In 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. She was a cross-dressing 19-year-old who claimed to receive visions and military guidance from God. As a soldier she turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War in favor of France. After her trial and execution, the details surrounding Joan of Arc’s death inspired the Pope to declare her a martyr, in spite of her peasant origins. Her place in popular imagination has since climbed to mythic proportions. “No person of the Middle Ages has been the subject of more study than Joan of Arc,” historian Kelly DeVries writes. “She has been portrayed as saint, heretic, religious zealot, seer, demented teenager, proto-feminist, aristocratic wanna-be, savior of France… and even Marxist liberator.” Basically, you could not invent a more perfect icon to invoke as a symbol of resistance today.
In her new dystopian novel, The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch re-imagines the girl warrior in a post-apocalyptic future. What remains of the wealthy ruling class has retreated to CIEL, a dying space station that hangs above the Earth. The worst crime you can commit on CIEL is to challenge the enforced “ascension narrative,” perpetuated by the dictator Jean de Men. Like Donald Trump, this TV celebrity-turned-fascistic power-monger thrives on theatrical displays of cruelty, and his ultimate power-grab is to stage a TV execution of his main opponent: the child Joan of Dirt.
In this version, though, Joan of Dirt does not channel God’s voice. Instead, her connection to the supernatural is more readily explained by quantum physics: she and a few surviving animals have evolved special bio-electric sensitivities. Joan is tuned into trees and bioluminescent spiders and salamanders. She can cause earthquakes. She can raise the dead. But for all her might and courage, Joan’s purpose on Earth is not really to be its savior. This becomes obvious as the story unfolds. She is simply connected to its end. In other words, the planet is going extinct, and there is nothing anyone can do about it—only marvel at nature and the cosmos, and at Joan herself.
The ideas in this book are spine-tinglingly good. Yuknavitch conjures a dystopia that feels at once outlandish and resonantly true. This is what great speculative fiction is supposed to do, offer catharsis for our anxieties about the future; anticipate and indulge our deepest fears about technology, and the surveillance state, and censorship, and climate change. Stories about dystopian societies pack a revolutionary punch, especially when it comes to resisting authoritarianism. Because it takes more than just young fighters to overcome oppression. You also need storytellers to encourage and remember them. You need ordinary people to think and talk about them, and be inspired by the ideas that seem true, namely: love, humanity and hope. Books and stories help people lead better lives for themselves. That’s what art can do, and Lidia Yuknavitch is definitely an artist.
Yuknavitch, whose previous books The Chronology of Water and The Small Backs of Children have been widely praised, is far from the only writer to tap into Joan of Arc’s soldier mythos in response to current events. During the 2016 election, commenters compared Hillary’s campaign to Joan’s crusade. And David Byrne’s musical, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire is currently enjoying a popular run at The Public Theater in New York (the show runs until April 30th). Joan of Arc is also a favorite image in LGBQT circles, thanks to her gender-defying ways. Her image resonates with current mantras that “the resistance will be female.” But Yuknavitch’s re-telling stands out as uniquely vivid and electrifying.
In The Book of Joan, as the plot thickens into stranger and darker situations, you start to realize the scope and detail of this constructed world. The novel’s internal logic builds on itself, and you find yourself nodding along with every macabre reveal: “Yes, of course, Joan’s public execution was a sham. She is still alive, hiding in a cave on Earth!” There are masterful tips of the hat to literary history—from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest to Medieval French poetry. The narrator is named after Christine de Pizan, a real-life court biographer in 13th-century France. The concentric circles implied by using Christine as a narrator, who is also a writer, laboring over her final masterpiece at the same time that she is telling this story to us, carry a significant message: storytelling is resistance.
Christine, an aging scholar who loathes life on CIEL, is drafting a final “fuck you” to Jean de Men. It is her treasonous magnum opus—a manuscript that celebrates the true story of Joan of Dirt. The twist here (deliciously Yuknavitchian) is that Christine is not writing her narrative on paper, or even a computer. She is an expert skin grafter. She uses branding tools and runes from ancient languages like Sanskrit and Hebrew to burn intricate stories into her own flesh. So her epic account of Earth’s last rebel leader is also an extreme performance of self-scarification. As Christine explains, “Words and my body [are] the site of resistance,” and also: “Burning is an art.”
Corporeal writing is a practice that Yuknavitch has built her trademark on. She defines it as “writing by and through the body,” and indeed, a lot of her work is powerfully visceral. Her repertoire burns deep into such terrifying, primal themes as violence, S&M, war, addiction and abuse. She writes with a unique eloquence that suffuses these topics in an aura all their own—balancing tenderness, restraint and insight with a knife-like, brutal precision that makes her work dangerous—and spiritual. In a way, Yuknavitch’s whole career has been about perfecting the arsenal that this strange Trumpian age demands.
Performative tattooing reminds me of how, when I was 13 years old, the popular thing for girls at school to do was cutting. My friends etched stars into their inner thighs with safety pins, and punctured tiny rows of x’s into the insides of their wrists. Most girls were careful to keep these marks hidden beneath long sleeves—especially from the prying eyes of parents—but parents found out anyway. “Why are all the kids hurting themselves? Why are teenage girls writing on themselves?” PTA moms asked each other at school meetings. Was it a cry for help? An act of defiance? How trapped and helpless does a young person need to feel before she turns to self-branding in search of agency?
In The Book of Joan, this question gets pushed to an acute pitch: at the end of humanity, and under a totalitarian regime—when it is no longer clear whether the news stories you hear are true or fabricated, and technology has left you completely isolated—what will the last and final frontier of resistance be? It might be a return to the primitive basics. Self-mutilation. Skin and bodies and blood and guts—and suicide. Indeed, as Christine progresses in carving out her pièce de résistance, as she writes her own destruction, the story around her escalates to a near orgy of bodily violence. By the end, all the characters’ longing for the sweet release of death is palpable.
The sexual overtones are intentional. On CIEL, the second-worst crime you can commit is to have sex. One of Christine’s early acts of rebellion, therefore, is to masturbate wildly in front of a surveillance camera. The scene is spooky—classic Yuknavitch—and also carries the theme of bodies as a site of resistance into exciting new territory. Christine is the ultimate corporeal writer. As she writes the story of Joan onto her own body, the magnitude of her grief takes on an erotic charge. You begin to imagine her as a pagan priestess. Christine has taken on a task that everyone else has been afraid to: the task of communing with the past, and with the sacred—and with her own irrational hunger for life. And her sacrifice fills me with a renewed sense that art does have the power to topple tyrants.
Christine’s struggle to tell the truth also brings us back to the question of what the role of writing and literature should be in times of political uncertainty. Christine might not be able to stop Jean de Men’s apocalypse—but the thought of her world without her fighting in it is far worse. At least she is here to tell us about the martyr Joan, and to remind us of the beauty of bodies. At least she is here to delight what remains of the human race with one final, sadistic, cathartic re-staging of Hamlet for outer space. In the same way, a really good dystopian novel might not prevent dystopia from taking over all our lives. But the idea of living the next four years without stories like The Book of Joan would be a lot more boring, and painful.
On the question of whether Yuknavitch will join the ranks of George Orwell and Margaret Atwood as an important voice in speculative fiction: I cast my vote for yes.