The Book of Joan
As a work of literary fiction, The Book of Joan is an unusual beast. Part cli-fi dystopia, part superhero narrative, Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest novel revises the Joan of Arc myth to craft a secular, feminist, environmentalist fantasy.
The action begins in space in the year 2049. The setting is a suborbital complex called CIEL, from which the narrator, Christine Pizan, looks down upon the “dying ball of dirt” that is our planet. CIEL nevertheless continues to draw resources “from mother Earth, to suck her diseased body dry”. Meanwhile, the residents of the space station, irradiated by solar flares, have devolved into sexless mutants. With media-interface points allowing propaganda to be channelled directly into their heads, they have also consented to be tyrannised by the dictator Jean de Men, a “spiritual charlatan” and puritan, who rose to power by promising life beyond Earth, quite literally.
The scenario is a powerful rejoinder to the fantasy that humans might simply move on from our distressed planet to colonise space – the kind of fantasy sustained by the recent stunts of Elon Musk and reckless talk about relocating to Mars. It is also a strong warning against allowing media devices to take over our bodies and minds.
The novel also targets organised religion with what is characteristic edginess: “The various religions that were the source of so much war on Earth historically went out with a whimper when we realized our sky world was, to put it bluntly, dull as death.” Indeed, it is a cult of the body and of the Earth that Yuknavitch’s novel ultimately defends. As the prophet-like figure “Joan of Dirt” reflects, “We always look up. What if everything that mattered was always down?”
Joan is styled to resemble Christ. She represents the power of love. She is a lesbian who believes “the only thing that made being human worthwhile was human intimacy”. She also has superpowers, albeit similar to those in Stephen King’s Carrie or a Marvel comic. The narrator describes Joan, who is believed to have been killed by Jean de Men, as “the last great story before our ascension. The death that gave us life.” However, when the narrator and other rebels on CIEL discover that Joan is alive – “You should have killed me better,” Joan declares to her evil adversary, in Tarantino-esque style – she inspires an epic battle. I can already see the film. KN
Canongate, 288pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 10, 2018 as "Lidia Yuknavitch, The Book of Joan ". Subscribe here.