When I reviewed Lidia’s Yuknavitch’s last book—national bestseller and winner of the Oregon Book Awards’ Readers Choice Award The Small Backs of Children— I described it as a work of risk and success. Yuknavitch took gambles, and they paid off. But with her new novel, the poetic science fiction fantasy The Book of Joan, I am sorry to report that Yuknavitch misses the mark, and we all go flying into the void. Dammit, Lidia.
The beginning of The Book of Joan is awkward. We’re greeted by a nude, hairless, erudite woman named Christine Pizan, who’s living on a suborbital space station and cutting a story into her skin (I hope you’re comfortable with that, because it’s the whole damn book) as she reminisces and records a story about her hero, Joan of Dirt. Pizan’s method of recording is confusing: A disembodied voice says “audiovisualsensory” before she starts cutting herself, but she explains at length that body scarification is the new art and recording style of choice, the natural progression of a paperless world.
As an editor, I get a headache thinking about this proposed method of recording. Is it braille? It is “Hebrew, Native American, Sanskrit, Asian, mathematical and scientific.” (Editor headache increases.) This is all very Yuknavitch; she has, over the years, carved out a branded writing style for herself called Corporeal Writing. Her characters don’t merely move. Their legs shake. Their ears ring. Their bile rises. It feels like everyone is doing cognitive behavioral therapy. In Small Backs of Children, this style worked. But in The Book of Joan, it’s too much of a crutch to fill out the page, making for a sketch of a story plumped up with poetic description.
Despite being the main narrator, Pizan proves difficult to like or listen to for very long. She and her bestie Trinculo act like those drama people who flail all over one another, play-quoting sexual Shakespeare. Perhaps other people—people who enjoy casually thrown phrases like “tickle-brained harlot!” or “far-flung sea witch”—will find this pair endearing, but their artful phrasing merely added to my confusion. The one thing we know for sure is that these two miss their genitals. You see, at some point all humans lost their reproductive organs due to a genital-munching plague that covered the Earth.
It’s very confusing.
At the story’s midpoint we nestle into an oasis, meeting the actual Joan of Dirt and her lifelong love, Leone. These are the palatable portions of the novel and manage Yuknavitch’s narration more effectively before everything joins together again, moving towards a climax that feels rushed and attempts to answer our questions with poetic language and magic.
As of this March, Stone Village Productions, who have produced films like The Lincoln Lawyer and Love in the Time of Cholera, have acquired the movie rights to the Book of Joan. Perhaps film will prove a better vehicle for the loose, concrete description-light Book of Joan. As a novel, though, it feels rushed and not fleshed out to the measure it deserves. Believe me, I want a Joan of Arc-inspired female messiah as much as the next person. But not like this.
The Book of Joan
by Lidia Yuknavitch