ELSEWHERE, by Alexis Schaitkin
One of the many benefits of writing in the speculative realm is the ability to clear the cover of societal expectations. To brighten up, ridicule or hyperbolize the craziest rituals or darkest human flaws. It is then often revealing to note which of these archetypes the speculative writer reserves and which they discard.
Alexis Schaitkin’s second novel, ‘Elsewhere’, joins the recent series of impressive novels that have used speculative elements to explore the new motherhood. Like Rachel Yoder’s “Nightbitch,” Helen Phillips’ ‘The Need’ and Claire Oshetsky’s ‘Chouette’, ‘Elsewhere’ literally portray the transformative experience of motherhood.
In a remote mountain town that has been stripped of identifying factors, new mothers are at risk of succumbing to an “illness” that makes some disappear without warning or trace. No one can predict which mothers will be taken, but that doesn’t stop the villagers from guessing it affects those who are either “careless” (like the one who lets her kids cross a stream when the water is too high) or too tight wound. When Schaitkin’s 16-year-old narrator’s mother, Vera, disappears, she too is subjected to such a conjecture: “One clue about my mother that kept telling everyone was that I often showed up at school with my buckle shoes changed,” she says. , “which gave my appearance a ‘nervous’ effect.”
And yet, raised to practice the city’s xenophobia and maternal worship, Vera and the other young women consider motherhood their highest possible achievement. As they stared at older women, Vera and her best friend “watched them sway back and forth with their babies in their arms, side by side like metronomes keeping time for a song only they could hear.” Meanwhile, they fear anyone who comes from “elsewhere” and plays a game called “stranger”, imagining outsiders being “miserable and panicked.” Vera’s troubles begin when a real stranger comes to town and threatens her and the carefully calibrated way of life of her community.
‘Elsewhere’ continues the theme of the disappearance of women with which Schaitkin began in her admirable debut novel ‘Saint X’. Also set in a recognizable and unique location, “Saint X” follows the possible murder of a privileged teenager who goes missing on an island vacation and whose absence is used to alleviate the prejudices and ramifications that surface in her wake. In both novels, Schaitkin’s pace is tightly controlled, her arcs built line by patient line.
But unlike in ‘Saint X’, after the women in ‘Elsewhere’ have disappeared – or not? – there is no fuss, only silence. And it was designed this way: the community has developed a ritual to clear the homes of missing women of all their personal belongings. As a fitting metaphor for the invisibility and loss of identity many new moms feel, “Elsewhere” sees them completely forgotten.
This ritual of collective removal is reminiscent of the supernatural premise of Yoko Ogawa’s deeply moving novel “The Memory Police”, in which it is objects and not people that are erased, lending a kind of charm to aspects of our world (matchbooks, dolls, vases ) that we take for granted and hardly notice. The speculative conceit of ‘Elsewhere’ works in a similar way.
Vera’s first person narration moves in and out of the multiple perspective, evoking the collective ‘we’ to indicate the unified view of a city that is both geographically and philosophically distant. Her voice, her insistence on an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, creates a distance between character and reader that is especially pronounced in the passages when Vera finally leaves her city for ‘elsewhere’ and undergoes a harrowing trauma.
The novel imagines a universe without many of our known realities: technology, transgender and non-binary mothers, social class, race or women’s rights. There is a literary precedent for such a featureless world and the buffering space it offers, in stories like Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.” Without any signifier of place and time, Schaitkin’s story seems to strive for a sense of universality and intentionality: as if every element of this carefully crafted theater was placed there for a reason. It’s not what “Elsewhere” leaves out, but what it keeps from our world that is most telling.
The culture surrounding motherhood has not been tainted, or even tainted, by the ‘torment’. Our all-too-familiar ideal of a perfect mother keeps and remains the underlying tension of the novel. This ideal demands that young women like Vera strive for nothing but procreation, to love their children to the exclusion of everything else. Any ambivalence, lack of desire or complaint is seen as a lack, and possible reason for ‘illness’. Those who cannot or will not become a mother, and even the locals who decide to have only one child, are treated with the same suspicion as strangers. Childless women are silent shadows living on the edge. Middle-aged women, past their reproductive prime and thus immune to the ‘disease’, are considered useless.
Of course, the prejudices and practices within the novel are not so different from those outside. Schaitkin chooses to leave intact the misogyny and reproductive pressures of our culture. Readers may long for a sympathetic, perhaps child-free outlier to rethink this feminine situation and portray some semblance of resolution. But such an anomaly never materializes, and even strangers still reinforce the status quo when it comes to gender roles. Even as the plot completes a satisfying loop, Vera maintains the prejudices she had in the beginning and, most unusually, never doubts her own sure-footed motherhood. Perhaps this is the real speculative element: a mother without traces of ambivalence.
A welcome addition to a shelf of speculative fiction about the joys, failures, and metamorphoses that come with having a child, “Elsewhere” asks: is motherhood, like the city itself, meant to be a place without features, which can best be experienced under a haze of collective brainwashing?
ELSEWHERE, by Alexis Schaitkin | 226 pp. | Celadon | $26.99.
Marie-Helene Bertino is the author, most recently, of ‘Parakeet’.