Read This Excerpt From Lidia Yuknavitch's New Novel
In this excerpt from Lidia Yuknavitch’s new novel, The Book of Joan, humans in the future have become pale, hairless, and sexless beings on a transformed earth.
When I began her story, when I began grafting her alive on the surface of my skin, I missed the smells of the body — missed them violently. I missed the smell of sweat. Blood. Cum. Even shit. Our bodies have lost all sensory detail. I should be stinking and matted and chapped, stuck in this idiotic cell. My teeth should feel covered in a wrong spit film.
But our bodies barely respond to anything. Not even my own piss has a smell. And besides, fewer and fewer of us retain any forms of physical longing. I suspect what has taken the place of drives and sensory pleasure is a kind of streamlined consciousness that does not require thinking or feeling. It was too much for us, in the end. Now all that remains is a tiny band of like-minded resistance bodies. Anti bodies, next to the bodies of most on CIEL, who are fast becoming pure representations of themselves. Simulacral animated figurines.
Our bodies have lost all sensory detail.
I wonder sometimes if that’s why grafting was born. It restores us to the evidence of a body. Like wrinkles or stretch marks. And yet I suspect that my own proclivity for grafting has a deeper, darker meaning. There seems something I am desperate to raise: not human virtue, but its opposite. Our most base corporeal drives. I stopped caring about reason when we ascended and untethered ourselves from the grime and pulse of humanity, when we turned on ourselves and divided ourselves and proved what we had been all along: ravenous immoral consumers. Eaters of everything alive, as long as it sustained a story that gave us power over the struggling others.
I rub the small of my back. An ache rests there, under my grafts.
A special stylus exists specifically designed for self-grafting. Though I am as close to ambidextrous as any grafter could be, I find the tool useful for reaching certain areas one cannot quite see directly. My beloved Trinculo modified the design; I can thus graft story even at the small of my back. There, and below, I raise welted flesh devoted to her origins.
Before geologic catastrophe, I wrote, there was a town, there was her family. Before the earth groaned and reordered human existence, she came from a town where the ordinary heavy mists of dark mornings blanketed the water-meadows and clapped shut the window of the sky each day. A town of cold and penetrating wet that rested in your elbows and shoulders and hips, no matter your age. The Earth was not yet a lunar landscape of jagged rocks, treeless mountains, or scorched dirt thirsting toward death. The fertile flatlands stretched out into rolling hills, forests, and eventually a river. There was no violence in the land itself.
On one side of her childhood home the woods sprouted beechwood, a translucent green canopy brightly shot with sun. The forest floor wore anemones, wild strawberries, lily of the valley, Solomon’s seal — all of it opening occasionally into clearings, then into deeper woods and darker, older trees.
We turned on ourselves and divided ourselves and proved what we had been all along: ravenous immoral consumers.
On the opposite side of their home was a deeper, darker wood hoary with age — firs and pines and knotted oaks. Most children avoided this wood, as it was known to be the home of wild boars and wolves.
It was said, much later, to be haunted by a young girl who brought trees to life and made the dirt sing.
But this was the time of playing made-up games born of their child minds. Of long dusk hours spent with her brother, Peter, after everyone had grown accustomed to the softly glowing blue light at the side of her head when no one — not police, government officials, doctors, clergy, or anyone in between — could explain it. So she spent many evenings in the woods together with her brother — Jo and PD, they were — imagining worlds together. “It’s important. Just do it,” Jo demanded, holding out her arms.
“Why?” PD wanted to know. “The rope’s barely long enough to go round you twice, and besides, you’ll get sap all over you.” “Because that’s the game,” Jo said. “You tie me to the tree and I pretend you’ve been captured. Then you rescue me.” “That’s stupid. I’m right here.”
“No, stupid. After you tie me to the tree, you run away. You wait. You know, for kind of a long time. Later you come pretend to rescue me.”
“I still think it’s stupid,” PD said under his breath, unraveling the length of rope.
Joan lowered her voice to a girl-growl. “There are wolves and spikey-haired pigs in these woods, you know,” she reminded him.
“I’ve never seen them.” PD lifted the length of thick braided rope from his shoulder. To an onlooker they might have resembled child twins, were it not for the length of Joan’s ebony hair. Peter’s came only to his shoulders. But their bodies were still young enough to look physically alike — thin and taut, all collarbones and elbows, without any sign of muscle yet.
Jo lodged herself against the great sentry of a fir tree and thrust her arms out behind her. She tilted her head up toward the sky and closed her eyes. “Make sure it’s tight. Or it’ll be dumb,” she said.
PD wrapped the rope twice around her chest and pinned her arms and body to the gnarled wood of the tree. Behind her, he worked on knots he’d improvised himself. When he finished, he stood in front of her and crossed his arms. “Your hair’s gonna get sap in it.”
Opening one eye, Jo asked her brother, “Wait, do you have something to gag me with?”
PD looked around. He was pretty sure he knew what a gag was, but not entirely. It sounded like it had to do with barfing. But he suspected it was more like in the movies, when someone’s mouth was tied shut. “I could tie my socks together?” he offered.
“Do it,” she said, and PD set about removing his socks and tying them together, with a knot in the middle that he centered in the hole of his sister’s mouth.
“Gaaahhhhhhhr,” Jo said.
“What?” PD couldn’t understand his sister. “Gaaaaahhhhhhhhhd. Naw Ruhhh Awaaaaawy.”
And so her brother Peter ran from the dark woods at dusk back toward their house.
At home, he washed his face and hands. He put on new socks to warm his feet. He ate a cheese sandwich and drank a soda. He turned on the television. Night fell. Somewhere far in the back of his mind, he wondered how long “later” was supposed to be. At seven, his mother asked, Where is Joan? It seemed part of the game. Upstairs reading like always, he said. Take this dinner up to her then, his mother said, your father will be late tonight. And so he took the dinner up and put it in the middle of her bed and shut the door.
Maybe this once he really could save his sister, rather than the other way around.
The longer he waited, the more interesting the game seemed. Maybe this once he really could save his sister, rather than the other way around. Wasn’t she always the one saving him? When he nearly fell off the roof of the house, having climbed up without permission and slipped, dangling from the eaves, didn’t she make a pile of leaves and hay and pillows and trash to break his fall? When he got locked in the granary just before the grain fill, didn’t she crawl through a sewer, come up through the floor, and get him back out to safety, just before the grain fill siren? When he’d taken up his mother’s carving knife to become a real pirate and not a pretend one, slicing open his own forearm, hadn’t she pushed so hard on the skin of his arm that it left a bruise, taken off her own shirt, and tied a tourniquet before either of them quite knew what that word meant? He thought of all this as he sat in the living room, watching television, into the night.
Near ten o’clock his mother ushered him with her dish towel toward bed, and told him to tell Joan it was time for lights-out as well. Peter said good night, shut his bedroom door, then climbed out of his window with a flashlight and set out to save Joan.
It wasn’t hard to reach the wood. A well-worn path lit up before him. But the wood was dark even in daylight, darker still at night, so finding where they’d left off was a bit more difficult. Tree and wind and night sounds rose and fell. He smelled bark and dirt and wet. He wished he’d brought a coat — the air raised the hair on his arms and he could feel the dampness of the ground cover seeping through his sneakers.
Fear takes hold of children differently. Shadows quicken their becomings, and what might be the scratching of branches or the whistling of wind in leaves and needles can take on the low-pitched hum of a growl or a grunt. Birds that cheer during the day, with their colors and flight, in the darkness sound and look the same as bats. And bats seem everywhere. He was no longer cold. He was sweating. But none of the growing wood terror caught his breath like the image he came upon after climbing a small rise that felt familiar under his feet. A great crackling sound grew as he ascended the hill. Like the sound of a hundred twigs being broken. His heart clattered inside his rib cage. His hands filmed with sweat. A light seemed to glow up and beyond what he could see. At the top of the rise he breathed hard like a runner and his skin itched and something smelled wrong, and he felt light-headed, and then he held all the breath in his body.
The forest before him lit up. Orange and white and red. He could see he was in the right place. Where he’d left his sister. Heat burned inside his nostrils, his eyebrows. He held his arm up to shield his face. “Jo!” he yelled. But he could not see her tied to any tree, and all the trees he could see were ablaze, and he saw no evidence of a rope, or the dirty knotted socks of a stupid boy, and he coughed, and smoke stung his eyes and tears wet his cheeks and his throat constricted when he tried again to call out the name of his sister. PD dropped like kindling to the ground in a pile of boy. Crying.
Fear takes hold of children differently.
Slowly, the way a morning mist dips, curls, and descends on hills and around treetops, a soft cool wet fell on his crouched back. A low sound rose up from the ground that he could feel in his knees and hands, a vibration of sorts, and then the sound took shape and became a hum, like a thousand children hitting the same low note. The very night gave way to water, different from rain though — more of a full and even wetting than individual drops — and the trees were doused and the orange light slowly turned blue. Blue light bloomed everywhere. He could see the entire forest. His hands—his body—the ground and trees and everything around him was blue. A coolness evened out the heat.
Out of the blue he heard his name echoed.
He raised his head and saw his sister walking toward him, naked. She knelt on the ground and cradled his head and torso in her arms and set him up against her thighs. She wiped dirt and tears, soot and loose hair from his face. The great humming forest song crescendoed, then died down to a near silence. After, crickets chirped naturally.
“I’m sorry,” he said, nearly into her stomach.
“Listen to me,” Joan said. “Something has happened. Don’t be afraid. The earth . . . she’s alive.”
Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of the National Bestselling novel The Small Backs of Children, winner of the 2016 Oregon Book Award's Ken Kesey Award for Fiction as well as the Reader's Choice Award, the novel Dora: A Headcase, and three books of short stories. Her widely acclaimed memoir The Chronology of Water was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award for creative nonfiction and winner of a PNBA Award and the Oregon Book Award Reader's Choice. She founded the workshop series Corporeal Writing in Portland Oregon, where she also teaches Women's Studies, Film Studies, Writing, and Literature. She received her doctorate in Literature from the University of Oregon. She lives in Oregon with her husband Andy Mingo and their renaissance man son, Miles. She is a very good swimmer.