Docile, by K.M. Szpara, has been on my Unread Pile of Shame for a while now (standard disclaimer blah Slow Reader blah blah). I finished it this weekend, and it’s got me thinking in all the ways you’d expect a book with the tagline “There is no consent under capitalism” — and whose content warnings for explicit rape were nearly as prevalent as its tagline — would. It also got me thinking on other axes I hadn’t anticipated. The latter is what I’m inclined to blather about, as Elisha and Alex, the novel’s two POV characters, wound up hooking into a lot of thoughts I have about genre and cultural assumptions vis-à-vis heroism.
Two things before I jump in.
- This isn’t intended to be a review. Because several elements of the book served to feed my word vomit on narrative heroic modes, I reference it a lot, but my interests are more targeted than I think a good review’s should be.
- A re-iteration of the content warnings I mentioned above. This is a story that spends significant time in ugly, abusive places. Rape and suicide are both part of (but not all of) the topics being discussed. The book has also been the subject of reviews critical of its handling of racial issues (this one by Alex Brown might be a place to start if you want to look into those). Please nope out now if you think you might need to. No one should be traumatized for the sake of eyes on my blather.
And, as they say, spoilers follow.
The Dominant Paradigm
Plot capsule in case you need it: In a near-alt-future where debt is more explicitly inherited than the US tends to admit it is currently, Elisha’s family owes several millions of dollars. The Docile system is one of the only methods of erasing some or all of that debt: enter a variable-term contract of nominally-regulated servitude with a wealthy patron. As a dubious benefit, you can take a drug called Dociline, which makes you compliant but whose main selling feature is that it erases all memory of your time as a Docile. Because his mother suffered horrible-but-officially-denied side effects from taking Dociline, Elisha enters his contract with Alex (whose trillionaire family invented the stuff) by invoking one of the few rights a Docile has: he refuses to take it.
The front half of Docile was largely the kind of book I expected. Elisha is dragged through a world of all the worst sorts of excess, since it’s run by and for people with enough money to avoid suffering any real consequences to their actions. Alex devises a systematic abuse plan that he sees as necessary behavior modification in order for Elisha to fulfill his obligations as a Docile without taking Dociline. It’s full of double standards, gaslighting, torture in general, and rape in specific. Alex softens to Elisha as Elisha becomes more thoroughly compliant.
I spent a whole lot of this section vacillating between yelling and pleading “stop hurting Elisha!” Then, near the middle, after a torturous treatment by a third party leaves Elisha briefly unable to even hold himself upright, Alex finally recognizes the monstrosity in his behavior that’s been obvious to everyone reading along. It also, after all that yelling I did, becomes obvious that there is now no action which won’t cause Elisha pain. Even as Alex realizes who he really is, Elisha has completely lost himself. Six months of exacting conditioning have done exactly what Alex wanted them to do: Elisha doesn’t know how to move through the world without Alex to command him.
“You aren’t Elisha,” we hear folks saying, and it’s easy to think “Yes! Alex has fundamentally changed Elisha!” He absolutely has abused and gaslit Elisha in inhuman, profoundly impactful ways.
Protagonists protag, as they say. They act on the world, and that action is their way of expressing who they are. In this case, Elisha’s big action to deal with the problems of (his / the ) world is … to sacrifice himself to it. Elisha’s characteristic choice, by the text itself, is to do what the book keeps doing to him: subjugate himself.
Meanwhile, Alex starts his arc showing us that, fundamentally, he believes the world’s reality — and the solution to any of its perceived flaws — is predicated on his ability to enact his will upon it. Alex acts. He acts horribly; I’m not here to justify that. I am here to say he’s the one who’s trying to change the system. Elisha isn’t. I fully acknowledge the tragedy of what happens to Elisha and where it leaves him, but at the end of the day, Alex both does and doesn’t erase Elisha. I contend that Elisha’s core morality in the text — the thing that makes Elisha Elisha — is built around his notion that he matters most insofar as he’s able to offer himself up in service for the happiness of everyone else in his life.
Where he winds up at the middle, when everyone says he’s been erased, is both surprising and inevitable because “erasing himself for others’ happiness” is where he’s always been as far as we’ve seen. The very thing which made him noble and praiseworthy to his family at the outset is the thing which horrifies them (and us) when it’s exaggerated to monstrous proportions.
I’d argue that has a whole lot to do with the ways in which narrative (Western narratives, at least, and a great deal of genre narrative) defines heroism. And, with one notable exception we’ll get to, Elisha and folks like him don’t act like Heroes are supposed to. Elisha is, instead, a Martyr, and one who makes the grave error of having a story that continues past his martyrdom.
Flipping a Switch
When we hit the middle bit, both Elisha and Alex reach their logical (for a value of logic) extremes: Alex takes this evil he has “discovered” and, as Alex does, makes a strong choice to Solve The Problem. That choice doesn’t do him any favors, of course. When he realizes he has taken away Elisha’s humanity, his solution is to literally take him out to the country and chain him to a pole. It’s a scene that is both deeply heartwrenching. It also bares a cannot-possibly-be-accidental structural similarity to the characteristic scene in every other animal bonding movie where the human pretends to be mean and cruel to chase their pet away ‘for their own good.’
Which is to say: Alex’s solution to dehumanizing Elisha may well be one of the most dehumanizing acts he yet commits.
In response, Elisha grows even more convinced that the solution is inaction. That if he just stops doing anything, he’ll finally be a paragon of goodness and get the life he wants. For those of you paying attention, you may recognize that breathing and heartbeats are actions. So does Elisha.
And that’s where things turn, as Alex and Elisha’s arcs effectively invert. Elisha is forced to find and exert his will, and Alex has to find a way to subvert his.
Inversion is an over-simplification of what’s happening. While there’s a measure of role-reversal, it’s not a matter of each player now going to the other extreme. Nor would I argue Docile is advocating for some modern-politics style “meet in the middle,” a position which presents abuser and abused as somehow equal (there are characters who try to make that false equivalency, but they are more strictly antagonists).
Nevertheless, Elisha enters a period where he’s forced to make choices which are wholly on behalf of himself while still contending with the demands of folks he cares for and about. And he has to find a way to negotiate, both externally and internally, which parts of himself are his self, rather than constructs built by others.
Meanwhile Alex winds up in a scenario where getting what he wants can’t be accomplished by just demanding more loudly, more forcefully, or with more money behind it. In order to do what he wants to do, he has to play by a set of rules that he is, at present, unable to change.
In the context of the heroic modes I mentioned at the start (I said this was blather, but I didn’t entirely forget my thesis), the latter half of the book becomes a story which takes on both the martyr and the action hero modes so common in Western / genre storytelling especially, and suggests that (1) neither is the ultimate solution, but also that (2) each may be most effective when leveraging synergies with the other.
Of the two, Alex’s arc is the more obvious. It doesn’t take a lot of deep philosophical examination to suggest that you can’t actually change society for the better if you’re incapable of considering that all members of society are, gasp, people. Watching the people in Alex’s life — previously willing to tell him whatever he wanted to hear — take advantage of the fact he’s actually listening is the more intriguing element. Because of the power he wields by chance of birth, the people he has considered his closest friends have spent their lives finding ways to use that power to achieve their own ends. That, too, isn’t entirely surprising in a novel predicated on the ascendency of corporate wealth consolidation.
In these reveals, though, Alex discovers how much his faith in his power — in his dominance — has left him open to the unacknowledged power of those willing to bend to his. Toeing the company line has given one confidante the chance to steer medical improvements, another the financial means to anonymously support efforts to dismantle exploitative structures. And because of those flexes, when Alex is finally ready to see his inner circle for who they are rather than who he wants them to be, those same folks are in a position to help him do some unseen flexing of his own.
This brings us back around to Elisha, no longer under Alex’s control but nevertheless still under the conditioning that control built. You’ll recall what I said about yelling at folks to stop hurting Elisha? That continued on and off even after his contract with Alex was closed out. There’s this thing that happens, where even the people who recognize the mental conditioning Elisha has undergone still respond as if, somehow, it’s his fault that he doesn’t. Given how many of the people Elisha interacts with at this point are activists, I see where that impulse comes from, but to be clear I think it’s of a piece with the bad decisions Alex makes: it’s founded on an assumption that, since they have found a way to act and resist, anyone who has not has (in the words of at least one of them) “given up.”
Once again, what felt like bravery in the face of desperation — what was, in fact, one of the defining characteristics that made Elisha a ‘good person’ — is now a thing he’s meant to see as a weakness, a failing.
Metatextually, the fact of the matter is, martyrs only seem to be useful, are only seen as acting, in their own deaths. So much so that we’ve built entire tropes (and more than a few IP juggernauts) around the notion that, so long as you die a heroic death, what came before doesn’t matter. If all you are is a martyr — if all you do is submit to the inevitable — you’re meant to be a side character, possibly a secondary antagonist, until it’s time to step up and climb on your cross.
There are heroes who also end in martyrdom, but here it’s important to recognize that their martyrdom comes in the face of a host of actions taken to change their (and any number of others’) lot. A hero can ‘give up,’ but only after they’ve exhausted all other actions. And, again, only if they’re accepting death or its analogues. If not, we wind our way into ‘fallen hero’ territory. Someone else will need to pick up the sword in the wake of that sad sack who couldn’t cut it. Maybe they’ll get lucky and come back around to heroism again.
This is one of the reasons I find Elisha’s arc especially compelling, honestly. Because, yes, one of its priorities is giving Elisha the tools to re-find himself and advocate for the person he deserves to be. But that “real Elisha,” you shouldn’t be surprised to discover, is a person who is most satisfied in helping other people. If the crushing debt of the novel hadn’t been a factor, his pie-in-the-sky dream was to get an education degree and teach.
Let’s be clear that teaching isn’t The Ultimate Submission or some nonsense. Teaching is active. Teaching absolutely shapes the future in important ways. But I don’t think it’s unfair to say that success in teaching is most often measured by the success of those being taught. That pre-Docile Elisha dreamed of that as a crowning achievement underlines what I’ve said before, and what the novel continues to articulate: what Elisha has always wanted is to find happiness in helping others find happiness.
This is the struggle Elisha faces, and the conundrum hero narratives struggle with, as well: how do you fight for the idea that you don’t want to fight? When each display of submission is a sign of weakness or your ongoing victimization, is proof that you aren’t “strong enough” (and, ironically, are thus subject once again to the will of others), how do you actually achieve the dreams everyone says you’ve lost?
Because there is, of course, value and power in submission. Society is predicated on it. We have Alex, his family, and nearly every member of his economic class standing right there to show us what a horrible idea it is to idolize only those who enact their vision on the world and balk when the world deviates from the path they’ve laid out.
In point of fact, I’d argue that altruism, often heralded as the trait that delineates heroes from villains, is heroic because of the martyrdom inherent in it. So too empathy, as truly understanding how others feel comes by sacrificing some portion of our ego.
It’s that synergy of classic/Western action vs inaction as both essential components, of heroism as less about apotheosis and more about achieving a gestalt, that gives my writer brain a lot of buzz.