How Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power deconstructs the patriarchy

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There are two stories curled up inside of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, the Vox Book Club’s March pick.

One of them is an empowerment fantasy, a revenge fantasy: What would happen if women didn’t have to be afraid of men anymore? What would happen if men stopped being a physical threat to women? What would you do? How would your life change?

For the first half of The Power, it seems as though that’s the story Alderman is interested in telling.

But in the second half, The Power changes. As the account we are reading becomes increasingly brutal, it stops being a classic women’s empowerment fantasy. Instead, The Power becomes about, well, power: about the threat of violence that undergirds all human interactions, about what we do with power, and about the ways in which power corrupts.

Here’s how those two stories fit together, and why the effect is so devastating.

This first half of The Power works through intense defamiliarization

The central premise of The Power is so simple as to be electrifying. What if every woman were to suddenly develop the ability to emit electric shocks out of her hands, like an electric eel?

Well, not really every woman. Alderman’s power only affects people with two X chromosomes. And while Alderman explores some of the complications of this development with a minor character who is intersex, at no point does she look at what it would mean for the trans community. It’s as though Alderman cannot imagine critiquing our current patriarchal system of gender without erasing trans people from the world, which is one of the fundamental failures of this novel.

But in other aspects, Alderman’s worldbuilding is admirably comprehensive. She builds her narrative around four main characters, all of whom show us what the power looks like in action in different corners of the world.

Roxy is the daughter of a London crime boss whose mother is murdered in front of her in the first chapter. Her power comes in strong and muscular, turning her into a sort of Lancelot figure, and she uses it to rise through the ranks of her father’s organization and avenge her mother’s murder. Allie is an abused foster child in the southern US who specializes, when her power comes, in control. She uses it to kill her foster father and then establish a new identity as the cult figure Mother Eve at the center of a new matriarchal religion. Roxy, soon enough, becomes Mother Eve’s right-hand woman.

Elsewhere, Margot, the middle-aged mayor of an American city, uses her power and the political capital that comes with it to launch a trajectory toward the White House. And Tunde, a young Nigerian journalist and the only man in our central cast, chronicles the power as it emerges across the world: the protests and the riots and the men’s rights movements.

In this first half of The Power, much of the book’s force comes from the potency of its empowerment fantasy: Yes, girl in the grocery store, shock that creepy old man telling you to smile! We see women shocking their abusers, victims of human trafficking spreading their power from one to another so they can free themselves, women in countries with oppressively misogynistic laws emboldened by their new ability and marching down the street in protest.

With this reversal of power, there comes an intense and visceral defamiliarization of all the ways we unthinkingly gender power. All of the creepy old tropes that we are so used to get flipped on their heads.

When Tunde loses his virginity, it’s painful for him, because his partner loses control of her power and shocks him while they’re in bed together. But Alderman eroticizes the pain of the shock for Tunde in the same way that the pain of penetration gets eroticized for female characters in traditional literary deflowering scenes: “He barely feels the pain at all, so great is the delight,” she writes. Later, we learn that sexual fetishes develop for the new power, and that men are held to be particularly susceptible to sexual masochism and the longing to be shocked in bed.

In one running joke, a serious male news anchor and his ditzy female co-anchor at first roll their eyes at the power. Next they spar playfully over it, and then less playfully. In the end, the serious male news anchor leaves the show, the woman is advised to put on glasses — “for gravitas” — and she gets a ditzy male co-anchor of her own.

Most startling is the scene in which Margot, running for governor, loses her temper in the middle of a debate and shocks her opponent. That scene was written before the 2016 US presidential debate during which Donald Trump loomed eerily behind Hillary Clinton as she spoke in a queasy, controlling display of power — but recent history now shows that Alderman was dead on the money when she predicted exactly how voters would respond to such a moment.

“When they went into the voting booths in their hundreds, and thousands, and tens of thousands,” Alderman writes, “they’d thought, ‘You know what, though, she’s strong. She’d show them.’” Margot wins her election.

Meanwhile, in the framing narrative of the book, a “man writer” named Neil Adam Armon (which anagrams, you will note, to Naomi Alderman), is sending the manuscript for his new novel to an older, much more established writer named Naomi Alderman. It’s not necessary to add a qualifier like “woman” to “writer” when describing her, because it’s plain that these two characters live in a world in which the power flip we see taking place within the rest of The Power has become fully established.

Accordingly, Neil apologizes for even daring to reach out to his mentor (“Anyway, sorry, I’ll shut up now,”) and expresses enthusiastic gratitude for her time (“Thank you so much for this”). Naomi, in her turn, responds with condescending good humor over Neil’s “clever idea,” but notes that his depiction of a fantastical world in which men hold power over women might be quite a hard sell, credibility-wise. “Gangs of men locking up women for sex,” she chortles over a human trafficking scene. “Some of us have had fantasies like that!”