Dystopia is sometimes conceived, sometimes proposed.
Portland author Leni Zumas' Red Clocks (Little, Brown; 368 pages; $26) is set two years after Congress has ratified the Personhood Amendment granting life, liberty and property to every fertilized egg. This is, of course, already the dream in the cloistered head of Mike Pence and the architects behind Colorado's Amendment 62. In vitro fertilization is also banned in Clocks, because the egg could not consent to be transferred to a uterus.
And so a small-town Oregon history teacher named Ro—unmarried but desperate for a child—must have her uterus basted by a doctor with the sperm of a 19-year-old boy to become pregnant. The "red clock" of the title is the one in her own thinning uterus.
Meanwhile, high school girls scrape out their own uteruses or lose their pregnancy to a tumble down a stairwell—afraid of being charged with murder if they abort the incipient life inside them. Healers in the woods are accused of murder by means of a fenugreek and lavender potion, a witch hunt with an anti-abortion bent.
Zumas' book is not a dreary slog through female torment, however. It is impressionistic, lyrical and sometimes even maddening as it switches between the perspectives of four women trapped by their roles as a persecuted healer, a pregnant daughter or a wife who looks longingly at freeway guardrails as a way out of her marriage. The novel is obsessed with the drive for reproduction—and how it gets distorted.
"Blonde-brown, endearing, demanding, sometimes quite irritating—how eerily they resemble Susan and Didier," the teacher thinks about a friend's children. "They are the products of desire: sexual, yes, but more importantly (in the age of contraception, at least) they come from the desire to recur."
One of the book's most striking features is its mordant wit—a mastery of the absurdist humor of political cruelty. Canada, eager to remain cozy with its dangerous southern neighbor, has agreed to create a "Pink Wall" stopping young girls suspected of seeking abortions, a policy advertised on highway billboards next to a stick figure with a balloon for a belly: "WON'T STOP ONE, WON'T START ONE. CANADA UPHOLDS U.S. LAW!"
The obvious comparisons are to Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, now filling Hulu with the relentlessly plaintive face of Elizabeth Moss. But the world of Clocks is not fantastical or far-fetched. It is our own, almost banal in the way it tears down its protagonists' sense of self or autonomy. If one climactic triumph feels like deus ex machina, the actual hope found in the book is the sort that became a hashtag during the 2016 election—the optimism of dogged, staggering persistence.
Leni Zumas' Red Clocks was published Jan. 16. She reads Tuesday, Feb. 20 at Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, 503-284-1726, broadwaybooks.net. 7 pm. Free.