I closed the book, put it away, and spent the next few months refusing to look it in the eye. Had it occurred to me, I might have, like Joey on Friends, put Arslan in the freezer. The next time I culled my books, Arslan went to the local library, where for all I know it has been traumatizing unsuspecting readers ever since. But a part of me felt guilty for letting a book terrify me so thoroughly, and when Arslan came up, every now and then, in conversation as a difficult but brilliant work of science fiction, I would shift uncomfortably. At the end of 2010 Gollancz Masterworks reissued Arslan, and Adam Roberts's admiring foreword (excerpted on his blog) convinced me to give the book another try. This time around, I made it all the way to the end, and I can certainly see where all the praise and respect are coming from. I can also see that my reaction--if not quite its vehemence--was exactly what Engh was aiming for in that opening chapter. What is less clear to me, however, is whether I truly made the wrong choice all those years ago, when I left Arslan unread.
After his explosive entrance, Arslan makes his home in Kraftsville and sets about remaking it. A curfew is declared. Firearms are confiscated. Soldiers are billeted with the local families, who act as hostages to their guests' safety. (It is interesting to note just how methodically Arslan goes about violating the first few amendments to the US constitution.) Arslan himself makes his home with Franklin and his wife Luella, into whose house he also brings Hunt Morgan, the boy he raped, and Betty Hanson, an attractive young teacher from Franklin's school, who are obviously both intended for Arslan's amusement. Franklin, with his gruff manner and steady nerves, becomes Kraftsville's de facto leader, which puts him in Arslan's company even more than their sharing a house would, and gives him a chance to get to know the man, who is as devoid of cruelty as he is of compassion, utterly dedicated to his creed, in which strength is the ultimate moral virtue, and to his master plan for the human race. To this plan's end, Arslan informs Franklin, he plans to make Kraftsville self-sufficient. Phone lines and later electric power are shut down. The high school students are shipped away, and replaced by foreign (male) soldiers and (female) prostitutes. The county's borders are closed down, on pain of death. Machinery, medicine, anything that can't be manufactured and maintained within the town, are all confiscated. This is all, Arslan explains to Franklin, his plan to save humanity, to stop the rampant exploitation of resources that will surely doom the species, but when Franklin pushes him Arslan admits that his hopes of creating a sustainable human race are flimsy, and sooner rather than later he shifts his efforts to plan B--saving the planet from us by sterilizing all the world's women, and the bringing about the extinction of the human race.
Before we go any further it should be acknowledged that this is all utterly absurd. When the narrative voice shifts, in the middle segment of the novel, to Hunt, who becomes Arslan's protégé and travels with him to the -stan country from which he emerged to conquer the world, we get a flimsy but borderline plausible explanation of how Arslan managed to leverage Soviet nuclear capability into a threat that would bring the entire world to its knees before him, but even this is not enough to rationalize the novel's events. It might be possible to segment rural America into self-contained chunks with manageable populations, but what about the cities, or even the suburbs? How do you make New York self-sufficient? Hell, how do you put together an army that could conquer New York, or Chicago, while conquering the rest of the world at the same time? Surely at some point the occupation army would outnumber the occupied population, and yet Arslan directs all his forces from Franklin's living room. Most importantly, how do you get the millions of people who would have to be involved in it to carry out the extinction of their own species? All of these things are impossible, and Engh tacitly acknowledges this when she, for example, whisks Hunt and Arslan from the Midwest to the Middle East and back again (at the same time that Arslan is supposedly dismantling the planet's mechanized and electronic infrastructure) as if by magic--as though Kraftsville were the only solid place on Earth, and everything outside it were a hazy, ill-defined non-space in which distance had no meaning, because it is all Not Here.
This is, of course, exactly how Franklin, who left Kraftsville as a young man but returned because the price of success was "being cut off from the people I understood and the things I believed in," whose response to the news of the President's capitulation to the threat of nuclear war is that "everything we ever heard about Washington must be true," sees the world. Nowadays we'd call Franklin a Red Stater. In 1976, when Arslan was published, he was probably intended as the self-ordained last bulwark of a beleaguered masculinity, and of a way of life that had just finished going ten rounds with the counter-culture movement, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement, a battle whose outcome was still unclear but which, it must have seemed very likely (at least to men of Franklin's ilk) would be anarchy and indiscriminate violence. As Arslan puts it, "in the very ascendancy of your power, disintegration! The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence." (Which, like the novel's grounding in the Cold War, just goes to show, yet again, that no future is as foreign as the recent past's future.) Arslan, with his delicate mannerisms, his ambiguous sexuality, his palpable ethnicity (it's difficult to call someone racially prejudiced against a person who has overrun their home-town, killed its people, and raped its children, but nevertheless the insistence with which Franklin's gaze is drawn to Arslan's dark skin and Middle Eastern features leaves very little room for doubt) and his undeniable, lethal strength threatens not only that way of life but that concept of masculinity.
As Adam puts it in his introduction, Arslan's premise is "an iteration of a particular US paranoid invasion fantasy: from Floyd Gibbons's The Red Napoleon (1929) to Red Dawn (1984), US popular culture has luridly imagined the one military catastrophe--occupation by a foreign enemy--that the USA has never, in actuality, suffered." Franklin is precisely the sort of man whose internal narrative, once it adjusted to the unthinkable scenario of the US capitulating to invaders, would cast him in the lead role of one of these tales of triumphant resistance, and he immediately sets about forming a Kraftsville underground, which originally functions as a secret police and loyalty patrol, but whose ultimate goal is to kill Arslan. It should come as little surprise that a middle aged school principal fails to overthrow a world-conquering tyrant, and that the arc of the novel--which spans nearly twenty years--bends towards Arslan's victory, and even the success of his plan for auto-extinction. What is more surprising, and even more disquieting, are the similarly dispiriting results of the parallel battle between Arslan and Franklin over Hunt's soul. As Arslan explains to Franklin, his strategy with Hunt is "First the rape then the seduction," and as the people of Kraftsville, including Hunt's parents, recoil from what they now perceive as a damaged, tainted person, Arslan steps in to fill the void. He procures a prostitute for Hunt, teaches him to ride and shoot, and encourages him to question the Mom-and-apple-pie dogma with which he was raised (Engh's background was in the study of ancient Rome, and the relationship between Arslan and Hunt is quite clearly intended to recall the one between an aristocrat and his catamite). Hunt's seduction by Arslan is not only the failure of a single teacher to keep a single boy from corruption, but the failure of a whole way of life.
it took a convulsive effort to realize that it was exactly the good people, it was especially the better people, who were the loathsome hypocrites. My father and my mother, and all the other reasonably intelligent, reasonably nice, reasonably successful people I had ever known--they were the ones who spoke out dogmatically for truth, beauty, and goodness, while with every action of their lives they cast votes for falsity, ugliness, and corruption. And Mr Bond, of course--Mr Bond was a particularly prime specimen, because he made his living teaching hypocrisy to children.
It was Arslan who showed me the possibility of living honestly. Even his deceits were straightforward--tools as simple in purpose and exquisite in design as the guns he equally loved. He lied; but he did not pretend.It's customary to praise an author of difficult, sophisticated fiction by saying that they make such believable people of their characters that they are impossible to dislike. Arslan achieves something even more difficult. It crafts its three leads so carefully that the reader has no recourse to the relative comfort of either hating or liking these these thoroughly unpleasant, occasionally admirable people. Arslan is a monster, but a predictably charismatic one, and just as he seduces Hunt, and later the citizens of Kraftsville, so does he seduce the reader--as Adam points out, the second most disturbing scene in Arslan comes at its end, when Engh manipulates us into rooting for her title character. Hunt is irredeemably twisted up by abuse--Arslan's, but also Kraftsville's, which rejects him after his rape. He's pitiable, but hard to look at. Franklin is the novel's moral center, the only character able to put up any resistance to Arslan's charisma, and in that capacity he reminds us, and those who follow Arslan, of the brutal cost of his policies. He's also the only person in Kraftsville who doesn't consider Hunt complicit in, and tainted by, his own rape. But Franklin is also deeply prejudiced and narrow-minded. Perhaps more importantly, he fails. His determination to keep fighting is an endearing trait at the beginning of the novel, but an off-putting one as the finality of Arslan's victory, and the paltriness of Franklin's power, become more apparent.
The novel revolves around these three men and the battle of wits and will between them, which is also a battle for a dominant philosophy of life and a definition of masculinity--Franklin's uncomplicated steadfastness, Arslan's narcissistic fascism, Hunt's sarcastic nihilism. It's typical for novels that discuss masculinity to sideline femininity and female characters, but Arslan takes this tendency to extremes that shocked me even more, in adulthood, than that opening scene of rape did in my teens. If I have ever in my life read a novel that is so dismissive of women's character, personhood, and agency as this one, I am struggling to recall it. It's been a long time since I expected female authors to automatically write feminist or even woman-friendly fiction, but nevertheless I found myself, as I got further into the novel, checking and rechecking Engh's biography to make sure I hadn't misremembered her gender.
The invisibility of women, to the narrative as well as the three leads, is particularly startling when one considers that one of Arslan's most important themes is rape--the physical rapes that Arslan commits, and the metaphorical rape of the US by his invasion, which the novel returns to again and again. And yet it's only men's rapes that the narrative lingers over, and only through men's eyes that the horror of rape is expressed. Women, meanwhile, simply endure, like animals. Hunt is raped alongside a girl from his class, who struggles "but it was hardly what you could call a contest." After the rape she "lay tumbled there till the two soldiers hauled her up and walked her stumblingly off the stage." We never hear from her again. Hunt's rape, meanwhile, is a battle: "from the second he realized the scene that had been set for him, he was fighting ... Arslan had trouble keeping Hunt under. The boy fought with flailing arms and legs; ... Then through a lull in the din I heard Hunt's cry--a muffled, wordless squawl of anguish and shame and rage. ... They led Hunt past us, and he walked upright, not half-collapsed like Paula."
Hunt's narrative is a brilliant, disturbing, heartrendingly raw description of a rape victim seduced by their rapist. Rejected by his friends and family both for being a rape victim and for accepting the gifts and protection of the only friend he has left, Hunt is confused by feelings of self-loathing and guilt into accepting and eventually returning the love of the man who violated him--because his is the only love on offer. Both Hunt and the supposedly good people around him take it for granted that having been raped makes him ineligible for the love of a better person, and so Hunt clings to the only form of affection still left to him. (I was reminded of Margo Lanagan's story "The Goosle," which depicts a similarly disturbing relationship with similar skill.) What's interesting is that not only would we expect the victim in this story to be female, the reality of rape being what it is, but that there is a female victim of rape in the same circumstances as Hunt who could easily have taken his place at the center of this narrative--Betty Hanson, Arslan's other sex slave. As in the case of Hunt and Paula's rapes, the narrative distinguishes between Hunt's angry, combative initial reaction to Arslan's violations to Betty's terrified but essentially passive one--Franklin reports hearing screams from Betty's room, sounds of struggle from Hunt's. The possibility that women might fight their rapists or try not to give them the satisfaction of hearing them scream, that women might possess feelings of pride that a rape would injure, or experience rage as a result of rape, is never given space by the narrative. Betty's screams are the last we hear of her. Almost as soon as she arrives in Franklin's house Arslan tires of her and packs her off. Like Paula, she's never heard from again.
Part of the problem is the dominance of Franklin's narrative voice in the first half of the novel. Franklin isn't a bad man. He doesn't approve of rape, whether it's done to men or women, and the fact is that there is nothing he could do to stop Betty or Paula's mistreatment, no more than he could have saved Hunt. But it's pretty obvious that the rape of women doesn't bother him nearly as much as the rape of men, that it simply doesn't strike him as important, in the grand scheme of things. When teenage Russian prostitutes arrive in town, and Franklin dryly comments that now they know what has happened to the girls from Kraftsville's high school, that's not just a stiff upper lip. He gives a damn, but not much beyond a moment's stern disapproval, after which he moves on to more pressing matters. Franklin moves heaven and earth to try to save Hunt's soul from the corruption of Arslan's abuse, but when Arslan brings Hunt a prostitute to restore his injured manhood, and years later when he returns to Kraftsville with a prepubescent girl as a gift for Hunt, Franklin thinks of them only as temptresses, obstacles placed in Hunt's path back to righteousness: "she was enough older than Hunt to matter; and in some ways, of course, she was ages older. ... She was a cheery little creature, I had to say that for her, but at absolute maximum she was worthless." The possibility that these girls, too, are victims who need saving never seems to occur to him.
But Franklin isn't the only vector from which this un-personing of women is absorbed. Arslan, of course, is incapable of noticing the humanity of anyone not himself, and Hunt is too twisted up to notice women when his mentor seems to think so little of them, but the novel's narrative itself encourages this view of women as blanks to be acted upon. The novel climaxes with Arslan, who has disbanded his army and plans to live out his life in Kraftsville, defending the town's women from a gang of rapists. Throughout the battle, Kraftsville's women--many of whom were raped by Arslan in their teens--are a passive, undifferentiated clump, who take no part in their own defense. They are a "crowd of women," a "mob of females." They "squeal," "shriek," and "chatter." And, of course, Arslan's plan for engineering the end of the human race short-circuits female, not male, fertility. In the world of Arslan, women seem to be defined by what goes into, or comes out of, their vagina.
Aside from the quickly-dispatched Betty and Paula, there are three named female characters in Arslan, each with a personal connection to one of the three leads. Luealla Bond is initially portrayed quite positively, as a level-headed person whom Franklin can trust to keep her head in a crisis. In the early months of Arslan's presence in the Bond house Luella, like Franklin, grits her teeth at the tyrant's presence and perseveres in the face of the abuses he commits under her roof (she also, unlike Franklin, extends her sympathy equally to Betty and Hunt). But as the occupation draws on Luella become more and more passive, relegated to her home and her kitchen, serving her husband, Arslan, and Arslan's troops. Years later Hunt muses that Luella, "fulfilled for me (as, I increasingly thought I saw, for Franklin) the role of devoted and honored servant, privileged to criticize, to manage, and to share, but neither to initiate nor to command," and when she dies Franklin realizes that "I felt very little personal grief ... the real blow was practical and selfish. Luella had kept everything running smoothly. No wonder she'd been tired." Hunt's mother Jean is also at first a positively drawn character, strong enough to endure the unbearable sight of her own son's rape. When Hunt tries to reconnect with his parents after several months in Arslan's care, however, Jean becomes entirely passive, and that passivity destroys their relationship when Hunt's father makes it clear that, like much of Kraftsville, he considers Hunt irreparably damaged by his rape, and culpable in his own abuse. For the rest of the novel, Jean remains trapped between the two men, incapable or unwilling to assert herself. She doesn't seem to share her husband's disgust with their son, but neither does she make any effort to stop him when he gives Hunt an ultimatum to stop "seeing" Arslan as a condition of coming home, nor does she express any preference or exert any control on the question of who does or does not get to live in her house. The change in both women could be taken as an effect of life under occupation and in drastically reduced circumstances, but as none of the point of view characters give much thought to what life is like for women in Arslan-controlled Kraftsville, this is left for us to surmise.
The only woman with anything like power and agency in Arslan is also the one whom the novel most thoroughly makes Other. When Arslan returns to Kraftsville after several years' absence in the novel's second part, he brings with him his lover Rusudan and their son. Franklin is shocked to see anyone, much less a woman, who can hold their own against Arslan, who can argue with him and elicit from him human irritation and anger, rather than inhuman calm and self-satisfaction. Hunt, who hears about Rusudan long before he meets her, is baffled by Arslan's claim that he loves her: "I did not understand, I could not conceive, what such a verb as love might mean to Arslan." We share Hunt's incomprehension and Franklin's surprise. It seems inconceivable that a person as monomaniacal as Arslan could feel an emotion as messy and human as love, or that another person could share his life in the mundane way that Rusudan does. But Arslan does nothing to make Rusudan comprehensible. We see her only through Hunt and Franklin's puzzled eyes, and she herself has no voice--or rather, she has a very loud, frequently raised voice, but it is a babble, as she never learns English and all of her speech is in a language that neither Franklin nor Hunt can understand.
Shortly after her arrival in Kraftsville Rusudan is brutally murdered. The murder is assumed to have been political, but for the rest of the novel the possibility is repeatedly raised that Hunt killed Rusudan out of jealousy. Before that question is resolved--in a typically ambiguous manner that leaves Hunt's actual culpability in Rusudan's death up for grabs--we get an in-depth look at Hunt's take on Rusudan, which is simultaneously dismissive and deeply envious. Seen through Hunt's eyes, Rusudan is animalistic, reduced to her body and its functions--"She was garish, she was cheap, she was third-rate Technicolor"; when Hunt witnesses a fight between her and Arslan he notes how "The woman's face streamed and dribbled (when Rusudan wept, she wept wholeheartedly), her wild hair, beautiful sometimes in its munificence, was fuzzed and snarled now"; when Arslan takes their child from her soon after its birth, Rusudan "shrilled at him from her bed (deprived, for the time, of her body, she was all ugly now)"--while he desperately tries to argue that it's he who has the meaningful, deep connection to Arslan--"He would not have spoken to Rusudan of friendship"; "By what right had he suffered for Rusudan? It was I, not Rusudan, whom he had led through Karcher's woods, to whom he had whispered 'Look.'"
Point for point, Hunt's observations on Rusudan make him out to be that old-fashioned stereotype, the misogynistic homosexual. Hunt's sexual orientation is ambiguously defined--the only people we see him sleep with with other than Arslan are women, but they are the women procured for him by Arslan, and there are vague hints in the chapters narrated by Hunt that during his sojourn away from Kraftsville he had male lovers as well--and, in all likelihood, was demolished by Arslan's rape and abuse along with the other parts of Hunt's identity, so that by the time he leaves Kraftsville he is probably best described as an Arslan-sexual. Nevertheless, stereotypes of homosexuality, and particularly the ones that the people of Kraftsville would ascribe to, attach themselves to Hunt throughout the novel. Unlike Franklin's matter-of-fact, linear narrative, the chapters narrated by Hunt are discursive, slipping in time and space and between fact and fabulation. His voice is solipsistic, erudite (an erudition granted to him, at least in part, by Arslan, who has Hunt read philosophy and poetry to him), ironic, and disinclined to make moral judgments. Arslan may not turn Hunt into a homosexual, as Kraftsville comes to believe, but he does turn him into the sort of person that, in Franklin and Kraftsville's worldview, is associated with homosexuality--nihilistic, morally relativistic, intellectual, and unpatriotic. It is Hunt, however, who triumphs at the end of the novel. While a graying Franklin makes ever-more futile gestures of resistance against an enemy who has long since triumphed, and an untouchable Arslan retires to enjoy the fruits of his labor, it's Hunt whose narrative voice ends the novel, as independent of either of these two men--and of Kraftsville's opprobrium--as he ever will be. The novel leaves him hunting in the forests, the new man who has taken over the old man's pursuits as well as his world.
It's in this tension between old and new American masculinity that I begin to see a reason for Arslan's dismissiveness towards women. Arslan is an assault on Franklin's type of masculinity, on the narratives of triumphant resistance that its premise deliberately recalls. In order to achieve that assault, it assaults its readers. When Arslan returns to Kraftsville for the last time, Franklin observes that he has extended the tactic he used with Hunt, "First the rape then the seduction," to the whole town. Arslan the novel takes that tactic with its readers. The opening scene that so terrified me as a teenager was intended to do just that, and the rest of the novel is Engh's seduction of her readers, her slow persuasion of us onto Arslan's side. To the men whose concept of masculinity Engh is trying to shatter, a woman's rape in the opening scene would not have achieved that shock. Our misogynistic culture teaches us that being rapeable is a component of femininity, but that it negates masculinity (or, as Arslan puts it "When a woman is raped, then she is perhaps by so much more a woman ... But when a boy is raped, he is by so much less a man"). To see a male character get raped is an assault on the male reader that a woman's rape wouldn't have been, and for the seduction part of the novel to get under that same reader's skin by confounding all expectations that Hunt will rebel against Arslan and avenge his violation, the object of the seduction must also be a man. The problem with this tactic is that it is aimed exclusively at men. Just as Arslan scarcely bothers to seduce the women he rapes and saves his attentions for Hunt (and just as his seduction of Kraftsville is focused on its young boys, to whom he becomes a mentor), Arslan the novel is only interested in seducing its male readers. The problem with the novel turns out to be its lack of interest, not in its female characters, but in its female readers. We don't get seduced. The opening rape scene is as much an assault on us as it is on male readers, but the rest of the novel ignores us.
Ultimately, I'm both glad and sad that I didn't persevere with Arslan when I was seventeen or eighteen. Part of me thinks that I could never have grasped even a fraction of this brilliant, fascinating, frustrating, disturbing novel at that age, that even if I'd managed to finish it I would simply have thrown it aside in incomprehension and disgust. Another part of me thinks that I would have felt Arslan's force more strongly, and could have better sympathized with its goal of dismantling thoughtless, jingoistic patriotism, at a time in my life when I was less educated about feminist issues, less primed to notice how a book treats its female characters and readers. What's done is done, however, and though I certainly don't regret reading Arslan--for all that I've written about it here, there is still so much more to say, and I'm certainly not qualified to plumb its full depths--I can't help but feel that I haven't been fully repaid for the trauma it deliberately inflicted on me, because I wasn't its intended audience. That's not exactly a point against the novel, but it might be a point against other women reading it.