prefer to not use it in this context.

  2. Though the thesis of The Power makes me question whether or not “feminist” is even the right word here.

  3. Ibid.

  4. If you've already scrolled to the bottom and are comparing against the table, you may have noticed a small discrepancy in the rating. Technically, I’m giving this book a 3.5 out of 5. But I haven’t decided what my rating system style should look like in practice and I’m using symbols as placeholders. As a result, I’m rounding up to four “teardrop-spoked asterisks” for this review.

  5. In fact, I do this often. I enjoy that medium.

  6. Pun very much intended here.

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