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What She Saw After the Revolution

TURNING ON THE GIRLS A Novel; By Cheryl Benard; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 336 pp., $23

April 01, 2001|NAOMI GLAUBERMAN | Naomi Glauberman is an essayist and short story writer

Since women have taken over, the climate is better, to say nothing of the people. Freed from the demands of an extensive military apparatus and obsolete weapons systems, the government can now pour money into the beautification of all things. A world of parking garages, warehouses and poorly designed buildings has been transformed with flowers, paint and good spirits. And of course there is excellent public transportation, child and health care, to say nothing of long vacations and flexible work hours, ergonomic chairs for everyone, mood-enhancing aromas piped into the workplace and freedom from worries about laundry and grocery shopping.

Yes, in Cheryl Benard's second novel, "Turning on the Girls," the women are in charge. It is 10 years after the Revolution, just a bit deeper into our new century, and although progress has been made, there's still lots to be done.

It's not quite clear whether women run the United States, Western Europe or the entire planet, but we do learn they are busy forging a "fine, upstanding, democratic, justice-and-equality-oriented, security-minded, peace-seeking social order." Our chatty, ever-present narrator doesn't want to burden us with the details of how this revolution happened; we must, she tells us, just suspend disbelief and come along for the ride.

Lisa, the tale's 19-year-old heroine, is a "tiny, dedicated little cog" in the intellectual center of the New Order. She is a work-study employee in the Ministry of Thought, one of "many bureaus dedicated to the mammoth task of mental revolution," and her job is to update women's sexual fantasies-a daunting endeavor.

Within this softer, gentler world, Lisa's efforts to come up with some good sexual imagery just aren't working out. She's continually frustrated by her efforts and, despite the narrator's promise to liven things up with pornographic excerpts, it's hard not to share Lisa's sense that this project just doesn't make sense.

Justin, her earnest but equally befuddled assistant, is even more bewildered. As they slog through volumes of pornography, theory and romance novels, even the samplings of 20th century erotic literature and the knowing jabs at writers including the Marquis de Sade, Anne Rice, Ayn Rand and Camille Paglia don't spice things up.

But this poking about in old texts is just foreplay. It turns out the New Order is not as secure as Lisa had imagined. The revolutionary leadership, committed to transforming the world through persuasion, without violence or lethal weapons, is in serious jeopardy. Have the ruling women, in their desire to avoid the errors of failed 20th century revolutions, been too easygoing with their opponents? There are radicals within and terrorists without, and the lines often are difficult to discern. Justin, almost by accident, has been recruited into a cell of the counterrevolutionary Restore Harmony Movement. Although the group initially seemed little more than a bunch of redneck guys eager to restore old dating patterns, we soon learn there is real evil afoot.

As Lisa attempts to withdraw from her work on sexual fantasies and Justin attempts to extricate himself from the Restore Harmony cell, both are recruited as government spies and suddenly thrust into high spy adventure.

Benard, director of an Austrian research institute, who has published several books in German on women's issues, is obviously well versed in a certain type of political debate. Her first novel, "Moghul Buffet" (1998), provided an offbeat feminist glimpse into intrigue and murder in the world of mullahs and sexual politics in wildest Pakistan.

Her feminist future is both more familiar and less compelling. As she delineates this variant of a feminist utopia in the making, she strives for a tone that is simultaneously mocking and sincere, wry and romantic, engaged and distant.

Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Benard rarely lets her narrator release the reins. She holds her characters in tight check, never letting them take off on their own. Although there are flashes of insight and some amusing twists of view, the book reads less like a novel than like a series of set pieces showcasing stored-up observations, feminist arguments and reflections on revolution.

As the battle for the future unfolds and we attempt to make our way through layers of betrayals and double and perhaps triple agents, the arch tone and the witty distancing of the narrative voice make it difficult for us to simultaneously suspend disbelief and become involved with these over-analyzed characters.

Maybe it's a question of timing. This vision of a warm and fuzzy women-run world, despite, or perhaps because of, Benard's efforts to be both mordant and compassionate, is not quite sharp enough. In these times when the daily news treads a thin line between horror and parody, political fiction should hit a higher level of truth and humor. On the other hand, given the chill of the moment, many readers might be happy to immerse themselves in this well-intentioned, sometimes amusing alternative universe, however imperfectly it is both portrayed and realized.

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