Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal Writing is tagged “Writing by and through the body, one workshop at a time.” So it’s entirely appropriate that the protagonist of her new novel The Book of Joan not only writes on her own body—she uses skin grafts to do so.
Said protagonist is named Christine Pizan, her name an homage to medieval feminist writer Christine de Pisan. De Pisan’s The Book of the City of Ladies was based on the then-radical idea that stereotypes about women can only be sustained if women are prevented from entering public discourse. (I’ve always believe it no accident that the foremost American scholar of de Pisan, Charity Cannon Willard, was a military spouse.) Yuknavitch’s Christine lives in 2049, a near-future in which geocatastrophe has ravaged the earth. Its wealthiest denizens now inhabit CIEL, a suborbital complex that floats close to their former home.
One of the heroines of the disaster was Joan, a young French woman whose early history is more than a little similar to the (also medieval) Joan of Arc. The earlier Joan was a peasant whose visions from angels and saints encouraged her to help Charles VII recover France from English domination in the Hundred Years’ War; over the course of a scant two years, her presence and influence seemed to do so, to the extent that the English had her burned at the stake in 1431, dead at age 19.
Yuknavitch repurposes Joan’s life and legend, making her Joan an eco-terrorist and an “engenderine,” a creature somewhere between human and inanimate. Joan’s life will be short, she knows, and she spends the time she has left attempting to truly see the wonders of her planet; her ability to take in and understand the beauties of flora and fauna is one of the things Christine craves to lodge in her skin. Although Christine seems to be inking stories like tattoos, the grafts she places on hers and others’ bodies remain mysterious: Are they phalanges, layers, loops? It isn’t easy to figure out, and perhaps the author doesn’t want us to know. We can imagine any sort of skin construction we like, which, in a way, is mindful of the creatures (eels, bats, more) that populate Joan’s world, the missing world.
That missing world also contained the ages-old ability to reproduce. Christine and her friend Trinculo (another literary reference, this time to Shakespeare’s bawd in “The Tempest”) fight against their new world’s neutering, attempting all sorts of sexual acrobatics to mimic old-world titillation and orgasm—but it’s impossible. They have no genitalia, these CIELians, no orifices (although they somehow still piss and shit, as Christine tells us). Their lives are of unquiet frustration, and become especially loud when Trinculo, who put CIEL together, is arrested and imprisoned on charges that seem entirely manufactured.
Christine feels frightened, not least because at 49 she is “aging out;” in CIEL, 50 is the “Logan’s Run” border when inhabitants must die. She is even more frightened because a tyrant named Jean de Men has come to his full power, using charisma and marketing instead of rational thought and science. When he decides to bring back human reproduction, the results are disastrous; he fetishizes procreation and birth instead of life in all its messy glory.
That’s where Christine and her friend (lover? Deputy? Does it matter?) Leone come in, fighting across the CIEL landscape and backwards in time to Joan of Dirt so that they can salvage something of earth’s former glories. Throughout the book, in its everchanging perspectives, we see that Yuknavitch is fighting, too—fighting for a new means of narrative, a way of telling stories that doesn’t rely on linearity or epic, but on collaboration and wonder. Just as Christine and Trinculo, deprived of true climax, continue forms of sexual play, the author, deprived of equality in this world, plays with power through words. You might, on beginning to read The Book of Joan, think “Ah, science fiction!” But you would be wrong. Yes, it’s science fiction. But it’s also literary fiction. And literary inversion. And historical fiction. And, and, and. . . That’s what Lidia Yuknavitch wants: More, more, more. Her new novel takes in, rather than keeping out.
It also adds to the body, rather than stripping it down. The author understands that our very corporeality leads to our finest stories. Our bodies, especially when imperfect, lead to our deepest understanding of what it means to be human. That humanity is what will lead us to saving the beauty of this earth.
Bethanne Patrick is the Co-Executive Editor for ROAR, a position she has been training for since childhood, when she organized games of “newsroom” in her basement, and always made the assignments. When she’s not emailing Sarah and Jeet, she can be found reviewing books for The Washington Post and NPR, acting as a contributing editor at Lit Hub, and working on her novel. Just kidding–she’s usually reading, which is why she is also the Books & Media editor for ROAR. Patrick is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.