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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Review: Red Clocks (2018) by Leni Zumas

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Red Clocks author Leni Zumas, of Portland, Oregon.
Book Review
Red Clocks (2018)
by Leni Zumas


  I would call it a fair argument that the commercial and critical success of the Hulu version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale has spawned a tidal wave of novels which combine dystopian genre conventions with feminist concerns to produce work which appeal both to a popular and critical audience. For proof, look no further than The Handmaid's Tale itself, but also The Hunger Games for an example on the more popular side of the spectrum.  Or, there are a half dozen works of literary fiction published in the last year that maybe haven't obtained a huge popular audience, but succeeded in drawing a combination of writing talent and publishing savvy.

  Red Clocks arrived- in a well produced Audiobook format- as a best-seller from earlier this year.  Reviews have downplayed the genre-dystopian influence- a widely circulated quote by the author mentions that the events that precede the action of Red Clocks: A constitutional "right to life" amendment that bans abortion as well as in-vitro fertilization, could take place, "tomorrow."   I'm not normally someone who picks apart science fiction books for lacking "realism," but I would beg to differ that the events in Red Clocks are potentially around the corner.

   Again with the caveat that I am not usually someone who questions the plausibility of a fictional work, as a criminal defense lawyer who works in federal court, I take issue with one of the central elements of the book: A prosecution, at the state level, by a district attorney, of a local (rural Oregon) witchy woman who is accused of trying to induce an abortion at the behest of the wife of the local High School Principal.   Assuming the accuracy of the statement that a Constitutional Amendment was passed outlawing Abortion, a prosecution for a violation of this amendment (and any resulting law) would be in Federal and not state court.

   Perhaps the author's defense is that she was trying to simplify the plot for a best-seller level of popular audience, and I would accept that, but if the Federal Government got it together to outlaw abortion totally and start prosecuting people, those prosecutors would be working for the federal government, and they wouldn't be state court District Attorney's, as portrayed throughout Red Clocks.   An easy, and accurate analogy is the situation under Prohibition.   Bootleggers were prosecuted under Federal law, in Federal court.  I guess...Oregon could pass a law saying that attempted abortion is attempted murder under state law, but that is not how Zumas writes it- all the legal talk involves the federal laws involved.

  I wouldn't even point it out but for the fact that Red Clocks made it to a best-seller list, so people are obviously taking the ideas seriously- and they should- because the central dilemma of the rural high school student who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy is already true in many parts of the country where abortions are dramatically restricted at the state level.   A major strand of plot concerns the attempts by a teacher of the high school student and her attempts with artificial insemination.  Zumas is on shakier ground from an audience empathy point of view with the teacher, something the character herself struggles with on almost every page.

  The paths of the major characters: student, teacher, mid wife/healer and wife intersect in surprising and unexpected ways, blending the concerns of plot with the larger explorations of the attitudes towards child bearing and child rearing.   Zumas differentiates the perspectives of the different characters by using the title of the character, "Student," "Wife," "Healer." etc.  I may not be using the exact right terms, not having the book in front of me.  A necessary component of almost all dystopian fiction is that the societal changes happen off stage and in the past.  Any in depth discussion wouldn't make it past the pen of editor looking for the human dimension.  At the same time, the societal changes can't be so far back in the past that the characters don't understand the difference- again- characters that have no framework towards the "before" time are likely to alienate any substantial audience, one that lacks the patience to decipher a new language or guess at character motivations.

  In this way, the very near present of Red Clocks pushes the boundaries right to the point of departing from genre convention entirely, making it a straight forward work of domestic fiction with a avowedly feminist perspective , the like of which have now been winning awards for decades.   It's hard not to visualize an HBO level version of Red Clocks as a television show.  With four major perspectives there are plenty of roles to go around, and length to be drawn out.  I'd be surprised if the visual rights haven't already been sold.  

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