One of the innovations of Hulu’s recent adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was its portrayal of the buildup to Gilead. Some of this material was there in Margaret Atwood’s novel, but it was expanded and, perhaps even more importantly, given visual space in the television programme. For me, its addition made the show harder to watch, adding a new level of horror, because it added a further sense of inevitability to the eventual establishment of Gilead. The window for fighting back had passed and the possibility of turning the tide had gone without anyone truly noticing.
The inclusion of this backstory, however, also highlighted one of my frustrations with many dystopian novels. The classic dystopias and a lot of their YA descendants are centred on the new dystopian reality—Panem, Gilead, and Oceania are described in great detail, and the present structures of oppression are the central concerns of the novels. This is not a weakness, exactly, but, if dystopias are meant in part to act as warnings, the focus on the more distant future and not the transitional phase is an issue. It’s all well and good to say that we do not want to end up in Gilead, but The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t do much to explore how this fate might be resisted before we do end up there. Likewise, although novels like The Hunger Games trilogy have a lot to say on the subject of how to end a dystopian regime (whether or not you subscribe to the suggested method), they have relatively little to say about the politics of the next steps, except in negative terms: the books are strong on what the next society should not look like, but ultimately vague on what it should—or indeed, what our present might be transformed into.
All of this makes Carole Avalon’s novel Lauren’s Manifesto an intriguing and promising proposition. Set in the very near future, the novel is engaged with the road to dystopia, much more than it is with what may be the endpoint of that road. This in turn makes the book that much more terrifying. Its thesis is that we’re already halfway to dystopia, may in fact always have been, and the question is: what do we do about it?
Lauren’s Manifesto’s protagonist is Lauren Nunez, a young Hispanic woman who begins the narrative in Dallas. She’s a data analyst who has recently been fired from her job for standing up to a manager who tried to coerce her into sex. Unable to find a job and having been left by her (white, rich) girlfriend for not wanting to go out anymore, she moves to Austin to live with her older sister, Teresa or Tee, the leader of a local chapter of a national leftist activist group. Thus begins her political education, as recorded in her (unpublished) blog, which she addresses as “the Void.”
The series of events which brings her to Austin and which takes up the first third of the book is terrifyingly plausible. Avalon has done her research into current US labour law, and has simply taken the current legislation one step further. Thus, Lauren is fired without recourse as Right to Work laws mean she has no rights in relation to her employer; she can’t even seek a civil law suit against them. When she finally does find a new job, courtesy of Ernesto, a shop floor manager who takes a chance on her despite her lack of references and experience, she is reminded that at any moment she could lose it again. And, when that business closes, having gone bankrupt (again), the low-wage employees are left with nothing except the threat of imminent arrest for trespassing on what is now the property of the bank. (They duly are arrested in one of the most successful scenes in the book, showing the different responses that the racially diverse employees provoke in the police, along with the varying degrees of legal action that follow.) Throughout the book, Avalon clearly and continuously demonstrates the way legal structures serve the interests of those who already hold power. The book also depicts the punitive and almost capriciously random way the justice system works: Ernesto is jailed twice over for failing a drug test, despite his initial appearance in court having nothing to do with illicit substances.
Lauren’s struggles with employment take up the first third of the book, as she chronicles them for the Void, and in a lot of ways, this is the strongest part of the book. Lauren’s desperation is compelling, anger-making, and depressing in equal measure. Her slow-but-sure discovery of all the ways in which she is disenfranchised is matched by her discovery that all the things she has been led to believe about hard work, and doing things the right way—getting good grades in school, going to college, choosing a sensible subject—won’t protect her from being born brown and working-class, and from being queer on top of all that. It won’t protect her because this system was not built to protect her and is moving ever further towards punishing her for those traits.
So far, so dystopian. Light enters in the dual forms of Tee and her Marxist organisation, and Tori Haloub, leader of Morning Agenda, a leftist organisation dedicated to moving beyond the squabbles of Marxist theory and into practical action. The majority of the plot centres on Tori’s imminent visit to Austin to meet with other activist groups, including Tee’s. Tee is sceptical, arguing that Morning Agenda is too vague, too unideological, and here too Avalon’s understanding of the terrain shines through. The internecine battles of the various groups are recognisable and feel realistic—sometimes depressingly so (various groups throw around terms like Trotskyist and Maoist as insults, and it is tempting to read dystopia into the fact that those terms still have weight and still split the left in the future).
There’s a lot of potential in this set-up: Lauren is an outsider to politics, having kept her head down and her eyes on a prize it turns out now she was never going to get. Living with Tee, she gets drawn into the politics of the group and starts to take on-board some of the things they’re discussing. The way Lauren engages with politics feels like the best kind of pedagogical YA—it builds character and develops relationships while also being explicitly political and unabashedly drawing on historical theories and arguments. Enjoyably, she starts reading Marx and Engels (or as she calls them, Karl and Fred, which is [improbably] super charming), observing that “[s]omething about the manifesto hit hard with me. […] Karl and Fred’s anger came out in a literate, yet upfront way.”
Lauren’s reading of the Communist Manifesto is arguably the point of the novel—its title is an obvious homage. And Lauren’s engagement and glosses of the text are kind of brilliant, both because when was the last time The Communist Manifesto was quoted at length in a novel, and because the way in which the novel draws attention to the Manifesto’s arguments and current events is on the nose in the best sense of the phrase. Any interpretation of the Manifesto which ends with the observation that “the bourgeoisie sound like Wall Street’s cocaine cowboys and the company bosses of today” is worth reading, but Lauren’s rewordings also include observations such as businesses and banks “were too big to fail, according to the headlines I read, and we were too small to matter.”
The point here is not that any of this is a radical new take (it’s not), but that it presents the Manifesto as still relevant, still a way of understanding how capitalism works today. Yes, it is in many ways basic and accessibility is prioritized over analysis, but that’s Avalon’s book’s strength—it provides an introduction for an audience who might just be picking it up for a light read, who enjoy the classic YA premise of the love triangle during a dystopian future, for whom dystopia is a genre, rather a political handbook. And it reiterates the point I made above: that this is a novel about the slide into dystopia. There are worse ways of analysing that than through Marx, and the fact that while doing Marx 101 Avalon also manages to add some of her best character-voice moments is icing on the cake.
However, in some ways, the inclusion of Marx and the title reference leave the novel with a Chekov’s manifesto—at some point, Lauren’s lessons have to come into play, right? Either through her conversion to leftist politics in the choice between Tee’s more doctrinaire and Tori’s more broad church approach, or through the publication of her own version of a manifesto, perhaps based on her own experiences? In doing so, Avalon could bring together lived experience and theory, making a clear and consistent argument for the relevance of leftist politics today and a potential vision for how to face up to our contemporary challenges.
As you may have guessed, that is not what happens. To be fair, as I have already said, Avalon does demonstrate the Communist Manifesto’s relevance to contemporary politics and suggest what our next steps into dystopia most likely will be. But I wanted more advice, more optimism, more of a sense of vision. There is so much potential in the clash between Tee’s group, which arguably has the better arguments and the purer politics, and the messiness of Tori’s Morning Agenda which has had greater success and which, the novel seems to imply, poses the greater threat to the national status quo.
This implication comes through in the plot which takes up the second two-thirds of the novel, turning it into an anti-establishment spy thriller. One of the members of Tee’s group, David, used to work for the NSA and has discovered that a former colleague is now one a major donor to the national organisation to which Tee’s group belongs. He suspects that she is attempting to sabotage the group. Lauren manages to hack into the email server being used for this covert action, finds a series of emails (all using Metallica lyrics as email addresses, which is a weird and great note) showing that this is indeed the case, without saying what their final purpose is, and the spy plot is off. All that they can be certain of is that the action will either take place during Morning Agenda’s meeting with Tee’s group in Austin or during a Morning Agenda rally in Seattle.
This plot is, to some extent, interesting—there’s a great sequence where David and Lauren do a recce and use various different evasion tactics which may well be genuinely useful. The idea of the government infiltrating left-wing organisations to undermine them has a storied history within the United States and outside it, and again feels very relevant to our current moment. However, as the plot gathers speed, it also increasingly dislocates itself from the politics of the first third and becomes progressively weaker.
All this, and I have yet to address the weakest part of the novel. The blurb says that Lauren finds herself “torn between blue-collar Kenna and charismatic Tori, a trans woman shaking up national politics”. The former is Tee’s friend and Lauren’s initial love interest (although it is always very clear that their relationship is more of a mutual appreciation, friends-with-benefits set-up). Lauren’s relationship with Tori, on the other hand, is foreshadowed by Lauren watching Tori’s videos obsessively and then, on their first meeting, acknowledging her attraction and desire to become romantically involved with Tori. Although Lauren confesses to the Void that she finds Tori fascinating, the turn to romance feels plot-mandated, rather than a natural or convincing progression. More problematically, however, the romance supersedes the politics, which undermines the novel’s initial thesis. Comparing herself to David, Lauren observes, “Selfish, I was being selfish, all because [Tori] seemed more important to save than David’s amorphous country. Maybe David and I were both fixated on ideals with one being more in the flesh.” The generous interpretation here is that Avalon was aiming to suggest that Lauren prioritizes a new vision of the future over old ideals tied to the nation. But the overall tone of the section suggests that Lauren is actually just referring to Tori herself. And it feels like a letdown, after all the analysis and engagement with the desire for a new future, for ways to resist and reimagine society, to have the options narrowed down to: romantic love versus patriotism. This becomes even more of a false dichotomy when you consider that part of David’s motivation is his boyfriend, Rahid, who has been placed on a government watchlist for being Muslim. But even more so, it flies in the face of the beginning of the book, which shows us Tee’s motivation and the beginnings of Lauren’s waking up to the idea of communal responsibility.
There are two charitable explanations which I can come up with to justify this choice: that the book is the first in a series, and later novels will challenge Lauren’s apparent choice of occasional lust-fuelled political engagement; or this element was included as a way of engaging with gender and sexuality as part of politics. The first is possible; the second feels incomplete. For all that Lauren’s Manifesto does excellent political analysis and shows us the struggles of this road to Dystopia, the focus is very much on race and class. This is not necessarily a weakness, and the members of Tee’s group are admirably diverse and queer, something that feels true to life even as it is not particularly commented upon. However, it means that any sense that Lauren nails her colours to Tori’s mast as a response to being able to express her queer self rings hollow.
Ultimately, the relationship between Lauren and Tori is the book’s greatest weakness, not least because it’s the least convincing section. Whereas Lauren’s relationships with Tee, with her colleagues at the tech store, even with David, feel at least somewhat real as well as furthering the plot, her relationship with Tori flattens it, grinding the political debates into a flat contrast between Lauren and David. Alongside their developing relationship, the novel also moves towards a climax which I won’t give away, but which feels divorced from the first half of the story and the careful, thoughtful exploration of community, politics, and the possibility of thwarting dystopia.