Monday, February 27, 2023

Joanna Russ's Mainstream Masterwork


The latest book I have been knocked flat and wowed by (they come less frequently with age, so read fast, young people) is On Strike Against God by Joanna Russ. She being one of the crown gems of science fiction, you'd expect it to be genre. But it's not. It's mainstream. It's subtitled A Lesbian Love Story. And if you had to fit it into a subgenre, it would be Feminist Fiction.

Strike three, you'd think, for a guy who's rapidly heading toward the category of Dead White Male. But no, Joanna managed the near-miraculous feat of writing prose that was simultaneously white-hot with anger and laugh-out-loud funny. Here, from a description of the protagonist's conversation with a male academic whose attentions she does not want:

[...] He said, leaning forward:

"You're strange animals, you women intellectuals. Tell me: What's it like to be a woman?"

I took my rifle from behind my chair and shot him dead. "It's like that," I said." No, of course I didn't.

I inadvertently sold two copies of the book at Boskone by quoting that passage. Women, it seems, still have reason to be angry, and find it hilarious.

The anger-humor is the best part of the book, followed closely by the descriptions of first almost-sex and first actual sex with someone you love with all your heart. These scenes are so specifically and particularly described that you'd be tempted to think them autobiographical. However, Esther (that's the protagonist's name, though you have to read deep into the text to find it) at one point reflects on the meaning of her mother's name. It is Joan and that is proof positive to this former English major that Joanna is signaling that Esther is her daughter, which is to say her creation, and therefore not to be mistaken for her.

I am not wrong on this.

There is a great more to be said about the virtues of this slim (107 pages) book. Including its strange and whimsical ending. But I will content myself by mentioning that Samuel R. Delany, who conducted what he called "a correspondence of Victorian dimensions" with her, told me that he considers it her best book.

As for me, I would have to reread everything Joanna wrote several times before making so definite a claim. But it's possible. It's definitely possible.

This book, as I said, knocked me flat. Wow.



HANNAH'S DAD said...

For some reason I’d always thought On Strike Against God was another book of essays. I should sort myself out and read this.

“A correspondence of Victorian dimensions” - I don’t suppose any of Russ’s letters have been collected?

Rich Horton said...

I too somehow thought it a book of essays.

I have read one "mainstream" story by Russ, that I found several years ago at an estate sale a few miles from my house. It was in a magazine called the Arlington Quarterly, published by the University of Texas at Arlington, the Autumn 1970 issue. A short story (really a novelette I think) called "Not for Love". Very funny indeed. (About a visiting professor arranging adultery at the college she visited.)

(I was able to determine that the person who had died (or perhaps his wife had just died) was Clyde G. Wade, who had been a professor of English at UTA, before returning to St. Louis after retirement. He had an essay in the magazine ("Comedy in Book VI of the Faerie Queene") and thus had received several contributor's copies. I still kick myself for not buying all those copies (they were like a dollar apiece!))

Tony Cullen said...

Library of America are publishing an anthology of Russ's some of novels and stories in October. On Strike Against God will be included in that. (ISBN: 978-1598537536)

Interrociter said...

It's got to be pretty damned good to be better than THE FEMALE MAN (also angry and funny).