Studying the lives of the saints is not a gentle undertaking. What seems at the onset to be a series of seemingly pious portraits turns into a coldly fascinating look at obsession and sacrifice. To a young Southern Catholic like me, the histories of Saint Lucy or Saint Teresa of Avila felt entirely detached from my reality. At thirteen, I was a believer, but their experiences felt dated or conditional. Then, along came Joan. As part of the evaluation process for confirmation, our parish priest said he would ask our families if we were sexually active. His perverse curiosity belittled all that encompassed my life as a Catholic. Was I nothing more than a body? It was the same feeling I had when I learned about Joan of Arc. When men looked at her, they saw a girl they could destroy by burning her body. They had no idea it would foment her legacy. When I was twenty years old, living abroad and by then a lapsed Catholic, I made a pilgrimage to Rouen. I walked in her footsteps, imagining her path to fiery condemnation as one of steely, but graceful determination. Struggling to make sense of my place in the world, I found comfort in her passionate confidence.
It’s this transcendent understanding of the body and the electrifying mythology behind it that Lidia Yuknavitch seizes upon in her bold new novel The Book of Joan (HarperCollins). Yuknavitch is known for her layered, unflinching observations of personal histories and physicality. Her 2010 memoir The Chronology of Water drew together competitive swimming, abuse, sexual discovery, birth, critical theory, and wanderlust. Her two most recent novels, Dora: A Headcase and The Small Backs of Children, continue to chase these themes, weaving them through the gaze of historical mythology and trauma. In The Book of Joan, Yuknavitch creates a Joan free of Catholicism’s trappings, but manages to maintain, and even elevate, the moral and ethical stakes that made her a compelling historical heroine to begin with. Her revolt is bigger than France this time. It’s about saving the entire world, not by looking to God, but to mankind.
Eerily fitting for this current political and literary climate, The Book of Joan is a dystopia. Imagining what Yuknavitch labels a geocatastrophe, the Earth as we know it no longer exists. What’s left of Earth’s inhabitants live in a colony above the Earth called CIEL where a dictator named Jean de Men rules through intimidation and isolation. Like the earth, bodies have not escaped environmental destruction unscathed. Bodies have evolved, or devolved, in such a way that skin has become entirely pale, “Siberian,” as one character describes it. Genitals and sexual reproduction no longer exist. Jean de Man’s ultimate goal is to find a way to animate human reproduction beyond traditional means. He wants to control humanity by assuming the role of creator, but decades of research and exploitation have not brought him closer to his goal.
During this time, the body takes on a new role: the word made flesh. In lieu of print history and out of a fear of oral history, humans graft their skin through branding or burning in order to inscribe stories and status directly onto their bodies. A descendant of tattooing, scarification imbues these impotent bodies with a sense of purpose. Christine, a skilled grafting artist, secretly teaches others her craft while also inscribing the story of Joan on her body. It is through Christine that we learn that Joan of Arc is not a myth; she’s a hero who was assassinated after her attempt to save the world:
I had been thinking about her as a hero. Joan. The way we’ve all been trained to understanding that word and idea. Bound to a story that is not only man-made, but man-centered. How does that change when the terms of the story come from a woman who is unlike any other in human history? A body tethered, not to god or some pinnacle of thought or faith, but to energy and matter? To the planet.
This Joan doesn’t burn at the stake. She gets burned onto the bodies of others. This inversion of the original myth immediately points to other ways this story builds on the best parts of the original. Our nonbiblical Joan inspires sex and oneness with everyone, not just a higher power. Christine clings to the story of Joan despite the complete absence of hope, always searching for vestiges of sexual passion, platonic connection, and faith in deliverance. These concerns belong to people with a future. To people who “claim our humanity as humanity only, an energy amidst other energy and matter that emerges, lives, dies, and then changes forms.” What Yuknavitch does by reviving the myth of Joan in the face of utmost climate change, is center the female body as the site of destruction and also as the driving source of power for salvation. She endows Joan with powers that only men have in the Bible, subverting the myths of patriarchal authority that undergird it.
While Motherhood and power are two tropes we are more likely to associate with the Virgin Mary and the feat of immaculate conception, Yuknavitch recognizes Joan’s ferocity as a central life-giving force. However, she brilliantly imagines Joan’s power as equally destructive. Born with, not only incredible willpower and fearlessness, Joan possesses the ability to harness the energy of the planet—for good or ill. “Joan’s body had the power to conduct all living matter, to destroy, yes, but also to regenerate.” Facing a global holocaust and no hope for the human race, it’s the dream of Joan as savior that troubles this patriarchal autocracy. This is no time for Mary’s humility. We need someone to be reckoned with. Someone who invokes fear as well as love. She is God-like, but Yuknavitch brands Joan’s story onto human skin to show how ordinary people, living through the end of days, are one and the same with her – they too have the power to save or destroy.
This is perhaps why Joan says, “My power is not power. It never was. Power is a story humans made when they feared the world they were born into… I am as the smallest particle, meaningless and yet everything. I am quantum.” The humility underscores the fragility of humankind, yet it shows how power functions democratically. Any of us may possess it if we commandeer it. Accessing it is a function of being attuned to one’s self and surroundings—finding balance. Dystopias are not a place for moderation. It’s the struggle of our lifetime to remain aware of our footprint as we march forward.
Yuknavitch revives the mythology of Joan of Arc to release us from our mortal trappings too, like greed and narcissism, so that we may imagine a more expansive future. “You have to let go of the idea that you are a singular savior or destroyer. Everything is matter. Everything is moved by and through energy. Bodies are miniature renditions of the entire universe… This is what we have always been.” Godless, outside the realm of heroes, we can’t look to others to save us. It’s everything we have heard our whole lives: humans have the ability to ruin the world, but we need only look to ourselves for the power that will save us.