The world of Red Clocks is just a nudge away.
The Christian Right was an ascendant force in American politics when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. Like so many dystopias, fascist Gilead felt less like a cautionary tale and more like something that couldn’t happen here in the United States, but the decades have seen an assault on the rights of women’s physical autonomy and the handmaid’s costume has become a standard of protest fashion. Part of the national anxiety stems from the day when the country will become unrecognizable, but in her darkly funny, occasionally tragic and begrudgingly hopeful novel Red Clocks, Leni Zumas offers a more mundane view of life during the failure of the American experiment. In Red Clocks, the country has not fully blown into theocracy, but it’s well on its way.
The United States of the novel is only slightly askew from our own. There was no blue wave to flip enough statehouses to prevent reactionary legislatures from enacting the worst of their Christian Nationalist agenda. In Zumas’ world, a few more states have gone deeply red and allowed for the passage of a Constitutional Personhood Amendment that guarantees a fetus all the rights of a fully-grown citizen at the moment of conception. Abortion has been banned, in vitro fertilization is no longer available due to the potential of harming a fertilized egg and women face harsh jail terms for seeking termination or fertilization outside the bounds of the law. To complete the right-wing fever dream, a law dubbed Every Child Needs Two that restricts adoption to married heterosexual couples is about to go into effect. It is an America for the Pences, the Falwells and the members of the population keeping the current president’s approval ratings absurdly high, and it happened because people didn’t pay attention to what their government was becoming until it was too late.
The novel takes place in Newville, Oregon, a small fishing village where four women navigate the ramifications of a return to second-class citizenship, and, since it is a small town, their stories intersect. There is Susan, a onetime law student turned mother of two who searches for the courage to end her marriage to the high school French teacher. Ro, a history teacher at the same high school and friend of Susan’s husband, keeps amassing debt for in vitro sessions, hoping to get pregnant before Every Child Needs Two is enacted. One of her brightest students, Mattie, has had no trouble getting pregnant and desperately wants an abortion. Finally, there is Gin, the star of the novel who the locals believe is a witch—she lives in a cabin in the forest, deals in natural remedies for gynecological issues as well as other ailments and rarely bathes. Comparing Red Clocks to The Handmaid’s Tale is natural given the subject matter, but Gin’s story gives the book a dash of To Kill a Mockingbird, complete with a surprise twist from an unexpected source.
Gin goes on trial for performing an abortion on the wife of the high school principal, and Zumas handles the irony of a 21st century witch trial to its satirical completion, but part of the power Red Clocks so deftly relies on is its proximity to our own time. Gin doesn’t get arrested by agents of an unfamiliar branch of law enforcement with a terrifying acronym, she gets taken in by the local police. This is a near-future tale, and Zumas uses that framing to highlight the many precarious equations women use to survive in a patriarchal system that granted them conditional freedoms after many contracted battles, and then used the ensuing decades to claw those rights back. The struggle for identity and equality in personal and professional relationships happens daily, but so does the fight for civil liberties. The patriarchal structure has an ingrained patience. It waits for people to get busy and comfortable before it strikes.
The real horror in the novel comes not from the whispered tales of unsanitary scrape houses that leave buckets of aborted tissues in open display, but from the ease with which the characters adjust to their new reality. It mirrors the way we have all compartmentalized the events of our own government, wondering how much more the entire country can take before it breaks. Yes, the citizenry has reengaged with politics with a passion reminiscent of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements of past generations. But we are also in an unprecedented era of government refusing to accept the will of its citizens. Leni Zumas knows this. She’s telling us so on every page.
In 2018, a personhood amendment was enshrined into law in Alabama. It is one of three such laws that appeared on statewide ballot initiatives since 2008, but the only one that passed. Mother Jones recently ran a report on an underground network of abortion providers operating in states where most clinics have been shuttered by local governments. These are not just doctors and nurses, but women volunteering to help other women at great personal risk. Things may feel slightly safer after the appearance of so much blue on the election map, but the world of Red Clocks is just a nudge away.