bookgazing: (Default)
bookgazing ([personal profile] bookgazing) wrote2010-10-01 04:31 pm

Walk to the End of the World - Suzy McKee Charnas

I read ‘Walk to the End of the World’ ages ago now but I wanted to write something about it because it was a book brought to my attention by a wonderful blogger friend Villa Negativa. I think it would have been a huge shame if I’d gone through life without reading this radical novel, because it renewed my appreciation for the female authors who pioneered the spiky sub genre of feminist sci-fi and for the feminists who cut paths through the jungle for us to follow. I will just caution that this book is old school feminist dystopia, which means it shows exactly how bad things can get for women and there is quite a lot of sexual violence against women, which some people may need to be aware of.

‘Walk to the End of the World’ takes place in a dystopian future where most of the Earth’s civilisation has been destroyed. What’s left is known as The Holdfast, which is part city, part mountain civilisation, hemmed in by the unpopulated Wild. In a prologue Charnas tells us that a catastrophe called the Wasting has decimated the world, but certain manly men sheltered from the Wasting and took a few women into their shelter. In the new world women, along with other culpable groups, are held responsible for the catastrophe. While the other groups (which include all the animals) have been destroyed, women, or fems as they are known, have been kept as breeding partners and general slaves. The world survives on a crop of long kelps, or lammins and hemp, but the staple lammin crop is beginning to fail.

‘Walk to the End of the World’ contains the intricate world building, you’d expect to find in a sci-fi novel and I won’t try to outline it here, although I really enjoyed that aspect of the novel. Outside of the detailed workings of the world Suzy McKee Charnas has created, the novel has a simple plot and is essentially a quest narrative. At the same time it’s a novel focused on characterisation, one of those sci-fi stories where the plot of the novel is the characters interactions, not just the battles and chase scenes they’re engaged in. I could talk about so many different aspects of this novella, but because the part that enlarged my thinking is related to the feminist politics in this novel that’s what I’ll be concentrating on.

In this first part of her Holdfast Chronicles Suzy McKee Charnas reveals The Holdfast to be an intensely misogynistic society that any feminist reader must despise (it’s also a racist society as the quote below will show). Familiar sexist rhetoric is used to allow society to justify keeping women enslaved. Women caused the wasting with their sins, much as Eve caused the downfall of humanity, although the women in The Holdfast are said to have caused the Wasting through their political misdeeds, not moral sin:

‘It was a Black female’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus that sparked the rebellion of the Blacks; female Gooks fought against our troops in the Eastern wars; female terrorists made bombs side by side with our own rebel sons, whose mothers had brought them up to be half men; female vermin of all kinds spewed out millions of young to steal our food supplies and our living space! Females themselves brought on the Wasting of the world!’

Readers later learn that among other things society believes women’s brains are dull and women do not feel as men. Women are described as ‘unmen’, a term which will sound familiar to anyone who has come across the notion that male is the norm and a term used by the men to describe anyone who doesn’t fit society’s image of a man. The prologue alerts readers to what kind of society they are about to enter. By using a bombastic, antiquated style of language for the prologue, which outlines what the men believe and by using an omniscient narrator to introduce corrections such as :

‘The men did not notice their own shocked faces and raw voices. They had acted, they thought, responsibly, rightly – and had lost everything. They did not realise they had lost their sanity, too.’

to the male perspective McKee Charnas makes sure readers know she wants them to take the women’s side in this world.

And yet on the first page McKee Charnas presents a male character, who exudes a strong sense of personality and mystery. Captain Kelmz is described sparingly in a way which excites the reader’s curiosity:

‘…a man waited, his hands tucked into his sleeves against the night’s chill. He was a Rover Captain in full uniform under his disguise of blanks. He stood alone in the shadow of a doorway.’

Then she quickly goes on to describe the attractive, but dangerous physical appearance d Layo (Servan) who will soon become a second main character:

‘Heavy-muscled, smooth-moving, a tawny-coloured night-slinker, a prowling predator with a broad, blunt-nosed face and wide-curling mouth, d Layo padded before his mind’s eye.’

How can a reader fail to be interested in these mysterious, unclear characters? And as the novel develops readers will become deeply interested in these two characters and a third named Eykar Bek, despite knowing that they are men who belong to the misogynistic society outlined in the prologue. In my opinion, Suzy McKee Charnas’ genius is that she creates male characters who are incredibly easy to like and sympathise with so that readers emerge from ‘Walk to the End of the World’ aware of just how deep misogynistic culture goes and how easy it is to look away from the complicit misogyny that many men take part in, because these men present so many other reasons for why they should be viewed as likeable.

The three main characters Captain Kelmz, Servan and Eykar are deeply mired in misogynistic complicity, as they are men who don’t challenge the treatment of fems. They don’t just remain silent during the ill treatment of fems and receive passive benefits, such as the product of femme labour, passed on as a result of being the privileged class in a misogynistic society. They also actively increase the ill treatment of fems by beating and raping women and they often using misogynistic language to perpetuate the rhetoric that keeps fems second class ‘unmen’. The Holdfast’s misogynistic society provides sanctioned places and describes ‘productive’ reasons for sexism and rape, which makes any male member of that society who doesn’t challenge the treatment of fems, complicit in the misogynistic structure of their society. This passive complicity then turns into outright aggression towards the fems they personally encounter. Readers learn that Kelmz, has taken his turn in the breeding house, raping women with the justification of the state at his back and both d Layo and Eykar will go on to rape female characters outside of the sanctioned time in the breeding house.

The three main male characters should seem despicable, because of the society they take part in and their violence towards women. So how does the author make these characters engaging, likeable and interesting even to readers who are aware of what kind of violent oppression they perpetuate and what is her purpose in doing so? She initially puts the entire focus of her novella on to the three male characters and their interactions with other male characters. Kelmz, Servan and Eykar each get their own section of the novella where their experiences are concentrated on and reported by an omniscient narrator. Although small comments begin to accumulate after the prologue that alert readers to how the fems are viewed and treated in The Holdfast, the main characters have little direct contact with fems initially, so readers don’t see them personally treating female characters badly until a little way into the first section of the novella. The reader are engaged with the men’s hopes, struggles and relationships for several chapters of Kelmz section before much is mentioned about the condition of the fems life after the prologue is over. Quick bonds are formed between reader and the three main characters, while the reader’s relationship with the fems is kept impersonal and small.

Readers may first noticeably begin to understand that the characters exist in an unequal society when Servan and Eykar wander among work groups of fems on the shore:

‘He turned and shouted down the length of the shed, ‘Pull it in, you bitches! If you make the master touch you in passing, you’ll pay for it!’

He cracked his switch down on the table-end. The fems, working in teams across the narrow surface, pressed their lean bellies against the table’s edge.’

However, by the time readers are confronted by more visible, violent misogyny that comes directly from the three main characters when they talk face to face with fems in a work shed it’s too late for readers to retreat and view the male characters purely as oppressors – to essentially characterise misogyny as something done by villains and as a consequence dismiss it as something that doesn’t exist except in special cases. As I’ve mentioned above bonds are quickly formed between the male characters and the reader as the author situates Kelmz, then Eykar and Servan as main characters. There’s a lot to be said for the quick jolt of empathy evoked in a reader, when they meet the main character – I know I instinctually want to take the time to connect and understand a main character, even if I’m not sure I like them. Personally the fact that the male main characters exist in a world where loving homosexual relationships are the norm, made me immediately warm towards them, before I reached the point where they were directly involved in oppressing and denigrating women. Even if that isn’t a factor for other readers the sure detailing of the characters personal lives and the strange force of personality they all exude (even though only Servan could really be described as charismatic) will form a deep connection with readers. By making the male main characters fugitives from general, repressive society when they join Eykbar on his forbidden quest, McKee Charnas encourages readers to empathise with them as characters fighting for a cause. Each has his own troubled back story, Kelmz especially and as we quickly learn he has lost his lover and is being squeezed out of the job he lives for by his superiors it is easy to feel for him. The author intends this feeling to encourage the reader to enjoy the story because they enjoy getting to know the characters and to be a source of discomfort, as readers realise just how misogynistic the characters they are enjoying spending time with are.

Readers now have to navigate the three main male characters on dual terms – as oppressors and as human beings with their own enemies, hopes and troubles. Maybe this sounds like Charnas is trying to encourage her readers to say ‘even misogynistic men are human’, but to me it seems she seems that by encouraging readers to empathise with characters who then smack them in the face with violent, misogyny she enables readers to stop justifying misogynistic actions. She encourages readers to dismantle the argument that someone can’t be misogynistic because they’re nice in other ways, the two states can co-exist she says and a man’s misogyny (as well as his complicit involvement in a misogynistic society) must be acknowledged despite other characteristics that might allow him to present himself as a ‘good’ man. Some people might say you can switch that argument on its head so that a misogynistic man must be judged on his good points as well as his treatment of women, but I don’t think that’s an argument that is present in ‘Walk to the End of the World’.

Creating a personal link between the characters in this book who oppress fems and the reader serves many radical feminist functions. One, it makes readers aware that men who society judges as kind and compassionate in many ways, could still be oppressive misogynists. Two, it reminds readers that even those battered by their own troubles could oppress other groups (and this works within the conflicting structure of feminism too, although that’s not a point Charnas is directly addressing in this novella). Three it reminds readers that by impersonalising the misogynistic elements in society we can create demons instead of addressing the misogyny perpetuated by ordinary society. Four, the way the book focuses on the men and the empathy this focus produces towards misogynistic, male characters reminds readers just how much we are socially conditioned to focus on men and their troubles. Finally as the incidents of violence against women keep coming, readers can’t help reacting against the male characters as the author must have hoped. There’s a particular moment that made me want to lash out (and judging by the scribbled swear words in my copy the last owner wanted to wallop the men one sometimes). When Eykar, finally seeing clearly just how his society abuses fems, decides that he must forget the knowledge to have the strength to carry out the end of his quest and says:

‘ ‘There must be no horror, no rape, nothing outside of the ordinary, superficial relations between men and fems. Therefore I can’t permit you to be a person.’ '

Just… the words, they fail.

As I said this is a radical feminist novel, written in the 1970s so McKee Charnas isn’t all about encouraging us empathise with the male characters. There are quite a few dead male characters in this book and an emerging male society that hopes to survive on fem flesh is destroyed. Alldera, the main female character, gets her own section towards the end of the book and she spends plenty of time refuting the male society, as well as the fems who originally enabled the men to enslave women by saying ‘let’s do what they say for now.’. She offers the more direct link to the real situation for fems in The Holdfast, unfiltered by male rhetoric (although Alldera makes use of the way men view fems she twists their views with mocking sarcasm). There is also some hope in this book for better relations between men and women, shown by conversations between Eykar and Alldera towards the end of the book where he begins to see her as a human being, although these hopes are never fully realised in this novel. When I finish the sequel ‘Motherlines’ I’m sure I’ll have lots of interesting things to discuss about Alldera and her attitudes to life. Right I’m stopping here, because there are so many different angles I could examine this book from I’ll be here all day.

Maybe not all the feminist views stand up to the test of time if you look at them as views to be applied to our own society, although they make internal sense within the book and must have made sense in 1974, when the book was published. Some people might think this book too extreme, too angry and the male characters too casually violent, but I could believe in the world that drove Charnas to create the extremes of The Holdfast society. Bed down on a cold, grey day with ‘Walk to the End of the World’ and pair it with the short dystopian novel
‘The Carhullan Army’ by Sarah Hall for maximum depression and radical hints at hope.