2012 Clarke Award winner: Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb
May 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
I used to be as aimless as a feather in the wind. I thought stuff on the news and in the papers was for grownups. It was part of their stupid miserable complicated world.
This year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award generated quite a bit of discussion, much of it about the perceived deficiencies in the shortlist. Without repeating all of the rhetoric that has been proclaimed regarding the list, it should suffice to note that the one novel that received the least amount of criticism, the one that some perhaps view as the “default” option for the award, the one that actually won the award, was Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb (which also appeared on the longlist for last year’s Man Booker Prize). After reading five of the six shortlisted titles (minus the Stross entry), it is easy to see what the judges saw in Rogers’ novel that was mostly lacking in the others: a story that is not incoherent, a tale that does not contradict itself at the narrative level, a narrative that does not plod nor threaten to disintegrate due to its haphazard construction.
Yet this is ultimately defining The Testament of Jessie Lamb in negative terms. Because it does not offend reader sensibilities in regard to structure as did Sherri Tepper’s The Waters Rising or contain narrative conceits that buckle under the weight of its pretensions, as did China Miéville’s Embassytown, there is the sense that The Testament of Jessie Lamb is more the least-flawed novel on the shortlist rather than a particularly outstanding work of fiction published in the UK last year. That impression only deepened as I read the novel last week. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is not a “bad” novel; it does not contain multiple forehead-smacking moments that make the reader want to throttle the writer, yet it also contains little that makes this reader at least want to commend the author for her vision and execution.
The novel begins with a biological disaster, one whose root causes are in question throughout the novel. A sort of mash-up analogue of HPV, HIV, and Mad Cow Disease has been released into the population. This disease, Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS), targets women who get pregnant. Their brains begin an irreversible march toward a vegetative state and then ultimately death once the embryo begins to develop. There is no cure, despite the frantic efforts of scientists. There is only the sense of two ticking time bombs, one for women who might potentially become pregnant, the other for humanity as a whole.
The basic premise has the potential to be thought provoking, yet Rogers manages to make a dog’s supper out of it. The mechanisms for this disease are ill-conceived and harken back too much to 1950s and early 1960s SF, where radiation/gamma rays/atomic warfare served as the trigger for similar threats to humanity’s survival (One such example of this, albeit a well-conceived one, is Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard). Even taking into account the probability that Rogers purposely left this trigger event nebulous in order to explore divers reactions to this development, the execution is sloppy. It is very difficult to take seriously any truly pandemic, sudden development that causes 100% infection (and one that continues to show apparent effects into the second and perhaps even third generations) rates. Questioning the validity of the premise so early into the novel does place a damper on later narrative events.
The titular character, the sixteen year-old Jessie Lamb, almost manages to make this questionable premise work. Daughter of one of the prominent scientists working on a potential cure, she is bright, inquisitive, and not ready to settle for whatever explanation or premise is presented to her. She is our lens into this world in which problematic gender relations have crystallized around the matter of MDS. Why does this disease directly affect only women? Why were men only carriers? If this was a carefully-crafted disease, then what does this say about how women were viewed?
These are important questions, yet Rogers’ treatment of them feels facile, as if she decided to go down the rabbit hole only so far. Female agency lies at the heart of Jessie Lamb’s story, or rather the seeming denial of it. Yet Rogers risks diluting this by presenting a rather strange argument when Jessie attends a FLAME (Feminist Link Against MEn) meeting. The initial depiction of this organization is rather telling:
There were about 20 women there. Everyone was older than me and some looked older than Mum. They were all a bit hippy-ish, with layers of old clothes and shrunken cardigans or ponchos on top. I wished I’d had another layer, it was freezing.
Compared to YOFI, it felt serious. There was something almost deadly about it. The woman running the meeting was called Gina, she was quick and fierce and she never smiled once. She talked about the war against women. She said the introduction of MDS is the logical outcome of thousands of years of men’s oppression and abuse of women. Women’s sexuality disgusts men and they’re jealous of a mother’s ownership of an unborn child. That’s why they want to marry virgins and keep women subservient, because they can never be certain that a child is their own.
This is, as far as I can remember, the only feminist organization that Jessie Lamb encounters. It reads like a propaganda account of Indigo Girl-listening, layered clothes-wearing, men haters. There is no subtlety to this, nothing to hint that this portrayal is ironic. It serves only to present a radical view as a normative one. Jessie does not react against the more strident, less logical claims (such as the one quoted below) but instead compares them to her own recent experiences. This only serves to throw the narrative off-track, especially with this bit:
I glanced at Sal but she was intent on every word. Another woman talked about sex, and how men prefer to have sex with other men but they were obliged to have sex with women in order to make children. She said that was at the root of religious laws against homosexuality, because it was in the interests of religion to create as many new babies as possible, to boost membership. But now sexual reproduction was over, all those old commandments against homosexuality were melting away and millions more men were coming out.
I sat there with these awful things swirling round in my head like leaves in a storm. I couldn’t quiet it. What they said about men preferring to be gay reminded me of college.
The thing is, there was a change. Back before MDS, if you said a boy was gay, it was an insult. Everyone knew there were gay people, and that it was legal and everything, there were loads of gay celebrities on TV. If they met a gay couple in real life of course they’d be fine and act normally, but still in school it was an insult. If they called a boy gay it meant he was pathetic. And the boys and girls who really were gay kept it hidden. In fact, you wouldn’t have known that anybody was. But in the months after MDS, that changed. It happened so gradually you almost didn’t notice.
Boys started to cluster together with boys, and girls with girls. Some girls became frightened of boys – even though we were all on Implanon it was still a terrible thought, especially for those girls who knew a woman who’d died. Sex didn’t seem worth the risk. And the boys – well, I didn’t really know what they were thinking, but the atmosphere changed. They got more involved in their own conversations, and less interested in trying to make us laugh. In a way they were more shy with us. It wasn’t everybody; there were people who behaved exactly opposite. Like the gangs, where you often saw boys and girls together – or even, like Sal and Damien had been at the beginning. People bounced from one extreme to another, as if we couldn’t find out the proper way to behave.
Rogers perhaps intended this passage to serve as a commentary on the swift, dramatic changes caused by the spread of MDS, but it comes out wrong, as if sexuality were more of a sociological rather than a biological orientation. There are no nuances to this, nothing to indicate a variety of responses. Instead, Rogers chooses the quick and easy route of presenting in passing a revolutionary behavioral change without ever really exploring the ramifications of it.
That perhaps is the main charge that can be presented against The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Throughout the novel, Rogers takes the shorter path, neglecting to develop the overarching premise and the ways in which the characters react to them. Jessie Lamb feels like a cipher, like that symbolic lamb being led to the slaughter, yet it appears she (and perhaps Rogers) view it as making a dramatic statement regarding female agency and the right to choose what to do with one’s own body, even if it means certain and inevitable death. These little creeping moments of dramatic decisions, culminating in Jessie’s decision to be a surrogate mother for an uninfected fetus, are lessened because Rogers has not followed through with the development of these situations, leaving instead a novel that is defined by its gestures and not by the import of its actions. The Testament of Jessie Lamb had the potential to be a great, award-worthy novel. It instead compromised itself at critical narrative junctures, settling instead to be a flawed work that was perhaps merely the least-flawed in a subpar award finalist cohort.