Reviewed by Paul Eberly
by Lucy Ferriss
Simon & Schuster
July 16, 1997, Hardcover, 304 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0684800929
The political ascent of conservative Christianity has nurtured a parallel, though opposing, literary mini-genre — that of the authoritarian religious dystopia. Given the movement’s characteristic misogyny, it’s hardly surprising that women have driven this response. For them, the stakes are so much higher. Talents like Louise Erdrich, Hillary Jordan, Joyce Carol Oates, and others have dipped their quills into this particular pot of ink, but in terms of impact upon the popular culture, Margaret Atwood with her novels of Gilead overshadows all the rest.
But should she?
A couple of weeks ago, a bit of business took me from Chicago to Fort Wayne, Indiana. The drive, on US 30, traversed better than a hundred miles’ worth of Indiana countryside, a mixture of the rural and semi-rural, dotted by gun shops (lots of gun shops), churches, an evangelical preschool, billboards proselytizing for Jesus, skyscraping pickups, and, outside of Larwill, a cross towering over a giant suit of armor.
This is red state America and, in my view, a better model for a dystopian Christian USA than the grim totalitarianism of Atwood’s Republic of Gilead. Conservative evangelicals do indeed wish to control your behavior; still more, they wish to shield themselves from what they view as a corrupt dispensation’s culture of temptation. But they don’t wish to surrender their Red Lobsters, their Outbacks, their Starbucks in the bargain — make that a triple soy latte and a side of homophobia, if you please. Authoritarian Christian America, should such a misfortune come to full fruition, will look much like the towns and exurbs of rural Indiana. It is in places like this that the soul-flattening nightmare of soft, Christian fascism gestates. If I’m right about this, then the debacle that threatens us is more insidious, and more familiar, than the hyper-controlled universe in which Offred and Ofglen must struggle.
Phoebe Masters works in a sparkling industrial park as a computer consultant, cleansing infected IT systems of viruses, be they malicious or accidental. But that’s her day job. By night she toils in what’s become something of a family profession, performing abortions — “misconceptions,” in the world of this novel — in a secret basement clinic. It is a profession that cost her mother and sister their lives. When Phoebe plies her trade on behalf of a well-loved niece, she is taken into custody and consigned to “Softjail” — a one-time liberal arts school reconfigured as a prison for women. Inside, she makes friends (and one extremely dangerous enemy) as she toils to uncover the identity of her accuser. Was she betrayed by a coworker? a lover? even one among her small, surviving family?
Certain she’s pegged her betrayer’s identity, Phoebe is thirsty for retribution. More, as the target of a deadly jailhouse vendetta, she must escape if she’s to survive. But with the forces of the law and the zealots of the Coalition tracking her, will life outside the prison prove less hazardous than life within?
It’s gobsmacking how much author and prognosticator Lucy Ferriss got right in this book, first published in 1997 and reissued in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade. Ubiquitous online access, electronic payments, electric vehicles, environmental destruction, codified discrimination against gays and lesbians — the Lucy Ferris of the 1990s foresaw this current, fraught decade with uncanny accuracy. Most notably, the feel, the fictional zeitgeist, of Ferriss’ early Twenty-First Century dystopia eerily presages that of the dystopian ambitions that now loom.
The threat, Ferriss understands, is not the heavy hand of Atwood’s Gilead—the threat, rather, is the metastasis of Bible Belt America. Christian authoritarian America, were it to come to full fruition, would look and feel more than anything like the American hinterland. And across the hinterland, it’s in the process of being born.
Yet what impresses me most about The Misconceiver is its principled grappling with the difficult morality of abortion, a grappling that writers less courageous than Ferriss would be hard put to manage. This book never pretends that termination of a pregnancy is a morally neutral event. It’s this complexity, this refusal to adopt an easy way out, that raises this book from the pitfall of polemic to the realm of literature.
And in a discussion where polemic mostly reigns, Ferris’ nuanced take in the pages of The Misconceiver is no small achievement. So. Read it? Yes. Do.
About the reviewer: Paul Eberly is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and has published in Agni Online, Post Road, Standards (including the five-year anthology of that journal), and Conceptions Southwest. He blogs about books at pauleberly.com.