Unquenchable Fire

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Rachel Pollack, Unquenchable Fire

(There are two other blog posts lined up, but I had to get this out of my system first.)

This has been on various of my to-get and to-read lists forever but I never got round to it until now. I thought I read it years ago at my parents-in-law’s house, in translation, but that must have been Golden Vanity — at least if that’s the one that starts with a woman making a list of literally everything she can do and sending that list to an employer in lieu of a CV and getting hired (I admit that that’s a dream of mine, too).

So I’ve finally read it. I can’t bear to reread it now to say more coherent things, the way I reread Daughter of Mystery almost immediately; it was hard enough to read in the first place. Because it’s weird. This review describes it almost exactly the way I read it, “When I was reading Rachel Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire, I struggled with the strong sense that I didn’t know the code.” Even though I’ve read stuff about Tarot –some of it even by Rachel Pollack– as background for other things I was reading or writing.

It’s set in an alternate-nearish-future United States where there’s been a spiritual revolution. I don’t think I’ll be able to walk past the local New Age shop for a while without thinking of it, because I imagine that the patrons of that shop see the world that way. But in the book the world is actually that way. Everything that anyone does is hedged about with ritual and prayer and symbolism and more ritual: boys who have a pickup baseball game sit down and bless their bats before they start. Every major collective undertaking is in fact a story, a play. Strangely, though the adversaries of the revolution were “the technophiles”, there’s a lot of actual technology: computers, cars, TV, air travel, body scan machines (though those last are mostly spiritual in the way they work). The flavour is a bit folk-religion, Plastic Jesus-like, with an undertone of the kind of 1960s-movie American Dream culture that shaped my image of the US until I met actual people from the actual United States. (There’s even a coda telling the reader what happened to some of the people, just like those movies have!)

I don’t know about anything outside the US, though some of the Founders (the original revolutionary leaders who ended up as saints or minor gods) have names from all over, and there are tourists from Germany and a holy pool just outside Amsterdam, so perhaps the revolution affected a larger part of the world. There are secularists –who won’t have anything of the mysticism– but no other religions, no mention of underground pockets of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, only a (probably defunct) Masonic temple as a feature of the landscape.

I don’t think I’d want to live in that world. I’d expected a magic-next-door book and what I got was — well, might have been meant as utopia but I could only read it as totalitarian dystopia. Spiritual police who have the right to spy on you and take you in for a scan, neighbours who can boot you from the block when you don’t conform to the religious rules, midwives who break down your door if you want to have your baby without interference. (Oh wait, that happens here-and-now too, in a way.) You’re not even supposed to dream anything that isn’t in the official database.

Reading it hurt. Somehow it pressed a lot of buttons I can’t name or even locate now. Perhaps it’s the nagging feeling that one little part of me actually wants the world to be magical — though, please, not this way. Also, it reminded me of just about the scariest story I’ve ever read (doesn’t say much, I usually avoid postapocalyptic themes and horror like the plague): Fade to White by Catherynne Valente. Trigger warnings: scary dystopia, environment-induced infertility, radioactive wasteland, unhappy ending. Looking that up, even without reading more than a couple of paragraphs to make sure it was the right one, made me want to sit in a corner meeping but instead I played a couple of furious rounds of 2048 and scrubbed the kitchen floor.

Speaking of unhappy endings, I don’t know if the ending of Unquenchable Fire is in fact happy though some people (characters as well as readers) may think so. But in spite of everything I’m glad I read it, and so is my kitchen floor.

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