“You imagine the carefully pruned, shaped thing that is presented to you is truth. That is just what it isn’t. The truth is improbable, the truth is fantastic; it’s in what you think is a distorting mirror that you see the truth.” Jean Rhys wrote that in Good Morning Midnight, and the image of mirrors has been haunting me lately, when I’m upset about whatever way I think a novel has been inauthentic or distorted a reality I know, but I’m also doing my damnedest to talk myself out of my outsize feelings.Anita Felicelli (she/her) is the author of the short-story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent and Chimerica: A Novel. Anita is the editor of Alta Journal’s California Book Club. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and currently serves as its VP of Fundraising. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”
I tell myself a novel is its own system, following its own logic, founded on its own premises, not necessarily a mirror of reality. What matters is that it follows its own rules, not those of what already exists, our world. This dialogue I have with myself convinces me sometimes. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the premises of a novel’s dramatic arguments are true reflections of the real world, so much as that they invent a planet spinning on its own without interference. But I confess, with anxiety, even as I type these words, the desire lurks for a book in conversation with reality. Still, when I went into Sarah Gailey’s novel The Echo Wife, I wasn’t expecting any kind of authenticity, not knowing what authenticity could even mean, given the zany premise.
We meet Evelyn Caldwell, a scientist who has developed a method of cloning humans and is receiving an award for developing the process of “taking an adult clone and writing their personality into their neurological framework.” As the awards ceremony unfolds, we learn that Evelyn’s mediocre, corner-cutting husband Nathan cheated on her and left. So far, so typical. But the absurdity of the adultery emerges quickly: Her husband cheated on her with her clone.
Nathan wanted children and Evelyn, most assuredly, preferred a brilliant career, so Nathan appropriated Evelyn’s technology to make a version of her, a Galatea-type figure named Marthine, that not only wanted children, but could do what clones can’t: reproduce. Marthine shows up for tea and announces her pregnancy to Evelyn, shortly before killing Nathan and asking for Evelyn’s help in cleaning things up. (This occurs around one fifth of the way into the book and is intimated in the marketing materials, so I don’t think it qualifies as a spoiler.) In the universe of the book, clones like Marthine, developed under ideal conditions, are not perfect duplicates of their originals, so Marthine does not have quite the same self that Evelyn acquired in the course of living. Clones need to be deliberately conditioned, which means the harm experienced by the original must be inflicted again on them, and Evelyn wrestles with that and her past.
I have no idea whether what Evelyn describes is a reasonably feasible process for cloning in real life. I have to think that conditioning, as she describes it—messing with womb fluids and temperatures, wounding the blank slate, the ideal, by breaking a finger here or there—is merely a fascinating, sadistic plot device, rather than a potentially real process. Its authenticity, in other words, isn’t something about which I have a clue. But I was too caught up in the entertaining mash of sci-fi, suspense, philosophy, and introspection to care. The thriller wilds out after Marthine murders Nathan, so I didn’t notice the taste of my coffee or the cold, or the rain. Instead, I put off writing my own pages, to keep turning Gailey’s. Its loopiness ensnared me. Evelyn’s circumstances are so preposterous, the exploration of her psyche and personality so totalizing, I couldn’t help but want to stay on the ride.
The Confession of Copeland Cane is an intricate, clever, ambitious dystopia set in the not-too-distant future when the media has merged with national security in an entity called Soclear. Copeland, or Cope, is an East Oakland teenager who sells sneakers. His friends have been rounded up as threats to the system, but he’s on the run, describing himself memorably, alliteratively, as “the alleged accomplice, the fugitive, the ghost, the rabbit, the radiated, the remediated, medicated, incarcerated, the child who fell outta Colored People Time and into America.”The first Field Notes Limited Edition for 2022 is the “Signs of Spring” Edition.Bright and warm, the covers of these Memo Books are heavily debossed with graphic patterns based on flowers that are among the very first to appear each spring, and then stamped with three luscious, reflective foils. The dot-graph insides are made from a superb paper from Strathmore.Available now in 3-Packs and as part of a year-long subscription.
Most of the book is a 48-hour-two-minute-and-17-second transcript of Cope’s recorded account of what led to his flight, but it’s peppered with footnotes from the newly invented “Insurgency Alert Desk” and Urban Dictionary that explain the future’s shifted social structures. Cope is wise, depressed, stringing together astute insights about where society is headed and why. He’s aware enough to see beyond the propaganda and realize that the structures are a sham. I repeatedly found gems, observations about Oakland, observations about the Bay Area where I’ve lived for nearly four decades, that I recognized. I loved the book’s reframing of the California Dream from the perspective not of white settlers, utopians, technocrats, but those that gentrifiers have displaced.
When judged solely on its merits as a mirror, The Confession of Copeland Cane came out a bit ahead of The Echo Wife. Still, I struggled. The trouble was its shape. Cope announces his own digressiveness on the first page—“I tend to tell three stories to tell one and get sidetracked sometimes, but I’ma try and not do that shit”—and then goes about proving it. At the tail end of the novel, Cope’s former classmate Jacqueline reveals she edited his transcript, what we’ve read, but the purportedly edited version remains unduly chatty: on and on, like that lonely guy on a long subway ride who tries to court your attention with desultory anecdotes.
By its very design, then, The Confession of Copeland Cane seeks to present reality on the terms by which we encounter it outside of novels. Unfocused. Baggy. Diffuse. Difficult to parse. A stew of illusion, delusion, facts, and sad-hard situations. I think, perhaps, in all its postmodernity the novel was too intent on accurately commenting on our own surveillance state, pushing it only a couple steps further into hell, to let the characters loose into the thicket of their own gnarly, idiosyncratic dramas. I read a few smart pages that culminated in explanation rather than drama. I nodded, agreeing with the explanation and admiring the intellectual heft behind the book. I put it down. I folded the laundry. I read again, agreed, and then I hid myself in some paid work though it wasn’t due yet, before returning to Cope. I was impressed by interesting, rhythmic, mimetic sentences, but man, those explanations were gears being cranked in the footnotes. I was too conscious of The Confession of Copeland Cane as a construction, as an instruction, as an edification. I was supposed to be, but even when the language vibrated, it felt at times more like a predictive theory of our systems of power than its own breathing universe.
Meanwhile The Echo Wife was messy in its relationship to reality. There was no effort to prove anything from page to page, but paradoxically, I was persuaded. Far from being a novel about cloning, the novel riffed on romance and marriage, and one ambitious, talented woman who has to wrestle her conscience to avoid unleashing her pent-up anger on her clone, and thereby harming Marthine in the way she was harmed by her father as a child. It was a weird, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic exploration of humanness and exploitation, of what it means to be human, of personality. What makes us, us?
No quirky digressions in The Echo Wife. Nothing unusual in how it was told. The language was lovely, not entirely transparent but consistently revealing and sensitive, not too showy or distracting. The weight of our gendered reality is established in sentences like “Twice I have arranged myself within a great complication of fabric to prove that I understood the importance of a moment. It’s clothing as contrition, a performance of beauty I have to put on to pay penance to the people gathered to acknowledge me.” Yet the batshit premise also allowed for darkly comic sentences, the literal wedded to the idiomatic: “My shoes scrabbled at the dirt as my clone hauled me out of the grave I’d made.”
Evelyn is fascinating. She’s monstrous with increasing frequency, but she is alive in ways that feel real. She grapples with a small, absurd, somewhat irrelevant trouble: How do you help your clone get away with killing your former love? The Echo Wife has a wound at its heart, and it’s Evelyn’s wound, and it felt honest and authentic even when it was ridiculous. I couldn’t pull myself out of the novel’s demented but internally coherent reality, the way the first problem spiraled into ordinary, quotidian questions yet still held its shape. Are we replaceable? Could our spouses find another version of us that would fit better with who they are? Does lack-of-nurture trump nature?
The Echo Wife carried me to a summit, chugging around the turns of the coaster, and then dropped me in a freefall as Evelyn and Martine attempted to clean up the murder of their egomaniac partner. It was wicked fun, hanging suspended in the air for that exhilarating second before gravity claimed me.