Modernity is a wounded animal. It can scrape its knees crawling away, but there is a trail of blood and bones and doom behind each motion. There is an inexplicable dread, disorientation and anxiety that follow the entrails — apocalyptic feelings that far precede March 2020.
Literature sensed this, perhaps sooner than most living under modern delusions. On multiple occasions, I have found myself drowning in words of capitalist wastelands, male fantasies of a macho dystopia and the continued intentional absence of women from every narrative. A dead wife might end up in the male hero’s backstory, or a daughter can exist as the personification of tragedy, but no real personhood is allowed. Or, if she’s lucky, she can be the hero’s love interest — often just a bundle of neurosis in a sheer black dress. The rest are hollow; the rest aren’t given space to exist. This wound persists, and it is never fully bandaged. When a woman, fictional or otherwise, is denied basic humanity, all that is left is to sort through the void.
It’s clear that the state of women in literature is transient — women are not allowed to consistently occupy space. The void exists in literature, both metaphorically and literally. The void of female characters shows itself as either the profound flatness and emptiness written into those characters, or the literal lack of women written at all. Female characters can be rare, and female authors even rarer. If fiction exists as a reflection of the real world or as a way to gain personal understanding, this patriarchal novelistic norm does not paint an adequate picture of women. If anything, it only reflects the extreme way in which society denies women personhood. The emptiness of literature is the void in the lives of real women.
The modern exploration of gender dynamics is often overlooked, as if gaining a ballot was the final step in disempowering patriarchy. I can feel this stark disconnect anytime I consume media — women are prettily-posed and then tossed into nothingness.
Though modern life is apocalyptic enough, certain women authors are voluntarily throwing themselves into this expanse of emptiness. Their exploration touches on the inexplicably blank bits of modern life as a woman and validates the lived experiences of women. These authors and characters provide a unique exploration of womanhood, filling the void of the invisibility and dismissal of 21st-century life. When no reality is allowed to honestly and brutally showcase this feminine state, apocalyptic realities can provide an unnervingly honest vessel.
To set the tone of my pandemic, I dove deeply into this feminine void. Experiencing what felt like the final catalyst in continuous modern demise, it only felt right. I spent all 365 days of 2020 reading pages of rogue women and sifting through the types of voids only the capitalist patriarchy can leave.
My first venture was into the novel “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine” by Alexandria Kleeman. This novel was my first quarantine read, and fully introduced me to the hellscape of women versus the void versus the apocalypse. It sets itself apart from other apocalyptic literature by focusing on social issues. Instead of guns or zombies, Kleeman’s world is littered with cult movements, broken nutrition systems and stark exaggerations of both interpersonal relations and personhood itself. TV acts as a medium of hysteria in this world with recurring commercials of hopeless chases and imminent starvation for Kandy Kakes, an ominous Twinkie purposely devoid of all nutritional value. This all occurs in the foreground of “Disappearing Dad Syndrome” (which is exactly what it sounds like) and the sheet-wearing cult movement “Church of the Conjoined Eaters” that exclusively eats Kandy Kakes.
Recognizable pieces of culture that primarily harm women are laid bare throughout the novel; Kleeman examines modern culture and elevates it into the Uncanny Valley. The unnamed and mostly nondescript narrator represents this perfect woman — void of all personhood and standing on the brink of apocalypse. The narrator experiences the discordant struggle of balancing womanhood with vying for personhood, but the collapsing world she lives in refuses to take part in the balancing act. She flutters through a Kandy Kake addiction, hibernates in a home once lived in by a family of now-cult members and eventually accepts her lack of personhood by joining the “Church of the Conjoined Eaters.” At the time I read the novel, our world was its mirror image. Socially, politically and in public health, the feeling of foreboding doom took up more space than ever before. Only this narrator was tiptoeing into a social apocalypse, rather than a global health emergency.
Some time later, I moved into the hysteric nightmares written by Carmen Maria Machado in “Her Body and Other Parties.” I experienced each chapter three times daily: A morning read-through, listening to audio of the chapter as I drifted to sleep and then experiencing the most vivid and surreal melatonin-induced nightmares of my life. This was in November 2020, and I still find it to be the most distinct month of that year. The novel consists of short stories, all involving (often queer) women. Each story taps into a new part of the female psyche, and the collective anxieties of female social status. She explores these ideas by creating genuine fever dreams out of patriarchy and female oppression. Even the opening story of the collection surrounds female bodily autonomy through its borrowing of folk tales like the green ribbon and modern oppression like the barbaric “husband stitch.”
Her collection continues to wound the reader’s perception of a woman’s place in dystopia, and adds an unnerving lens to how modern women live in their void. In the best examples of this, Machado’s story “Inventory” chronicles a list of the narrator’s sexual partners and devolves into terror as a national epidemic breaks out and destroys civilization. The emptiness, solitude and gradual destruction reflect anxieties surrounding COVID-19, despite being published a year before the pandemic. Machado’s next fictional epidemic, titled “Real Women Have Bodies,” turns even more jarring: A disease that causes women to slowly physically fade away. The narrator of this story falls in love with the daughter of a prominent dress supplier. As their love story progresses, the daughter slowly becomes ill and the narrator realizes the disappearing women are sewn into clothing — including the dressmaker herself, the love interest’s mother. As a blend of capitalist-patriarchy, this story creates a bizarre exaggeration of multiple social ailments — factory conditions of garment workers, the violence of fashion and body image and the physical impact of feminine voids. Within this novel, the lives of oppressed women reach full entrenchment in dystopia.
To complete my trifecta of voids, I finished 2020 by reading Ling Ma’s debut novel, “Severance.” This narrative follows Shen Fever, a type of fungal spore that renders its victims zombie-like. The victim fixates on a mundane task and repeats it until their body gives up on them, a complementary idea to the capitalist bleakness Ling Ma writes about. From the very beginning of the fever, we watch as protagonist Candace’s co-workers and bosses value their profit margins over safety precautions and human lives — eerily similar to our own COVID-19 and climate crisis response. As the world begins crumbling in on itself, Candace remains at her office job. More than anything else, this is a story of a late-capitalist society stripped of its humanity. The collapse being devoid of hysteria is what sets it apart from others, it is quiet and fatalistic instead of drenched in violent male fantasies.
The bleakness of the apocalypse extends into how capitalism enables and promotes patriarchy. Under capitalism, a woman is no more than a commodity for male consumption. Towards the end of the novel, Candance and her group of survivors realize she is pregnant, and immediately she is revoked of her humanity and reduced to a birthing vessel. She is imprisoned in their camp, and forced into a life of restraint and prenatal vitamins. In this lack of personhood, Ling Ma confronts the void of autonomy in women’s choice. Even by existing within the group prior to pregnancy, Candace revokes her right to autonomy and opposition. The group leader, Bob, represents the power of patriarchal hierarchy even as every other social structure crumbles. While there is a constant void for women, a void of patriarchy is completely infeasible as a concept.
These novels attempt to fill a gap in both apocalyptic and female literature. They offer a glimpse into the horrifying realities of womanhood through a hallucinatory vessel. Reflections of my own experiences with voids and dooms resemble this type of horrifying femininity more than other literature I’ve read, offering me a glimpse into my worst anxieties. These works embrace the void that has attempted to swallow women in dystopia whole and make it their own. And once you’ve stared into that void, it’s impossible to ignore it anymore.
Daily Arts Contributor Ava Burzycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.