A futuristic Morroco, with a female protagonist and a group of almost entirely female POV characters, named after the Nekropolis, the city of the dead which has become a poor slum. What could go wrong? That’s what I was thinking as I opened up Maureen F McHugh’s novel Nekropolis, which stars a woman who has been jessed, or given an injection to inspire complete devotion to whomever owns her. She did this voluntarily, apparently going deep into debt. The idea is that once a jessed servant re-earns the cost of her jessing she will be free, but the jessing means they don’t really want to be free, so they don’t save much.
The problem with the entire novel, from the setting to the characters, is that it all appears to have more depth than it really does. There are five chapters and four POV characters, three women and a “man.” I’ll give McHugh this: the voices are all distinct, which is no mean feat.
The protagonist and the only character to narrate two chapters is Hariba, the jessed girl who falls in love with a genetically altered “owned” man. Hariba’s decisions drive the story, as her lover Akmim will follow her wherever she wishes. She is the only real actor in the novel, and the rest of the characters merely react to her. But there is no emotional connection between the reader and the character, no organic love story or sense of why she would fall so completely in love with someone who is biologically, innately shallow. Her decisions do not come from herself, but rather from suggestions made by others, from a linear narrative of forbidden love, hiding, and escape.
Hariba’s widowed mother lives in two mausoleums and makes paper funeral flowers for a living. Cool, right? But there is no sense of place, and the incredible setting is completely wasted. The interesting thing about Hariba’s mother is that she makes overt the central conflict of all the characters, as they struggle to both remain loyal to themselves and to their position in society. As a mother and a person, Hariba’s mother must remain loyal to her at all cost, but according to the laws of her country and religion Hariba has sinned and must pay the price. Hariba’s best friend Ayesha also faces this conflict, trying to both help her friend and negotiate her position as a young wife and mother. She chose to marry a man she did not genuinely love because he fit into her idea of an enlightened man, but once married she had no idea how to be an enlightened wife.
This conflict between being born and being made is most clumsily portrayed by Akmim, a clone who was grown to be a prostitute. He was purchased by the family Hariba serves, and after they run away together he meets others of his kind and joins them working nights at a brothel. If you are profoundly uncomfortable with Ikea style sex scenes (look it up) this is where you will want to put the book down and walk away. He was made to be a prostitute, to love freely and unreservedly, and he loves Hariba but has no personality distinct from hers. Without her, he and the others of his kind almost merge into a single personality-less being. This makes him a rather dull character.
Basicaly, all of the women in the novel are faced with conservative “Middle Eastern” gender roles, and are forced to both live as themselves in those roles and perform those roles enough to avoid censure. The alternative is to escape—more on that soon. This is a fascinating idea, but the problem is that here it’s been terribly executed. The author clearly dodged her research, merely seeing Morrocco as a place to set her novel rather than a distinct and multifaceted culture. The characters who live in the culture are multilayer, but the society and the norms they grew up with are more a Westerner’s idea of what Morrocco is like, and not what it’s actually like. I know Morroccans, and other Middle Easterners. I’ve read a lot about the region, and I’ve taken two years of Arabic. The culture there is very different from our own, and no less valid.
Furthermore, the arch of the story makes an implicit value judgement about Middle Eastern culture. Everyone in a position of power in Morrocco is intensely corrupt, sleezy and terrible. Everyone at the bottom of the ladder is a good guy. All the characters are told from the first person, and they thus do not criticize their own culture. However, when Hariba and Akhmim flee to the West, they are immediately greeted by smiling, helpful police and asylum officers, told that all forms of slavery are illegal, given money, housing, and language lessons, and basically have all restrictions immediately retracted. Anyone paying any attention to Europe for the last three hundred years knows about a powerful undercurrent of racism in the culture. Austrailian Anglo-philes have been known to refuse entrance to boats full of asylum seekers, and mainland Europe has never welcomed Arab immigrants. Yet all the people in Spain are nice, friendly, helpful, and always right. Everything they say is right, and if Hariba disagrees she must come to realize her mistake.
This is not the biggest problem with the novel, which is shallowness, but it is the most glaringly painful problem. It presents an image of the future that coincides perfectly with a Eurocentric image of the present, and makes no attempt to touch on the reality of people’s lives in these places. At that point it sacrifices all authority as a book, and it has no real place in anyone’s library.