“I Don’t Know What To Think”: Jane Rogers’s “The Testament of Jessie Lamb”
Posted April 21, 2012on:
It is a curious sign of the achievement of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb that its reception has been so mixed. The story of a very near future plagued by an air-borne virus similar to HIV but which is fatal only to pregnant women, it focuses on the titular teenage narrator who is attracted to the Sleeping Beauties: young women (they must be young) who are put into a coma in order to take to term artificially-inseminated babies whilst their own brains liquefy. When these women have delivered the child, their machines are turned off. Niall Harrison is excellent on the troubling effect of this story, and most particularly of Jessie’s voice:
There is a nearly unbearable tension in play here: we want Jessie to choose, we do not want to deny her the right to choose, but we don’t want her to choosethis. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a test for us, filtered through what is, despite its plainness, one of the most challenging young adult voices I’ve encountered for some time. Nor, for the most part, does Rogers descend to caricature of the people surrounding her. The staff interviewing Jessie about enrolling in the trial, for instance, are painstakingly conscientious, “very grave, with a flat unemphatic way of talking” (p. 141), determined to ensure she is not being pressured into her choice. (Some of the feminists of FLAME are less convincing, admittedly.) So while at times it’s easy to be convinced by Jessie’s urgency, by her sense that something must be done now, and to see her as heroic, at other times that same urgency, Jessie’s inability to imagine a life or a purpose for herself in a world without MDS, seems to become messianic fanaticism, to the point where we can look at the novel’s frame and understand, without condoning, why Jessie’s parents (her mother is in on it) have taken the step of locking her up. When, near the end of the testament, Jessie’s father takes her to see some Sleeping Beauties in the flesh he is astounded that she can see peacefulness, because all he can see are zombies. In the end, I see zombies too; but for a moment, I was able to see both.
Niall identifies precisely the awful dilemma posed by Jessie and her narration: in a future in which no child can be born, since women die of Maternal Death Syndrome in much fewer than nine months, hope is at a premium; and yet the hope obtained by Jessie, that by offering herself up as a sacrifice – her name, like much else in this novel, is not precisely allegorically subtle – can help bring into the world one of the vaccinated babies who will be immune to MDS, is a pyrrhic, fundamentalist’s victory. Indeed, Rogers walks a dangerous line in the light of the ‘pro-natalist’ noise in the USA, and whilst she is deft enough to avoid any endorsement of an anti-abortion agenda (as Niall points out, the reader is in fact forced to examine what pro-choice means), I’m not convinced her novel is quite supple enough to carry the whole weight of her conceit.
Much of this will come down – as Adam Roberts writes in his review of the Clarke Award shortlist, in the context of which Rogers must be seen as a potential winner – to how well the reader gets on with Jessie’s adolescent voice. Nic Clarke is convincing on the subject of its positive aspects, but it is hard for me not to reflect that, if Rogers has so successfully ventriloquised a teenager, she has also carried over the teen’s essential solipsism. As (and the names they keep a-dropping) David Hebblethwaite notes in the comments to Nic’s post, The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a narrow sort of science fiction novel; in part, of course, this is because it hails from the literary ghetto, where things other than Niall’s “top-down dystopias” hold sway; but it is also, ultimately, because Jessie is a narrow kind of narrator. “I thought stuff on the news and the papers was for grownups,” she tells us early on. “It was part of their stupid miserable complicated world, it didn’t touch me.” [pg. 5]
The book is in large part a kind of bildungsroman in which Jessie learns you cannot disconnect from that complicated world. Within the short scope of the book, however, Jessie cannot gain the extra maturity necessary to deal with that epiphany: that is, she is old enough to know she must engage, but too young to engage well. The very passages which are so spot-on in terms of the adolescent perspective – “I keep coming back to that,” Jessie grumbles, “that tackiness of Mum and Dad’s lives, which is like treading in chewing gum. They say they believe things, then they don’t act upon them” [pg. 32] – are just the passages which lead Jessie’s adult readers to roll their eyes. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is an exercise in evoking sympathy not just for an unsympathetic perspective, but, from our own perspective, an unjustifiable one.
None of this is helped by Rogers’s depiction of the various causes to which Jessie and her contemporaries attempt to attach themselves. In an effort to find a purpose in a world which seems irreparable – indeed, at times I asked myself if Rogers even needed MDS, given the “wars, floods, famines” and climate change which offer extra texture to her teenagers’ disillusion – the young people Rogers chronicles try animal rights activism, green lifestyles and crude feminism. The former become terrorists, and the latter are caricatures which might have been daubed by a FOX News pundit- they picket research labs and hector audiences (“she called MDS the atom bomb of the sex war” [pg. 62]). Most damningly, the leader of the young greens proves to have quite other motivations for forming his group of teen carbon-busters. “What’s hard is being in someone else’s power,” says one character: Rogers’s point is that the teens must choose for themselves, but every response to the world which isn’t the incremental realism of Jessie’s father seems so thoroughly half-baked that the novel comes dangerously close to being a satire of teen foolishness.
Indeed, it is Jessie’s father who represents the real difficulty for adult readers of the novel: in an attempt to control his daughter’s apparently irrational behaviour, he chains her up and locks her in the house. What Rogers presents is a version of Emma Donoghue’s Room in which the father is a sympathetic figure: for Jessie, the apocalypse is primarily and absurdly about how energised she feels (“I began setting my alarm for 5.30 so I could get more done” [pg. 47]), and she is increasingly opposed to “the nastiness of science, the drugs and tubes and machines” [pg. 156]. In the context of a science fiction novel (and this must be how the novel is read given the Clarke context), this anti-scientific position is difficult to accept, particularly as Rogers gives a lot of time to the belief of Jessie’s father that, should her heroine wait a few years, a solution that does not involve her death will be found. That is, when Jessie’s boyfriend, aggrieved that she is considering leaving him behind, angrily wails, “What’s the point in loving anyone?” [pg. 202], the reader cannot help but begin to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb not as an argument for freedom of choice, but an argument against adolescent despair and histrionic self-sacrifice.
The fundamental tension in Jessie, then – simultaneously her right as an individual not constantly, as she is, to be dismissed as silly and foolish, and yet the patent fact that she is precisely that – is an unresolvable difficulty at the heart of the novel which bears her name. Rogers aims to achieve holistic sympathy, but too often her novel is instead simply uncertain, even confused. There are moments, however, where Rogers convinces us – “The future is an abstract concept, Jess,” her mother sighs, to which the teenager retorts, “No, it’s my child’s and my child’s child” [pg. 206] – and it’s here that her book’s value coheres. The science is not convincing, and there are the usual tics of mainstream SF – “Sounds like a science fiction nightmare,” one character chuckles knowingly [pg. 127] – whilst the certainties of Jessie’s narration (and of Rogers’s design) make for a story a little too inflexible to bend with the stiff winds at its core; but in its insistence that we think outside our own boxes – however uncomfortable this makes us – it is also a kind of call to arms.
“Your reality is my dream,” Jessie writes to her future child, “and I must lose my reality for you to become real.” [pg. 233] That this destructive change upsets us is not necessarily a reason it mustn’t happen. Rogers’s novel – a little too narrow, a little too insistent – isn’t quite the perfect statement of this position, but ultimately it is a work of literary art, not a position paper, and Jessie’s voice is convincing precisely because it is partial. Over at Practically Marzipan, the novel worked more completely for Aisha than it did for me, but her description of it as “a deeply uncomfortable piece of writing” is spot on. I’m not sure The Testament of Jessie Lamb is quite robust enough to collect the gong – but it successfully troubles the mind for longer than perhaps any of its rivals.