I haven’t read any other books by Sheri Tepper, and it will be a while before I even think of doing so. It’s not because I don’t like speculative fiction, which can often be at its best (and most disturbing) when its subject matter is closest to home. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (1996) certainly aims for that unsettling effect where a dystopian vision of the near future becomes more than mere fiction, for its roots are already visible in the world all around us.
Unfortunately, this is one of those books that does not achieve its desired effect.
The book starts out in 1959, when seven young women from different parts of the US find themselves sharing a college dormitory and strike up an unlikely friendship. Naming themselves after an old history book that has come to symbolise their bond, they swear an oath to one another. They pledge, above all, to meet once a year, no matter where life takes them… and to each “find a place to stand where she could be as woman was meant to be”, and thereafter “never decline or fall from that place.”
Over forty years later, the original divisions between the women — and there are many — have become unsurmountable gaps. Agnes — now Reverend Mother at the Abbey of St Clare — holds tight to her rigid interpretation of Catholic doctrine, even when its teachings about the role of women lead her to regard her own desires and ambitions as sinful. Faye — a successful sculptor and an “evangelical lesbian” — regards the marriages of her friends, not to mention Agnes’ career as a nun, with disdain. Bettiann’s only son is the result of an affair with Jessamine’s husband Patrick. Carolyn — the lawyer and the group’s most vocal feminist — has come out of retirement to take on the case of Lolly Ashaler — a fifteen-year-old girl who became pregnant as a result of a gang rape, and who is on trial for murder after leaving her newborn baby in a dumpster. The media is turning Lolly into a scapegoat, and Carolyn wants her friends from the Decline and Fall Club to help.
And Sophy has disappeared. Sophy — the traveller and storyteller of their group, whose prophetic tales continue to challenge and inspire countless women. She is the one whom none of them really knew… the only one of them, her friends suspect, to have “declined and fallen”.
So far, so good. Tepper is by no means a bad wordsmith, especially when she focuses on the complicated, challenging relationships between these women. United as they are by their desire to be true to their womanhood, their understandings of what that means are very different, and not necessarily all positive.
Bettiann and Agnes, for example, are both driven and talented, each in her own way — Agnes as a nun, and Bettiann as the head of a charity foundation. Yet they are hostile to any cause that explicitly refers to women’s rights, and doggedly insist on blaming the victim when hearing stories of rape and domestic violence. Each of them is torn by the impossibility of living fully as a woman while continuing to regard women as less than fully human.
They are exasperating characters, their internal contradictions somewhat bluntly drawn. Yet they are also meant to demonstrate the devastating impact of an oppression exerted from within, by a misogyny internalised from childhood. It is this internalised oppression that makes Agnes feel like an impostor in the high-ranking role she has earned through her own devotion and skill as a businesswoman — and that tells Bettiann that she will never be beautiful enough.
It is a shame, then, that the plot of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall soon becomes so laughable. Because a Global Sexual Crisis is afoot. Or should I say “crisis of masculinity”, because while nobody seems to be having sex anymore, it is men who are in deep trouble. Depression is on the rise. Suicide rates are skyrocketing. Brothels and porn shops are going out of business.
The women don’t seem to mind it much. In fact, they are considerably better off: rape, domestic violence, forced marriage and even female genital mutilation are quickly becoming a thing of the past. And they need no longer bother wearing make-up.[i]
When they are not busy killing themselves over their inability to achieve an erection, men all over the world are taking to the streets. Fundamentalist riots rage in all major cities as men call for an end to women’s rights. Women are assaulted in public for failing to cover their faces while the authorities look on. A group known as the Family Values Shock Troops descend on groups of women out in public, hitting them with whips and admonishing them to “go home” to their fathers and husbands.
Coordinating this outpouring of hatred is the Alliance — an unlikely coalition of political and religious groups united only by their misogyny. Led by the devil-like creature Webster, they include most Muslim nations, the Vatican, the KKK, the American Nazi party and, naturally, all of the Republicans. Their plan is (surprise!) to take over the world — and confine women once and for all to their reproductive function.
Men cannot resist their call to arms. Because “where men are many, they fall easy prey to creatures like Webster.”[ii]
Pitted against Webster and his “crowds of marching men” are the women of the Decline and Fall Club. They alone know the source of the “libido-loss epidemic”, and their quest to reverse it leads them to find Sophy’s people in Lizard Rock, New Mexico.
This is where things get more than a little weird (not to mention unsubtle).
Sophy’s people turn out to be (spoiler alert!) a community of parthenogenic lizards who reveal that the persecution of women all around the world has been “planned”. The patriarchy is basically a global conspiracyled by individuals — and personified by Webster himself.[iii]
If this sounds rather simplistic, then Tepper’s portrayal of womanhood is even more so. Her language is unabashedly essentialist, endowing women with a mythical quality through references to their “own ancient wisdom”, their “female principle”, their longing for “communion with the centre of their own nature”.
But even more so than “their own nature”, what unites women across the world is their oppression at the hands, words and symbols of men. Cutting across divisions of race, class, sexual orientation and ability, Tepper rides roughshod over the concept of intersectionality and asserts that misogyny is the one true source of women’s suffering.
On her solitary travels around the world, Sophy gathers the stories of countless women — most of them stories of oppression. Stories of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Stories of girls left to die by parents too poor to feed them, and young village women sold into prostitution by their families. In Tepper’s world, these girls and women are at risk simply because they are female.
Being female is a big part of it. But so is the impact of globalisation on vulnerable communities. So is development of unregulated markets for trafficked women. So are other hierarchies – of race, size, age, sexual orientation, ability and — especially in this book — class. It is easy to attribute Bettiann’s body hatred, her eating disorder, her inability to enjoy sex, to a childhood spent competing in beauty pageants and enduring the sleazy attentions of their male judges. But shouldn’t some of the blame also fall on the society that left her and her single mother without adequate means of supporting themselves, so that the exploitation of Bettiann’s looks was their only ticket out of grinding poverty?
Out of all the members of the Decline and Fall Club, only Faye — the only character who is neither white nor heterosexual — is aware of factors other than gender that stand between her and equality. Yet sexism has caused her to distance herself from the civil rights movement, and her “militant” homosexuality does not extend to activism, but is limited to scoffing at the sex lives of her heterosexual friends. She seems to have been included in the book only to demonstrate that sexism is, in the end, the ultimate form of oppression — and the struggles of women (in this case, middle-to-upper class, American women) the most important struggles in the world.
Ironically, even Carolyn, in her quest to ‘rescue’ a girl for whom an education, sexual autonomy and a stable home are all “rich people’s things”, continues to think of herself as a conservative on economic issues. Despite being the book’s most vocal spokeswoman for women’s rights — the one who, in the final chapter, is given the power to decide the destiny of the entire world — she is blind to the intersecting factors that make girls such as Lolly vulnerable. She may be aware of sexism, but she is unable to imagine a world in which Lolly is no longer poor.
Ultimately, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall reads like a caricature of a feminist book. Its blatant essentialism, together with its blindness to the multiple dimensions of women’s oppression, undermine whatever insights this book might have to offer.
This blindness is exemplified in the way the world’s women are rescued, in the end, by the Decline and Fall Club — whose members are at no point forced to recognise that they, as relatively privileged residents of the Western world, might also have a share in less privileged women’s suffering. Carolyn and her friends are able to feel good about confronting the patriarchy — while remaining committed to other oppressive structures of power, and hence remaining part of the problem.
[i]According to Tepper, sex — or at least, heterosexual sex — makes women vulnerable to violence at the hands of men, but remains peripheral to their identities. Men, on the other hand, are left with a looming identity gap in its absence. After all, “doin’ sex is all some men have to brag about” — although some of them survive the libido-loss epidemic by turning to hobbies, such as crossword puzzles, and playing the trumpet.
[ii]Throughout the book, Tepper is desperate to prove that this is not what it sounds like: there are some ‘good men’, and anyway, the struggle is not about gender, but about “dominion”. But when the few ‘good men’ in the book are hollow, clueless characters, while “dominion” is associated with “armies of marching men”… well, what it sounds like is ever-so-slightly unsubtle.
[iii]Which is actually a pretty tempting idea, given that Tepper’s version of the patriarchy can be beaten, action movie-style, in the book’s final chapter – and by a ghost, no less.