Tick-tock, Is Blood Coming? On Reading About Women’s Life Cycles.

Université de Montréal
10 décembre 2019

ZUMAS, Leni. Red Clocks. New York: Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, 2018.

Let me give you a taste:

Two years ago the United States Congress ratified the Personhood Amendment, which gives the constitutional right to life, liberty, and property to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Abortion is now illegal in all fifty states. Abortion providers can be charged with second-degree murder, abortion seekers with conspiracy to commit murder. In vitro fertilization, too, is federally banned, because the amendment outlaws the transfer of embryos from laboratory to uterus. (The embryos can’t give their consent to be moved.) (Zumas, 2018: 32-33).

A sour laugh stuck in your throat. Me too. Leni Zumas, writer and teacher at Portland State University, echoes brilliantly the increasingly regressive laws in the United States regarding abortion. A feminist dystopia à la Margaret Atwood. “If you don’t like it, change it, we said, to each other and to ourselves. […] Change, we were sure, was for the better always. We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves.” So June in The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood, 2010 [1985]: 239). Yet, in contrast to the silence in Atwood’s novel, Zumas writes loudly about the Explorer, the Biographer, the Mender, the Daughter, and the Wife. A noise recalling time, blood, and hope.

Clock’s ticking

It is about time. No one saw it coming. Or perhaps they did but they kept quiet? Red Clocks does not tell you. Frightening times that leave me unable to move as I am forced to go into cycles intertwined into each other. Zumas’s time disrupts its linear and normative conception: the end is the beginning. The novel’s fragmentation provides less contrast with the cycles than help with their construction. Chronological. Menstrual. Seasonal. Judicial. The so-called objectiveness of the law stands in opposition with the subjectiveness of the protagonists whose lives are bound together: inhabiting the same city, going to the same school and library. The Explorer only is a free spirit who frames and is also framed by the other stories. Being women, the Biographer’s, the Mender’s, the Daughter’s and the Wife’s cycles of life yet experience differently the Personhood Amendment and therefore feature the female bodies. Contours that they cannot control anymore. “Babies once were abstractions. They were Maybe I do, but not now.” (Zumas, 2018: 93) A menstrual timing decides in a mirror effect on all the other cycles. The speed of narrative cycles makes you dizzy. Constantly reminded of the clock, the protagonists run through life: some being out of breath, others taking their breath. Years. Ban. Days. In vitro. Months. Trial. Weeks. Pregnancy. Century. Ice. Tick-tock.

Let’s bleed the clock

It is about blood. The violence of the clock ticking controls the protagonists’ lives. In a very real, yet fictionalized dynamics of power, Zumas elevates the state of control as a sphere above which the past rests, leaving the present in a cage against which the protagonists seem to crush. Rusty bars covered with blood. And this sound, again and again. Is it the Biographer ageing alone, way too unordinary to the cage? Is it the Mender forced to leave her forest, way too far from the cage? Is it the Daughter caught by the Pink Wall of the cage? Is it the Wife biting in a chocolate bar for lack of beating the cage’s bars? In this tiny world “[e]very creature [] [is] prey to someone.” (Zumas, 2018: 70) The bigger the prey the easier. All the protagonists leave behind blood stains: Menstruations color the novel, you can be sure of that. But, whereas the inner cycle could have followed its path, whereas the clock ticking could have controlled the protagonists’ bodies as it is doing since the beginning, the cramps’ pain is increased in the cage where no breath can be caught, where no alternative seems possible. My in-and-out blood does not scare me. Your out-and-in blood does. The power resides less in the female uterus than in the male hands. In a constantly going on twist the inside and the outside exchange places. Private becomes…is public. Period.

Fighting the clock

It is about hope. “The things are happening all at once. These things are one thing. They are the inevitable result of all that went before. The power seeks its outlet. These things have happened before; they will happen again. These things are always happening.” (Alderman, 2017 [2016]: 293) Scattered men, the light has come to women in The Power. Will it reach Red Clocks though? A dystopia enlightens the mechanisms that keep the cage closed. Yet, Zumas uses of the rusty bars. It is not about recycling a topic, it is about cycling it: The Explorer, the Biographer, the Mender, the Daughter, and the Wife could lead their army, grabbing with both hands the rusty bars which still hold, proud product of an erected male power. No sex, but sex. “But what if it works? Thousands of years in the making, fine-tuned by women in the dark creases of history, helping each other.” (Zumas, 2018: 61) Red Clocks loudly alludes to a possibility. The women’s life cycles may be the same over and over, crossing into each other, yet the power dynamics of hysteria are surely unpredictable.

So, the Explorer, the Biographer, the Mender, the Daughter, and the Wife navigate in cycles. A multitude of cycles, locked up in a cage. As I just closed Red Clocks, you might hear this sound now, repetitive and aggressive, urging your body. It is not the frenetic typing on the computer. Tick-tock, it is about to explode.

I will let you think about this excellent ambiguity:

“‘An embryo is a living being.’

‘So is a dandelion.’” (Zumas, 2018: 122)