A Source of Life: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

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Red Clocks, Leni Zumas’s fierce, well-formed, hilarious, and blisteringly intelligent novel, is squarely a piece of Trump-era art, a product of the past two trying years in which the main players either brag about sexual assault or won’t even associate with women to whom they aren’t married. The book is loudly, unapologetically political. And unlike real administrations, where agendas get stalled in the vagaries of lawmaking, the hyper-conservative administration in Red Clocks is ruthlessly effective.

The new president’s first act is to pass something called the Personhood Amendment, which grants a fertilized egg at conception the same rights—life, liberty, and property—as every citizen in the United States. That logic expands and becomes a whole complement of encroaching strictures. Abortion, now tantamount to murder, is outlawed. In vitro fertilization is illegal, too—“the amendment outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus. (The embryos can’t give their consent to be moved.)” When women seeking abortions head north to Canada, the US and Canadian governments reach an agreement to apprehend all women who look like they might be pregnant and send them back to be prosecuted. This heavily enforced border is called the Pink Wall. And as the book progresses, a new law looms on the horizon: Every Child Needs Two, a perfectly chilling name for a piece of legislation that prevents anyone but married couples from adopting children.

Trapped in this web of curtailed liberties is Ro Stephens, a woman in a small coastal Oregon town called Newville, who’s forty-two, single, and desperate to have a child. There are few options remaining for her and she pursues them. She takes mood-altering medication so that every time she ovulates and her impersonal doctor, Dr. Kalbfleisch, injects her with sperm from a sperm donor, she’ll have a better chance of conceiving. She’s also on file at an adoption agency, though her window is quickly closing as Every Child Needs Two nears enactment. Her options narrowing by the day, Ro becomes increasingly frantic. Intertwined with Ro’s narrative are the stories of four other women: Mattie Quarles, a fifteen-year-old adopted daughter who finds herself pregnant by a callow youth who dumps her a few months later; Susan Korsmo, the exhausted wife of a petulant French teacher named Didier and mother of their two children; Gin Percival, a healer who lives in the forest outside the town, alone with her goats and her pet cat, doling out tinctures and perceptive reproductive advice to the women who visit her; and Eivør Mínervudottír, a pioneering polar explorer in the 19th century about whom Ro is writing a book.

But, in a clever formal twist, we don’t know the names of the characters when they’re introduced to us. Instead, throughout their respective sections, Ro is called the biographer, Mattie the daughter, Susan the wife, and Gin the mender. It’s only by forging on through the book that the reader slowly pieces together their external identities—their first names, their last names, what they do, how they’re all connected to each other—when other people talk about them. It’s like one of those logic puzzles you solve by filling out a grid with X’s and O’s, a relational mode of reasoning that turns out to be strangely addictive. And this device isn’t just confined to the main characters. It seems like everyone in Newville is included in this story, even those at the periphery of the main characters’ lives. Late in the book, you’re still realizing that Mattie’s current best friend’s sister is a client of Gin’s and a waitress at the Chinese restaurant where Ro and her colleagues have lunch.

This is all so intricate and well-done that every small connection sets off a tiny spark of delighted epiphany. But Zumas’s formal boldness also illustrates a deeper point: that all of the main characters, and, it seems, all the women in Newville, are linked in an invisible web of relationships, both by biology (many go to seek Gin’s advice) and the simple fact that humans need other humans. There’s a lot left unsaid between the women of Red Clocks; not even they know the extent to which they’re all connected. It’s a portrait of life as a person in society, both in its essential separateness and its dependence on others. Only the reader, with the bird’s-eye view the novel offers, sees all.

But the new laws pit this unacknowledged sisterhood of women against itself. Once Ro finds out that Mattie’s pregnant, she wrestles with herself over whether she should ask Mattie if she can have the baby instead of helping her to abort it. At one point, Zumas writes,

The new laws turn the girl [Mattie] into a criminal, Gin Percival into a criminal, the biographer herself—had she asked for Mattie’s baby, forged its birth certificate—into a criminal. If not for her comparing mind and covetous heart, the biographer could feel compassion for her fellow criminals.

Ro also desperately envies Susan her two kids, while Susan thinks, “How can the wife hope that Ro doesn’t get pregnant? Doesn’t publish her book on the ice scientist? …The rivalry is so shameful she can’t look at it.”

This all comes to a head when Gin is arrested on charges of medical malpractice and agreeing to perform an abortion, an event that finally brings all the main characters in the same place at the same time for her trial. What follows is a thrilling showdown set in a courtroom—that battlefield where many of our rights are eventually duked out, and a fitting place for a climax for a novel whose core premise is formed on some very frightening legislation. In an especially elegant move, one character engages in the same relational reasoning the readers of Red Clocks have been doing for the entire book to arrive at a crucial opening in Gin’s case.

For a novel that engages so heavily with abstractions and the law, Newville is an interesting setting. It’s not the center of anything; it’s a town graced with amazing views of the ocean and trees everywhere, where whales occasionally beach and where superstitious fishermen think Gin is a witch—an elemental place, and not at all political. When the president was elected, Ro “had heard there was glee on the lawns of her father’s Orlando retirement village. Marching in the streets of Portland. In Newville: brackish calm.” But its remove gives the story a sense of intimacy—after all, we learn a lot of the town’s dirty laundry—and that allows this unabashedly political novel to also be specific and personal, a world of its own. Life in Newville almost feels normal—other than, you know, the trampling of the main characters’ essential rights and the fact that the local PBS station now only plays commercials. (“Having lost all of its government funding, because the current administration won’t sanction the liberal bias of baking shows and mountaineering documentaries, PBS now airs long blocks of advertising.” Truly dystopian.)

Buoying this entire novel is Zumas’s writing, which handles both the down-to-earth and the sublime with the same breathtaking accuracy. And unlike the men, who are on the whole disappointing, most of the women in Red Clocks are astonishingly fully formed. (One of my favorite Ro moments is when she’s waiting to see the results of a self-administered ovulation test. “While the digital display blinks… the biographer sings the egg-coaxing song. ‘I may be alone, I may be a crone, but fuck you, I can still ovulate!’”) And Mattie and Susan—“daughter” and “wife,” the two women whose titles place them in relation to other people and who are just coming into their own—see them clearly: Gin is “a person uninterested in being pleasing to other persons,” Mattie thinks. “In this way she reminds the daughter of Ro/Miss.” And Susan thinks:

At the library, Gin Percival’s hair sometimes had twigs in it, and she gave off an oniony scent. The wife felt repelled by her animal dishevelment; yet she is coming to see the value in being repellent… Whatever frees Gin Percival to leave her hair twiggy and wear shapeless sack dresses and smell unwashed—the wife wants that.

Then there’s this part, when Ro attempts to respond to her dad’s gentle reminder that she should find someone:

…her okayness with being by herself—ordinary, unheroic okayness—does not need to justify itself to her father. The feeling is hers. She can simply feel okay and not explain it, or apologize for it, or concoct arguments against the argument that she doesn’t truly feel content and is deluding herself in self-protection.

Women who love being alone, women who don’t feel the need to justify themselves, women who embrace being repellent? These characters are rare indeed in fiction and that makes their presence in Red Clocks all the more noteworthy. This reader felt seen. The existence of Red Clocks and so many other works of resistance, sprung from dystopian muck, is a grim necessity that’s flourished into a source of life.


Chelsea Leu works at WIRED, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Borborygmi, a humor magazine she co-founded with her sister. More from this author →