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The Jigsaw Woman by Kim Antieau has already been capably reviewed by The Geek Girl Project,--which highly praised it--so here I'll offer my purely personal response.

I am annoyed by straw men (no heavy-handed Wizard of Oz reference intended; the book does enough of that itself). The problem with a straw man fallacy is that, by setting up an oversimplified opposition, it tends to generate an oversimplified solution. In The Jigsaw Woman, the straw man is that patriarchy is the devil. And the solution is that Goddess-worshiping matriarchy was/will be "paradise" (226). This formulation is so simplistic and so sledged-hammered that it largely undermines meaningful feminist discourse in the text. Reading this novel to unpack the social structures that oppress women is a little like reading The Watchtower to unpack the Bible: it feels like kindergarten.

Now, The Jigsaw Woman also has its strengths and, as with most commercial fiction today, those strengths almost all appear early on. The premise is great: an explicit feminist takeoff on Frankenstein, where the monster cobbled together out of various parts is a "Barbie doll" fantasy girl designed for a man's pleasure. The Barbie doll, however, has a brain and revolts--this is all to the good. I especially like the running joke/theme early on that her vocal cords don't work and she is literally silenced. I like that she recognizes this silencing for what it is, and immediately fights it by writing up a storm on paper. Eventually, her voice heals, which is fine too--on with the story.

(Spoilers follow...)

I like the subversion of the original Frankenstein's monster tale in having our heroine, Keelie, awake with adult knowledge of the modern world (though no specific memories) and a sassy, educated ability to parse her surroundings. This plays nicely against the Galatea trope of the ideal women invented from scratch as an empty vessel for her man's delight.

I like the focus on women's relationships with each other, their empowerment of each other, the interconnection of their lives. I like that the initial two female "monsters" immediately ally with each other. I like that early on Keelie leaves the handsome prince figure for whom she's been created and goes on a search for her identity. I like the personhood invested in the body parts that create her, the unearthing of the lives and trials of the women who literally get dismembered to create the perfect dream girl. I like the touch that her creators dyed her hair blonde just to make her that much more perfect. I like the way she owns her own identity both by dressing and playing sexy when she wants to and by dressing down in jeans and chopping off her dyed hair when she prefers that.

I like that Keelie goes on a mystical journey via the figure of Eriskegal, a goddess who figures in some of the very oldest extant writings in human history. This is a powerful nod to a very long history of women's power.

I particularly like one successful trick of tone Antieau pulls off. The book starts with light irony, the kind where a woman wakes up as a creature sown together from dead body parts, but this really just bemuses her and she's pretty much more concerned with getting the hot man into bed. However, a few chapters in, the book takes a very abrupt and effective turn from the light ironic to the horrible: revelations about the true sickness of Keelie's situation fall fast and thick. Her romantic fantasy is shattered and, like a sensible human being, she runs. Emotionally, this transition is very nicely played.

So far, so good. Alas, all this goodness pretty much happens in the first third of the book, and the rest steadily loses traction. For one thing, the core, titular image almost gets lost. The fact that this woman is compiled of other woman's parts ends up no more than a watered down metaphor for all women being sisters. As a science fantasy premise and a reality of her specific life, it almost disappears.

About halfway in, Keelie begins a mystical journey through the history of women's oppression, wandering reverse chronologically from an Amazonian tribe about to be eradicated by the Conquistadors to the Burning Times under the Spanish Inquisition to an ancient matriarchal civilization the brink of conquest by the primal patriarchal hordes. Here the book begins a fantasy in which Earth Goddess-worshiping women (and a handful of Goddess-worshiping men) live in a perfect utopia of bliss while the majority of men are stupid, destructive, patriarchal bastards who know of nothing but war, rape, and destroying the Earth and either revel in it or, at best, are stupid slobs who are miserable about the whole thing but too dimwitted to do anything about it.

(One of these stupid slobs, we are told, is Keelie's soul mate whom she loves and has awesome sex with in different incarnations across the millennia. It's a bit difficult to understand why she's so hung up on him. His virtues appear to be that he's a hottie and trying to be nice in a dimwitted way. This is an almost direct inversion of a billion traditional heroines who have nothing to recommend them but incredible beauty and a rather helpless sweetness. The inversion is so exact, in fact, that this move might be intentional. But this irony is not explicitly invoked, so I'm not sure if it's intentional or just poor romance writing.)

One problem with the book's core formula is that it smacks massively of noble savagery. In the perfect matriarchal utopia, there are no social complexities, no delicate balances between freedom and responsibility, no downsides to any practice. (For example, life seems pretty low tech, but illness is rare and famine never seems to strike.) Moreover, the constant repetitions of "you can be whatever you want" and "you have complete choice over what you do with your body," are the tropes of feminism a post-Enlightenment (dare I say patriarchal), modern, democratic society for which individualism and freedom are primary cultural values, ones which, I might add, are not unconnected with disregard for the Earth. Mind you, I'm not saying they're bad values per se: as a child of a post-Enlightenment democracy, I believe in them myself. But out of the mouths of people who are supposed to be ancient, neolithic wise women, they read as fake. What we're left with is simplistic wish fulfillment and cultural appropriation with little regard for any nuances (and sacrifices) involved in maintaining a long-term, sustainable human culture roughly along this model.

Meanwhile, if the matriarchs are perfect, the patriarchs got nothin'. Their men are mean or miserable, their women slaves, their relationships loveless, their food bad, the land management atrocious, their art undiscussed (except for one nice looking piece of pottery, I admit), their religion stupid. Even the one strength one might legitimately think they could claim--martial skill--gets undercut when our hero tries to kill the bad guy with his spear and misses. Still, somehow, these people take over the Earth for millennia and it's very sad.

Now, it is very sad. I am, in fact, a bit of a believer in the paleolithic better age myself (a bit different from the neolithic society presented here but with a lot of thematic commonality). I think a case can be made that primary hunter-gatherer civilizations are stabler, gentler, more sustainable, and more in keeping with the patterns of life that millions of years of evolution have suited us to live well. And yes, I think, by and large, they empower women more than many later, Iron Age societies. And yes, I think--broadly speaking--agriculture might have been a mistake. And yes, the Western patriarchal, military, nomadic, Earth-objectifying, sky-god-worshiping lineage we come from has a lot to answer for. But this is also the type of civilization that gave us, well, Jesus (as in "love your neighbor" and "let one of you without sin cast the first stone"), democracy, science (including walking on the moon and sterile surgery), Michelangelo, and Mozart (whom Keelie enjoys). I'm just saying it's not simple. Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal" and fucked his slave. It doesn't really do anyone any good to pretend that we can solve the world's problems with elementary school fantasies.

Ultimately, the vision of hope this book attempts to leave us with has no traction with me because it is based on a fairy tale rather than real social understanding or plan of action. The denigration of men (yes, it is denigrating) doesn't help when men are going to have to make up roughly 50% of the solution. And the reduction of thousands of years of women's experience to constantly being raped, beaten, and murdered--while it is true this happens infinitely too often--feels more disempowering than empowering. Women have always has more power than this. Even in the Burning Times, many women, either in historically significant ways or quietly in their families, claimed more power and more productive lives than this.

Overall, the book is a fast, page-turning read, certainly diverting. The beginning is quite good, and it's a shame that the end doesn't fulfill the promise of the creative, smartly feminist premise.

Antieau, Kim. The Jigsaw Woman. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.
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