Ever dream of a city, while asleep or during conscious waking life, where the things that are the most important to you are not under constant siege, where you are free to explore and create without threat to your safety or well-being, and where expressions of love and desire are a natural extension of self, not a commodity to be meted out and treated like a hedge fund?
Christine de Pizan did, in 1405, in France, publishing the allegorical The Book of the City of Ladies, in which she imagined constructing a walled city where women could live safe from sexism and misogyny.
Fast-forward over six centuries; poet Alyse Knorr has created a hard-hitting novel-in-verse remix of Pizan’s allegory, charting a modern-day road-trip search for the mythical city, with the help of 21st-century feminist heroes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, and Dana Scully from The X-Files. In Pizan, the fairy godmothers of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice serve as guides, along with, in this remix, a fourth godmother (the narrator), representing “hopeless love.”
When you expose a problem you pose a problem, said Sara Ahmed: likewise, Mega-City Redux is not a masturbatory search for utopia by Western armchair philosophers—this is a deeply embodied modern-day road trip of hell-raising proportions, so buckle up.
Knorr asks, obliquely, the hard questions, including the question of whether gendered violence and the gender binary is learned and/or exacerbated by capitalism. Knorr’s genre-bending tour-de-force would seem to suggest both. The narrative is interspersed with disturbing present-day encounters such as the Isla Vista massacre of women, or a trucker driver waving his cock out the window (and safety precautions—the four walk to the subway with their keys between their knuckles) as well as flashbacks from the past, such as one of the recurrent “Atom Hymn” poems (of which there are 5): “A boy named Patrick, 5 like me. We are learning about patterns. The teacher hands us each a toothpick, a block, and a popsicle stick. With breathtaking creativity Patrick immediately makes a catapult of block and stick, launches toothpick to the other side of the room. It bounces quietly off the jigsaw carpet. No girl would ever. How jealous, I, at his ownership, even then, of the world: its objects, its rules, its brazen rulers.”
Then, a formative Atom Hymn from later in life: “Just before high school, I thought I might get a boyfriend when Kyle Christianson called. He’d found my name, age, and number in the Maple Creek Neighborhood Directory. We talked for half an hour about school, CDs, and Kyle’s brother. His voice on the phone was like slick yellow popcorn oil, like a buttery stain. He asked if he could bike to my house to watch TV. Minutes later he appeared in the driveway. Looked me up and down. He did not dismount. Muttered something about getting home for dinner.
And still I feel ashamed.”
The wry humor is, as one might expect, undeniable and side-splitting. From Dr. N’s reminiscences: “Once upon a time, all women loved only/ women and this was called the 1970s. There/ was hunger, but it was an immortal hunger,/ not a hunger for knowledge. Well the police/ got involved, then religion, and as you can/ imagine everything went to shit pretty fast.”
It’s the journey that matters, not the destination, right? Mega-City Redux is a book that embodies the paradox of journeying never to fully arrive, in the sense that the utopia the women seek doesn’t actually exist (“There is no there there,” to quote Stein, at least not yet). Mega-City Redux reinvents and revisits not only other canonical journeys to mecca or searches for utopia, but also road trips, mostly masculinized (Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Denis Johnson’s Angels, and, of course, Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita), but also those increasingly narrated by women (Sarah Girard’s Binary Star, for example, or Allison Moon’s Girl Sex 101).
The road trippers— Demon Slayer, Fighting Anachronism, UFO Doc, and The World’s Last Remaining Romantic—(all “Girls in Love with an Idea”)—aren’t the novel’s only characters: their journey is also shaped by Dr. Noisemaker (a cat woman, and the voice of justice), The Anchor (the narrator’s love object, along with Neighborgirl) and The Chorus, whose presence serves, as in Greek plays, to describe and comment upon the main action of the characters, but also, here, to detract and dissuade, a kind of internalized prohibition against feminist gain. The Chorus is a darker collective voice than one might expect, especially their admonition at the end: “The Chorus chants: There is no City and there never will. Was. Will. Will.”
And yet, while the idea of destination (or, for that matter, endings) dissolves as mirage, the power of matrilineage and female-driven narratives, does anything but (“If I could only find her footprints, I’d follow my mother home.”) The penultimate passage belongs to Scully: a memory of childhood taunting, transformed. “They called me Sulky, threatened to crack my Scull-y—all predictable taunts and therefore fairly uninteresting to me. Besides, I had my mother’s mirror . . . It was a beautiful hand mirror encrusted with jewels and when I looked inside it, I knew certainty. Everything was fair, and everything followed reason and rules—even God. Especially God. I’ve been looking for the City ever since. You see when she died my mother left me the mirror, and the handle said Story by story we grow in strength.”
Like any accrued force, it’s the accrual that makes the difference, not the singular manifestation, such as in the words of Jacob Riis: “Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
The author of two previous full-length poetry collections, and two poetry chapbooks, as well as a the non-fiction work Super Mario Bros. 3, Knorr’s voluminous and growing body of hybrid, inter-genre work, like that of Anne Carson, includes fascinating intertexts. Described by one reviewer as “poetry for those who might not yet know they like poetry,” this collection of narrative poetry is interspersed with list poems and various other poetic devices including alliteration and rhyme. The list poems crackle with imagination, and abound in lush imagery. From “Problems on the Road”:
“flat soda flat tire flat scenery flat jokes ate the lemon meringue pie that sat out too long in the window graffitied abortion clinic billboards trucker shower billboards abortion clinics and trucker showers on the same billboard bug smears bird shit handprint noseprint smears Xena’s foot-smell Dana won’t laugh at any of the flat jokes melted things broken A/C signs that say Men Working tolls incorrect change for tolls crick in the neck sleepy eyes The Chorus on the radio telling us they own our bodies drivers who don’t use their turn signal drivers who leave their turn signal on forever tornado watch tornado warning Cinnabon indigestion . . . ”
And, from “What We Are Wearing”: “kitten heels pantsuit badge gun Chucks red&morered leather panty hose chakram sword dagger sensible wedge heels hair dye hair tie bangles grandmother’s ring Tshirt sports bra boxer briefs skirt pleats brass corset concealer blush IUD stake lucky socks tattoo of Latin word wooden cross halter . . . ”
The road trip is not without its complications—many, in fact, amid the raucous storytelling and adventuring, including two flat tires. Halfway through Ohio, Buffy comes down with “Air Sickness”: “ . . . a condition, Dana tells us, of self-consciousness so extreme you start noticing every breath you take—noticing that it’s never enough. The cure: a re-focus on anything but the mechanisms of the living body. For example: terraced rice paddies, roosters, empty cartons of ice cream re-purposed into paintbrush holders, or gum.”
Even this moment carries a double-meaning—Buffy’s sickness is both respiratory as well as a possible occupational hazard to being born female and thus possessed of extreme self- (and double-) consciousness. Buffy is cured in the end, at the top of a Woodland Indian effigy mound in the middle of the country, when she “roars back” at the Mississippi river.
The economy of giving, here, to return full circle, isn’t that of supply and demand, or even the law of reciprocity (give and take, or, in the patriarchal context of the novel, “A free drink means something expected, something for buyer in return”), but rather that of passionate regard and admiration, divorced from exploitation and fetishization of the other. As the narrator says of Dana: “Dana, what I admire most: your reversal of reversal . . . You have the answers and you have the data. Your skepticism saves lives. You don’t want to believe—you believe.”
We may be “limited only by our limited weapons” as the narrator argues, but this wildly imagined novel also suggests that our arsenal can and does include vulnerability, ferocity, solidarity, determination and love. Story by story we grow in strength. And story by story we see each other in ourselves, and ourselves in each other, and thus build the city. In the beginning was the word, after all, and so visionary, apocalyptic, fourth-wave feminist narratives such as this must precede—and be commensurate with—the making of worlds.
The proverbial road trip question: are we there yet? Not yet, but in Knorr’s hands, and those others brilliantly seeking to materialize Pizan’s allegory—literal freedom, safety, and joy—the answer may be soon.
Author of a collection of poetry, The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and two chapbooks, including That Tree is Mine (dancing girl press, 2018), Virginia Konchan’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Best New Poets, and elsewhere.