Review of Archetype by M.D. Waters
by M.D. Waters
Huh, so it appears I’m not the only one to liken this to The Handmaid’s Tale. So there goes that idea for a review.
I guess I’ll just have to talk about young adult literature and dystopian fiction and how not liking this book means you hate women.
Just kidding about that last part.
In addition to reminding me of Atwood’s novel about fertile women being the property of men who believe it is their duty to breed them, Archetype reminds me of When We Wake. The protagonists of both novels wake up in an unfamiliar world—Emma as a result of amnesia, Tegan because she has been on ice for a century—and are at the mercy of people who might not be on the level with them. Consequently, they are more reactive than proactive at first. Many of the same criticisms one might level at M.D. Waters could also be directed at Healey.
But one book is YA, the other is not. Some people seem content to cut YA slack, but if they decide a novel is “not YA,” then they are happy to slaughter it. Because teens don’t deserve quality fiction too? It’s not that I have an antipathy towards YA: I am harsh on it because I have high standards. And yeah, I totally agree that, in many ways, Archetype feels like a YA novel. But criticizing it for that reason demonstrates the harmful effect of categorizing our literature in such artificial ways, particularly when this action comes with implications about gender as well.
Let’s examine why Archetype seems so YA. What is it, exactly, that makes a book YA? Of course, standard disclaimer here that this is my entirely subjective view—your mileage may vary, and maybe you don’t see the parallels at all and don’t get what the fuss is about. That’s fine; move along.
At its basic level, I suppose, literature is for “young adults” if they are the intended audience. But how can we know that? Are all books with young-adult protagonists automatically YA because young adults will identify with them? That certainly seems to be the mould of the form these days: young adult protagonist with a highly individualistic streak, usually from first-person, stream-of-consciousness perspective, has an adventure in which they discover virtues of self-esteem, etc. The book “speaks” to the young adult reader about the issues they struggle with in early, late, or post-adolescence in way that older readers might recognize but not quite understand any more.
That seems like a smokescreen to me. Archetype doesn’t have a young adult as its protagonist. So why does it seem so YA? In reality, most YA literature gets labelled because we think it’s less complex, less sophisticated, less robust than “real literature.” This is certainly the argument behind Ruth Graham’s invective against adults who read YA, a polemic so riddled with literary and genre snobbery that it makes Northrop Frye look like just some guy who wandered in off the street. Graham is willing—oh-so-generously, oh-so-magnanimously on her part—to leave YA to the teens, who need to “earn” their way into “the adult stacks” (I wonder who policed her library as a kid, because my librarians never questioned my beeline into the adult stacks, though someone probably should have warned me about reading the first three A Song of Ice and Fire books when I was in Grade 7…). We adults, on the other hand, have to put away our toys and read “proper” literature—i.e., complex and not always with “satisfying” endings—because, if we don’t, our poor kids will see us reading “their” literature and never want to grow up as readers! The horror!
I think what Graham and many who pan YA are tapping into is a general discomfort over the erosion of adulthood ongoing in pop culture. But that isn’t YA’s fault, and it doesn’t mean YA is inherently good or bad, or that adults should or should not read YA. (For what it’s worth, my two cents here and ultimate rebuttal to Graham is that, if we think our kids should be reading it, we should be reading it too: after all, shouldn’t we try to empathize with and understand them as much as is possible?)
Archetype’s YA vibe is a result of Waters’ writing style and the plot structure. Emma is debatably a young adult (she is 26, nearly my age, and to be honest I still feel like a young adult, even if most YA literature targets people younger than me). Moreover, her amnesia means she doesn’t have the same experiences you and I might have that help her describe her surroundings or react to other people. So she seems a lot younger than 26, in some ways. The narration has a simplistic quality to it, with bold and transparent telegraphing of how Emma feels to the reader, which definitely resembles what one sees in a lot of YA. Combine this with antagonists whose motives are only ever partially explored and a dystopia that is only barely sketched, and you have yourself a YA novel that happens to have some hot-and-heavy sex in the middle of it.
Indeed, if I lay all my cards on the table, I’d argue the sex scene is maybe the only reason this novel can never be labelled YA in any marketing sense. I can see an editor having a conversation with Waters—not saying it probably happened, but I could see it happening—in which they try to persuade her to cut or trim the scene in such a way that it’s more acceptable for a younger audience. “We’ll sell a thousand more copies,” they say, “because we can market it to the young adults at the upper end of the spectrum as well as the regular reader.”
It’s unfortunate, too, that we seem to have so thoroughly associated dystopian fiction with young adult literature in the present decade’s critical consciousness. It’s not like they were always one-and-the-same—no one, no one is going to argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is YA—except that many, including me, feel it’s one of the best books to teach in an English classroom, and I’d heartily recommend that any young adult, just becoming aware of those fraught issues of gender politics and women’s autonomy over their bodies, read it. And yeah, I’d tell them to read Archetype too. Yes, it has sex in it. If you think teenagers aren’t reading stories with explicit sex scenes … good. You keep thinking that. Because you are adorable.
Ultimately, YA is, of course, little more than a label that serves as a marketing gimmick. It’s a way to sell more books, just as the trend to market YA to adults by way of mainstream pop culture is just another way to sell more books. That is why I’m so distrustful of criticism that attacks a book on the basis of its YA status (or lack thereof): it’s a red herring, critically speaking. There is no YA and non-YA: there is just literature. And yes, some of it is absolutely terrible. Archetype, in my opinion, is not.
The fact that one might criticize it based on its resemblance to YA troubles me. Dianna Anderson’s thoughtful somewhat-rebuttal to Graham’s article explores the idea that YA’s only defining characteristic is, as I said above, the protagonist’s age. And she argues in favour of taking YA seriously as literature, because doing otherwise is, as her title implies, sexist. If you disagree out of hand, then bear with me for a moment, and allow me to walk you through a thought experiment.
Suppose we reverse the genders in Archetype. Suppose Emile wakes up with amnesia, only to have a woman doctor and a woman claiming to be his wife tell him that he was in a terrible accident. Suppose Emile gradually learns that not everything is as it seems, starts having flashbacks that seem to be someone else’s memories of fighting in a resistance—of nearly dying—and of having a lover who isn’t his wife. Let’s add in another wrinkle: most men in this world are sterile, so the government of East America passed a whole bunch of laws in which men who can get women pregnant are legally required to stud, whether they want to have children or not.
Would we ever dare mistake this for YA?
No. This sounds like the plot of a weird-ass science-fiction novel to me, but definitely fare for adults (and by adults, I mean anyone mature enough to read adult-level prose, regardless of age!). Portraying Emile as a former resistance fighter now captured and at the mercy of the enemy would, to most readers, conjure images of butch action heroes—thanks, Hollywood. We would automatically ascribe Emile a sense of agency and action that we don’t grant to a woman character, even if he remains just as inactive and useless as Emma is at first. (I actually like the extent to which Emma takes charge later in the book, even if I recognize it might not be as well described or fleshed out as some might like.)
Part of the inherently sexist nature of our society is the way in which we infantilize women—something Jude Doyle talks about in his piece on adulthood, linked above. Anderson argues this is an inherent problem with blanket criticism of YA as non-literature, because of YA’s popularity with women and its status as a field dominated by women authors. I’d go further and argue that, having encouraged older women (and men) to read YA, the ouroboros of censure is now looping back around and establishing a double standard in which older women reading YA is yet another sign of their frivolity and insincerity. As always, women are simultaneously expected to and dismissed for appearing youthful. It’s not a coincidence that women dominate the YA field while we hold up predominantly men as examples of “serious literary juggernauts”—and it’s not a coincidence that so-called “chick lit” bears a less-than-subtle resemblance to the “satisfying” and trite story structure that Graham so detests about YA.
I was all prepared to dismiss Archetype. I was sceptical when I plucked it from the New Books shelf at the library: I had exactly the same initial reaction that many people had after reading, namely, that it sounded like an adult version of YA dystopian fiction that would be too sketchy to be satisfying. But I was wrong, and I realized that almost from the beginning—well, at least, after devouring the first 120 pages in one sitting. That might have something to do with how easy it is to read the book—the narration and prose are not very dense—but I’d like to believe that it also has something to do with my ability to feel sympathy for Emma’s predicament.
It feels a little bit like sacrilege to draw parallels to The Handmaid’s Tale, so I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels the similarity. Atwood’s novel is such a complex masterpiece, both in the technical and emotional sense, that to liken it to a debut novel in which the main character and setting are both so under-developed seems disrespectful to our own Canadian juggernaut. But the proof is in the plot: the parallels are inescapable. Both novels are harrowing because their depiction of a dystopia, however unlikely, is merely the backdrop around which they portray the powerlessness and cruelty of a woman experiencing a lack of autonomy. The kicker being, of course, that these books are not so much morality plays or cautionary tales as they are, deep down, critiques of our own presently misogynistic culture.
Look, in the way I presently identify and perform my gender, I’m not a woman. So I’m not trying to speak for women here. But from what I read, from what I see, it seems like this is a society that has it out for women’s autonomy and women’s control over their bodies. It’s true that, unlike Atwood, Waters doesn’t explain much about the origins of the fertility issues or the decline of America into civil war and its bifurcation into the free West and the oppressive East. But she doesn’t have to: Emma’s suffering is enough. The terror that she feels at the prospect of pregnancy, the pressure that she feels from Dr. Travista and Declan—and their language and treatment of her, of course—is enough to make the message clear. Through a quirk of my biology, I happen to have the privilege of never having to worry about this. No one will ever tell me I am expected to carry a child. No one will ever tell me I am bound by law to carry a pregnancy to term. No one will claim me as property and brand me like breeding stock.
Yet Archetype hit a nerve for me, because I see echoes of this behaviour in our society today. In the United States, that nice little sweater that Canada wears, the predominantly male political bodies are very interested in regulating women’s individual bodies, including their access to affordable birth control and their ability to terminate pregnancies. Pretty much they want to consign women to lives of poverty “for the children” (which doesn’t seem very nice, personally), and they aren’t afraid to take away women’s freedoms and autonomy to do it.
So if you’re a dude who was sympathetic enough to shudder when reading Archetype or The Handmaid’s Tale because you hope that future doesn’t happen … look again. Because too many women have to worry about living in that world in the present. (And that’s just the developed countries.)
Look, I agree that there is plenty about Archetype that doesn’t pass muster. Noah is unpredictable to the point of feeling like a caricature of the grieving husband (and, to be honest, the softness of the science surrounding the twist in the second act gives me misgivings). Waters does a little better, in my opinion, with the subtlety of Declan’s attitude towards Emma: he does seem to care for her genuinely, albeit on his own twisted terms. Yet for a book so interested in playing up the ambiguity of amnesiac Emma’s situation, the drama and mystery surrounding her missing memories is resolved fairly neatly and quickly and, yes, predictably.
So for all those reasons, it’s fair to criticize this book. Aforementioned comments aside about not liking this book implying a hatred of women, there are totally legitimate reasons not to like this particular book—up to and including “I just didn’t like it.” But let’s not dismiss it because it feels like YA—that’s a troubling indictment both of YA and books that, like this one, embody and articulate the precarious attitudes in our present society towards the issues of women’s autonomy and agency.
Archetype is a story about a woman who is trying to find her voice. This would be a powerful narrative in any time and place. It is even more powerful here and now, in our present time and present culture, which is striving so hard to co-opt feminism, to tell women they are free and empowered, when in reality their autonomy and their voices remain fragile things. Waters might still need to hone her skill, but her aim is squarely on the target: these are serious, weighty matters, and Emma’s story is of a calibre and quality high enough to handle them. I didn’t love every moment of Archetype; it has plenty of technical flaws—but I love how it made me feel, even if those feelings were predominantly disconcerting. I love when literature can affect me, even if it the emotions and thoughts it stirs are difficult ones. In this respect, Archetype verges upon that transcendent quality many writers strive to reach for their entire careers. It should most definitely be taken seriously. YA—which this is not—should most definitely be taken seriously.
I’m going to keep reading widely and keep fighting my inner genre snob. He’s a little less vocal these days, and I think that’s a good thing, but he does occasionally rear his hobgoblin head and wrestle me for control of these reviews. So I’m always grateful when I find reviews that rankle me and books like Archetype that exceed expectations based upon such snobbery. It’s a nice way to be reminded I have biases that need examining. Shouldn’t that be what literature is all about—helping us be better humans?