Hysterical Women: The Fortress by S.A. Jones
‘Don’t let the bitches grind you down.’ – Margaret Atwood’s first husband, probably.
If you haven’t noticed, women are getting more hysterical by the day. I mean that very much in the general. I’m sure some specific women have managed to keep their heads, but in between all the abortion praising and hand-wringing over misogyny, it’s getting a little out of hand. And what do women do when they’re breaking down in hysterics? They project. And the novel is a brilliant medium through which to project. The ur-text of the hysterical woman is most definitely The Handmaid’s Tale. While not the first, it is the contemporary Schelling point (consider, a Schelling point is ‘a solution that people will tend to use in the absence of communication’ which perfectly sums up the state of modern politics) when it comes to discussing female bodies. This series of book reviews will explore the aftermath of a post-Trump world. Specifically, just what are women complaining about now?
Imagine a world where women ruled. No, not a world, as such, but a neocameral state, a patch for the feminine to flourish. In this patch women are in control, and their histrionics are on full display. Their every desire, fulfilled. Their every fear, confronted. Men are literally bent over and ass-fucked if the women so desire, and all for the benefit of the man. It’s enlightening, you see. Welcome to the world imagined by S. A. Jones in her novel, The Fortress.
Where to begin with this convoluted raving? Our protagonist is called Jonathan and we are first introduced to him when he is entering and subjecting himself to the Fortress. This is a place separated off from civil society. The whole set up makes very little sense. On the one hand it appears the Jonathan comes from our world, a world of corporations and families. But on the other, the use of made-up words and history makes it seem like a poorly wrought fantasy world. Compounding this phony feeling world, the entire novel takes place over the course of a year, dipping back in time to showcase what a reprehensible little sod Jonathan was, and why he has to repent for his crimes against the feminine. This arbitrary time period again sets up the whole book as nothing more than a diatribe – Jonathan has a year to change! Spoiler alert: he does. Nothing in the entire set-up feels authentic, and the author relies on caricatures and clichés, whether directly or frail attempts to ‘flip’ the narrative.
I think women writers have forgotten that fantasy should be used as a metaphor, not a stand-in. The book begs many questions. Is there a purpose to this mish-mash of real and unreal? Is the author trying to make a comment on modernity, where our world is just a step away from a fantasy? The reader won’t be able to tell. Instead, both possibilities are juxtaposed weakly, and the world never feels real enough to care. In addition, the author employs a horrible fantasy trope, that of coming up with random words in place of what it’s actually called. In between words like ‘goosen’ and ‘oorsel’ – make-believe plants – are sentences discussing credit cards. It’s bizarrely forced, a female creation in which to inject her politics. It’s also lazy. For example, when Jonathan first enters he is told, ‘Every eleventh day you will have half a day to spend according to your inclination and wishes. This is known as “the half”.’ So imaginative. When the author does try to add a little flair, she trips over herself – my eyes bugged out when I read, ‘He could feel her concentration from the seat next to him. Empires rose and fell in the seconds before she answered.’ How can women expect us to not call them melodramatic? The author also has a real problem with the obvious, in particular her over reliance on exposition. I suppose being a woman does mean that she feels the need to explain herself. The lengthy opening segment lays it all out in the first chapter, a pandering attempt to build a world. ‘Here is how everything works,’ she seems to be saying, ‘Now with that out of the way, let me preach.’ And boy, does she preach.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter that there is little coherence to the world of The Fortress because the author is trying to make a point. Take for example the credo of the women. Work. History. Sex. Justice. That’s it. That is literally what they believe in. But it’s worse than that, because of course they pervert all four. So far as I could tell they take sex the most seriously, and instead of a world where (apparently) men have complete control over the sexual marketplace, the women of the Fortress are ravenous sluts on the constant prowl for a good dicking. There’s so much sex in this book, it’s like the author is saying, ‘See, women like to bang too!’ I mean, sure, but the depravity is ridiculous. Either it’s the least subtle gender reversal of all time, or the author is really randy. But mostly it’s distracting, these constant digressions to (honestly, rather vanilla) sex scenes. As I mentioned earlier it all ends with man-on-man butt sex (‘Breathe, Jonathan. You need to breathe.’). It’s clear to me the author is trying to humiliate the male characters (‘It hurt and it was strange and it was also…good.’) by subverting at every opportunity how ‘men see themselves’ (in quotes because I don’t think the author actually understands that in the slightest). Isn’t it obvious that the only way for a lady’s man to repent is to be on the receiving end of rape and sexual manipulation? Geez, duh!
And as for the other quadrants that make up the Vaik outlook (Vaik is the name for the women of the Fortress)? Their sense of work: let the men do it, and make it as meaningless and/or painful as possible. Their understanding of history: men are evil and sisters have always done it for themselves. The justice they hand down: typically indeterminate and mysterious – maybe this, or maybe that. Oh yeah, and they definitely don’t believe in God! (‘The Vaik had no god and worshipped no supreme beings, but they did believe in the infinite nature of life.’ Damn pagans are at it again.) Perhaps the author is trying to say that even with women in control, the world wouldn’t be perfect, that if women had control they’d still be power hungry and sex-craving lunatics. That seems like the least feminist take possible. This doesn’t stop her denigrating men in the process. Of work, she notes that Jonathan, ‘…had a horror of timelessness, those marshy spaces between deadlines. He must always be attaining the next goal or he felt himself dematerializing, a science-fiction character stuck in a malfunctioning teleport.’ Aside from the awful (again, forced) metaphor, the assumption of course is that men only think about work and goals, never love. Like most women the author doesn’t understand that any obsession with the job is solely down to providing for family, and so this comes across as a self-own, particularly since the Vaik are so heartless when it comes to the day-to-day ordering of life. These four quadrants are meant to be some grand theory of women, but it comes across as lame and poorly thought out.
Overall it is painfully clear that the book wants to be a social commentary, but instead it makes women look terrible. What woman would let her husband be used as a sex toy to make up his extra marital affairs? The illogical nature of this punishment of course belies the utterly female narrative: revenge for revenges sake. Where is the justice in that? You, the reader, are never going to touch a book like this, but for your sake it is good to know what women are writing about, and what is being published. Ideology trumps aesthetics in the modern world, and The Fortress is a great example.