A Full-Throated Cry from a Clarion: Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan

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Let’s begin with the observation that literature operates on a series of predictable patterns: the hero’s journey, the love triangle, the three classic conflicts (man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. self), the only three stories (a stranger comes to town, someone goes on a journey, someone falls in love). Very fine literature can be made from these tools, crude and ancient as they may be.

Binary oppositions appear across literature, in scales and stakes from minuscule to enormous. Two households, both alike in dignity. Furor and pietas. Zero and one. They create friction and sparks. Often they are the simplest, most useful way to build a character conflict—and thus a plot, a landscape, a novel. Even if the reader doesn’t know the term for this pattern, she will recognize it.

2017 has not been a year for binaries. We seem to be floating in a weird soup of truthiness and alternative facts. Perhaps the state of American life explains the explosive power of The Book of Joan, or perhaps it’s the other way around; perhaps, at last, American life is ready for Lidia Yuknavitch.

In The Book of Joan, the last members of the human race, having “ascended” to a colony in space after a violent event, have lost their sexual organs in a devolutionary process. Insects and reptiles populate the station where these semi-humans orbit a dead Earth; the bugs and lizards are neither animal nor synthetic, but something between. The relationship of Joan, around whom the book revolves, to her companion Leone, is not sexual or platonic but something else. Everything in the novel is both-and, not either-or.

Maybe there never has been a time when we were human apart from this. Maybe we were always meant to come to this part of our own story, where the things we thought we created were revealed to have been within us all along, our brains simply waiting for us to recognize the corresponding forms of space and technology “out there” that we dumbly misread as distinctly human organs.

The same is true of the remarkable array of writers, myths, scientific facts, and historical jetsam from which Yuknavitch has modeled her characters and the speculative framework of her novel. Aside from Joan, the main figures in the book include a scribe of sorts, Christine Pizan (after the 15th century writer, and proto-feminist, Christine de Pizan), her companion, Trinculo (after the Shakespearean fool figure in The Tempest [and a moon of Uranus {which is a highly layered joke, as Trinculo is gay, and as vulgar as Mozart}]), and a truly horrifying antagonist, Jean de Men (after Jean de Meun, a writer of the 13th century, whom de Pizan later criticized for his appalling views on women).

The parallels to real people are not precise. It’s not a matter of they are or they aren’t. Instead, it feels as if these figures have been lifted from their homes in history, re-embodied, and placed in a new context, where they have always belonged. Yuknavitch leans on the significance of these figures’ histories, but she does not depend on it. She draws on old, old stories, the tales humans have been telling each other since stories were illuminated on parchment, and before. Further, each character possesses a sacred relationship to narrative, which is treated as a sacrament throughout the novel.

The most thunderous of these stories, of course, is Joan’s. Descriptions of this book usually indicate that it’s a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. Although this assessment is technically true—the book includes wars led by a teenage Joan who comes from France, spells of light and song that direct Joan to her destiny, and burning at the stake—this novel reaches far beyond Jeanne d’Arc, becoming a narrative of the biosphere, of the solar system, of the fuzzed dance of electrons. It is all the same to Joan, and to Yuknavitch: the magnetism between humans, the magnetism between atoms.

At the dramatic close of the novel, I discovered how truly radical its stance is. All along I had been thinking that Joan of Dirt was placed against John of Men in a binary opposition: one a poor girl, one a rich man; one a creature of the earth, one a creature of technology. But I was wrong. Jean does not seize power from Joan, or the other way around. They are seeking separate thrones. Jean wants the ordinary kind of power that any despot wants: power over others. Joan, instead, can create and destroy on a massive scale. She possesses a world-changing power that has no regard for puny borders of human lifespans—as Yuknavitch puts it, “a sense of messianic time, of life that was not limited to the story of a lone human being detached from the cosmos.” Joan does not participate in the binary. She does not play the patriarch’s game. In The Book of Joan, there is no man vs. nature—nature encompasses all. There is no man vs. man—men and women are extinct. There is no man vs. self—there is one woman, and a confounding shift in the paradigm of “life on earth.”

What if, for once in history, a woman’s story could be untethered from what we need it to be in order to feel better about ourselves?

By rejecting Western patterns of narrative, and by embracing and repositioning figures from those patterns, Yuknavitch makes The Book of Joan one of the boldest novels yet of the 21st century.

In another way, however, this is Yuknavitch’s least radical book. Her short stories have experimented with perspective, repetition, and formal constraints. Her two prior novels, Dora: A Headcase and The Small Backs of Children, are, very differently, not conventional novels. Her memoir, The Chronology of Water, shatters and assembles anew the format typified by Mary Karr. But The Book of Joan has indented paragraphs, quotation marks, and scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends, all conveyed with clear, descriptive words. Such clarity is unusual for Yuknavitch, and I believe it is one reason why Joan will be a very successful novel, introducing Yuknavitch to a new cadre of readers. Her prior books were dog whistles, reaching self-defined misfits, or literature scholars, or swimmer-memoirists. But Joan is a full-throated cry from a clarion, a mighty novel written in burning words.

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Hobart, the Normal School, the Southern California Review, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator. More from this author →