Book review: Vox by Christina Dalcher

By Thomas Van Essen

“I wonder what other women do. How they cope. Do they still find something to enjoy? Do they love their husbands in the same way? Do they hate them, just a little bit.”

VOX is a generally engaging and well plotted debut spec-fiction novel by Christina Dalcher. Set in a dystopian present, evangelical fascist Christians have taken full political hegemony of the United States, transforming the bible-belt into a “full-body suit”.

in this (alternative) reality, females are restricted to a daily limit of 100 words per day or face certain torture— a 1000 volt shock from a shock device fitted around the wrist of every female (infants and children, too). Females, in this world, have become effectively voiceless both in the literal and figurative sense.

Throw in a cult of personality leader, propagator of misinformation, jingoistic militarism and rampant populism, the end result is something not at all dissimilar to a practises of a certain incumbent president.

This immediately gripping set up unfortunately falls apart due to its lack of presenting a nuanced perspective of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which  I think a novel with themes of this nature should have.

Namely because Vox positions American Christians as the villain. Make no mistake, the religious right is still a powerful and verydangerous force and shapes public policy and common thought in America, but I think the portrayal here is a little bit misguided. That Vox, whether wilfully or unknowingly, ignores the rise of the Alt-right— the young, largely male dominated and decidedly very anti-feminist zeitgeist of modern conservative politics, who are by most accounts, are irreligious— does no favours for its contemporary relevance.

This is particularly frustrating because Dalcher can clearly write. The plot is well-paced and engaging. Exposition is appropriately sparse. Some of the side characters are slightly one dimensional, but the dialogue is witty and generally very readable. There are a few predictable twists and turns that, if nothing else, add to the excitement and tension that she builds.

But the results are middling. On one hand I enjoyed reading this book. I found myself invested in the characters, I wanted to keep reading it, but the central conceit is not believable as Dalcher might want us to believe. This is the kind of novel that I would expected to be written twenty or thirty years ago, during the era of the parents’ music resource centre,“the satanic panic”, and Marilyn Manson. As a result, it ends up feeling as anachronistic as Atwood’s novel might for a millennial reading it for the first time today.

Similarly limiting is the book’s choice of protagonist. Rather than get the perspective of a diverse range of non-male characters, what we are given is effectively the singular monologue of a white, heterosexual, educated, gender-conforming woman. We certainly can’t blame Dalcher, who shares her protagonist’s profession of sociolinguist, for not stepping outside her boundaries of her own experience. There are hints of diversity at points, but for the most part we are relegated to this singular perspective throughout. Almost as if to acknowledge the shortcomings of her own ethno/hetero centralism with a knowing wink– or a shrug?

But I digress. As disappointing as it was to see this novel fall into the same pitfalls that novels that similarly skirt around these issues do, nothing was more disappointing than the ending which left me speechless, for want of a better term, with how unconvincingly serendipitously things wrapped up.