A dystopian future, in which America has been split up into blocks. For all the narrowing of choice this entails for normal people, one thing that remains is the privilege of the super-rich, who buy their way around boundaries that others can only dream of crossing. One of these boundaries is that of biological quarantine, because invasion has reared its ugly head and the results are gleefully and wonderfully disgusting.
I mean, the ticks which populate this novel are horrible. In the best way—if you’re a fan of creature and body horror then parts of this book will thrill you as much as they do me. Once you pass the Salt Line and move into infested territories, you’re at risk no matter what protective gear you’ve got on. If bitten, you’ve got less than a minute to slam a sort of electric-chemical Stamp on your skin, which not only leaves a massive scar but causes agonising pain. It’s still better than the alternative, for once a tick burrows in it breeds, and several days later the new ticks will boil out of your flesh in bloody, gaping horror. If you survive that (not guaranteed), you may come down with Shreve’s disease, which quickly paralyses your entire body into a death so bad a gunshot blast to the head is the more merciful option.
It’s wonderful, but it’s kind of not the point. I’d have liked a whole lot more of the ticks, to be honest, but then I have disgusting tastes in horror and the more gore the better. In The Salt Line, however, the ticks are an excuse for rich people to risk themselves in an adventure getaway beyond the Line. These people, as a group, consider themselves entitled to whatever they like—a belief that’s tested when they discover that not only do the ticks not respect their opinions, but the people scraping a living beyond the Line don’t care either. The rich go from having resources to being resources, being tools to be used and exploited, and how their entrenched entitlement reacts to this change is the fundamental exploration of the text. The back copy describes the novel in terms of freedom—“How far will they go for their freedom—once they decide what freedom really means?”—but freedom, in this world, is something that’s really only granted to the enormously economically privileged.
The focus is on three characters: Edie, the working-class girlfriend of a pop star; Marta, the housewife of a criminal kingpin; and tech giant Wes, who has reformed the economy once and wants to do it again. When all three characters find themselves behind the Salt Line—where some communities, like Ruby City, manage to come together to build something better, while others are rife with sex abuse and child torture— their various qualities play off each other, reflecting and refracting the power relationships within the story, each an implicit commentary on the entitlement that pervades the hierarchies within the text.
For example, Wes is—or at least was as a child—a plagiarist. This is a very small detail, but it’s one that unhinges Wes as a character and centres him in the midst of this narrative of entitlement. Which would be fine, except it also shows how sometimes limited the exploration of entitlement is within the text.
Wes, when a teenager, plagiarised a lit review on a school assignment. This is hardly the stuff of high criminality, especially compared to the really dodgy behaviour of nearly every adult character in the novel (even that of Wes’s adult self). And it’s not even really punished, which is also fine. Professor McGregor doesn’t expel him, or send him to detention. She directs him to rewrite the review using the correct citation method, and offers him tips on how to do it. She even gives him five months in which to do this. Basically, she does what a teacher should do to a young student on a first offense: explains the principles of academic dishonesty, and offers the student the chance to fix their mistake so that their academic career won’t suffer. What does Wes do? Throws the mother of all tantrums, because he’s too good for that shit.
“What possible value could a certificate declaring me a high school graduate have if a person like you has the power to withhold it from me? I just brought you a system that’s going to revolutionize the world, and you’re concerned about whether or not I pulled some quotes from EncycloFeedia. It’s fucking ridiculous.” (p. 57)
He goes on to add a bunch of personal insults to this tantrum, but while he’s wrong to react this way he’s also still effectively a child, and while we recognise and allow for bad behaviour in children, we also expect them to grow out of it. Wes does not. As an adult he recalls this incident precisely twice, and it’s in throwaway lines both times. In the first reminiscence, he regrets always being known as a high school dropout—he feels bad about the shouting and personal insults, but “he was simply beyond Professor McGregor’s petty moralizing and worthless degree. But that didn’t make for a good headline” (p. 58).
This goes to show that intelligence is no substitute for self-awareness, but it’s the second mention that really grates. That last quote occurs in the novel while Wes is still unchallenged by ticks or confronted by his own dodgy business practices. But after he’s been kidnapped, threatened, witnessed the murder of his companions—after he’s been bitten by one of these ticks, facing agonising eruptions and the strong possibility of his own death through the horrible Shreve’s—he’s still fucking whining about the time someone dared to kindly correct his child self, recalling “those bullshit plagiarism accusations” (p. 340) which he knows were not bullshit at all.
This is a small thing, and it wouldn’t bother me so much if the text didn’t seem determined to paint Wes in an increasingly soft light. Marta doesn’t get this treatment—she’s extremely self-aware of her own compromises, of the flaws and betrayals that maintain her economic power, and the text is aware of it as well, rarely losing an opportunity to show how compromised she is. Wes, however … well. A hero lens counts for very little if heroism is only used as a magnification for self-aggrandisement.
Don’t get me wrong. Wes does perform some mildly heroic acts, even some which are untainted by his desire to be alone with Edie. He’s kind when it costs him nothing—for instance with Marta, with whom he has a substitute mother-son relationship that was far more interesting than the forced (one-sided) romantic tension with Edie. He’s even prepared to sacrifice himself when necessary, but those sacrifices tend to be public things, where everyone can see and admire him. He does learn to confront some of his own past mistakes—his tacit complicity in the bombing of communities behind the Salt Line, for instance—but again … giants make giant mistakes, and The Salt Line does itself no favours by not sticking a crowbar into his faults in the way it does to Marta.
I don’t know. The Salt Line is not Star Wars, and plagiarism isn’t exactly embracing the power of the dark side, but there’s a whiff in the textual presentation of Wes that smacks of poor Kylo-Ren-who-just-needs-a-hug that sits badly with me. Entitlement flows through him on every level, and both he and Jones do very well at rehabilitating the surface, but the rot’s still there underneath. He’s so very unaware that his clever plan to escape gives all the dangerous roles to the unimportant cannon fodder of the expedition. Edie—being that cannon fodder—points this out, but it doesn’t sink that far in. Wes is very sorry, he never thought of it like that, but it’s clear that he’s never been in a position where he has to genuinely consider the wants and needs of others, and not doing so is automatic.
Perhaps he is meant to be frustrating in his journey to (limited) self-knowledge, but his own final choice arguably still a selfish one. With his new knowledge and existing resources, he’d have been the best placed to return to society and do the hard, unromantic (admittedly dangerous) work of countering Marta’s power-mad husband David, but that doesn’t have the same ring of grand, romantic self-sacrificing gesture about it as what Wes does choose. He’s learned precisely nothing: for Wes, Wes is still the only centre of the narrative, the only story worth preserving, and the impression I’m left with is that his choice is more the result of his desire to pursue Edie than anything else. Even after being explicitly told by her that she’s not interested … but she’ll change her mind in time, right? Right? He has to believe that, because “He couldn’t help himself. He’d faced worse odds” (p. 369).
And again, I’d be fine with this (flaws and blind spots can make characters super interesting!) if the book weren’t so determined to make me like him regardless. This is a conversation that’s even put in the mouths of other characters: “I wish I knew why you have such a hard-on for that guy,” says Berto (p. 356), and the answer is, essentially, that he’s a necessity to the plot, the best chance of escape.
But Wes is a structural necessity as well. Jones has been thoughtful in her choice of protagonists, weaving them through her narrative of entitlement. Wes is that entitlement personified: rich, powerful, famous, considering himself above the petty laws and considerations others have to live by. (Witness his total surprise at the absolute failure of his economic innovation, Virtuz: why won’t ordinary people consume ethically, he thinks, all the while behaving unethically when he too can get away with it. He has a real belief in the value of virtue, but is completely unaware that he considers that ethical behaviour as primarily valuable for other people.) Edie is his exact opposite, a bartender who works long hours scraping to make ends meet, has little power, and is forced to illegal measures to terminate a pregnancy because she lacks even the control of her own body.
Placed almost exactly between the two is Marta: married to a crime boss who’s positioning himself for the presidency, from the outside she’s as entitled as Wes. But the marriage is abusive, one she cannot leave, and she can’t prevent her husband forcing her to go beyond the Salt Line in order to protect his interests. It’s no coincidence, I think, that Marta is far and away the most interesting, and the best drawn, of the novel’s central trio. She exists on the borders of power, aware exactly of what her husband is and choosing to look away in order to protect herself (no one leaves David) and to stay close to her sons. She’s a remarkably honest character, absolutely aware of each compromise she makes and not shying away from what that makes her: fundamentally grey.
This is a story for grey characters. Nearly all of them are compromised, with the possible exception of Edie, who has spent so long so far from power that she hasn’t had the chance to be really corrupted by it. Even the supporting characters, such as June and Violet and Andy, are characters we can admire and yet feel only partial sympathy for. They’re each complicit in terrible things, and some of those things are forced on them … but some aren’t. And this is great. I love grey characters, and there’s a strong argument to be made that life in a dystopia breeds grey characters, that it can’t do anything but.
If you hold power in a dystopia it is power over others underlined, and no one can have too much of that without turning rotten about the edges; if you don’t hold power in a dystopia, there’s nothing left to lose. When there’s nothing left to lose, there’s a temptation to savagery that we’ve all seen far too often in the dystopian subgenre. I appreciate that Jones didn’t focus too heavily on that: we’ve seen it all before, and the compromises needed to build a haven like the novel’s Ruby City—protected by good people and the drug trade both, by resource sharing, by children with guns and secret sterility—are far more interesting.
So interesting that I wish we’d seen more of them. I understand the idea of focusing the story on Marta, Edie, and Wes; but thematically Marta seems best placed to explore those compromises. For a story that’s so dependent on the idea of exploring entitlement from different angles—and largely, does so extremely well—the novel could perhaps be slightly more effectively centred: Wes lacks the self-awareness (or perhaps the text does on his behalf)—and Edie lacks opportunity enough, is too shiningly decent—to grapple with these issues. I can’t help but wonder what The Salt Line could have been if it were a little more closely focused on the necessary compromises of its theme.