Vox imagines a world where women can only speak 100 words a day – Susannah Butter tries it out

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Vox imagines a world where women can only speak 100 words a day – Susannah Butter tries it out

The hotly anticipated novel ‘Vox’ imagines a world where women can only utter 100 words a day. Susannah Butter tries it out for herself


Freedom of speech: In the novel Vox, women are restricted in how many words they can say
Freedom of speech: In the novel Vox, women are restricted in how many words they can say

Jean wears a silver counter around her wrist. If she says more than 100 words in one day it issues an electric shock. She’s stopped meeting friends for drinks, no longer talks to her husband and can’t read her daughter bedtime stories. The average person uses about 16,000 words a day, often without really thinking about what they are saying.

So what would happen if that right was taken away from half of the population? That is the premise of Christina Dalcher’s debut novel Vox about a dystopian world where women’s daily speech is restricted to 100 words – the length of these two paragraphs.

“I wrote Vox as a cautionary tale about gender politics, backlash and cultural shift,” says Dalcher, a 50-year-old American who has a doctorate in theoretical linguistics and only started writing novels four years ago. It’s gone well. Sarah Jessica Parker called Vox “a great summer read by a special female voice” and there are talks about a film adaptation.

It has been read as a reaction to Donald Trump’s America, but it’s broader than that. “I am against any kind of authoritarianism,” says Dalcher. “That goes for every side of the political spectrum. It has very little to do with the current president; it’s more to do with government control in a general sense. We see this hushing up of people coming from both sides – look at university campuses.”

Her novel has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, while Time magazine called Vox a novel for the #MeToo era. Dalcher wasn’t thinking of that when she started it in May 2017 – indeed, the #MeToo movement hadn’t started yet. “But Vox is related to women banding together so it’s timely. I had a backlash in mind when I was writing – women began to be so vocal in 2017; we had a lot of marches, a million women showing up in Washington DC, so it was on my mind that there would be some faction that would react by saying ‘Enough, we don’t want to hear you any more’.”

Does she, like the novel’s protagonist Jean, feel silenced and as though she needs to rebel? “Absolutely. Every single day – about politics, religion. Sometimes it’s not like people are actually silencing me, but there is pressure to censor yourself to not cause any hurt. I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who speaks with absolute frankness.”



Christina DalcherChristina Dalcher

Christina Dalcher

But what would it really be like to be limited to just 100 words a day? I decided to give it a go.

Statistically, it’s easier to be consistently funny and intelligent if you say less. Occasionally, I’m jealous of those friends who don’t say much but when they do decide to pipe up, they have something worthwhile to say.

I’m the opposite, articulating my thoughts without thinking, idly hoping that at least some of them weren’t fatuous.

So, at first, not being able to speak is as debilitating as I feared. I’ve warned my loved ones this was coming and I’m not being rude. My friends tease me the day before by silencing me every time I open my mouth.

“This is coming out of your allowance so it had better be good,” they mock. I glower, practising at communicating with a dark look instead of words. They ask if I’m feeling okay because I look so odd.

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Non-verbal cues become important. I try to give my boyfriend a meaningful good-morning smile but he just laughs at me (no, not with me). On an outing to buy milk I’m torn: not thanking the man at the checkout feels rude, but it’s also a waste of a word – obviously I’d say ‘thanks’ instead of ‘thank you’ (I’m no amateur). I pretend I have laryngitis, gesturing to show I’ve lost my voice.

Reading and writing are verboten too (that’s why I’m doing this at the weekend – it wouldn’t be feasible at work). It’s refreshing to have an excuse not to check emails and to break from the noise of Twitter.

I delude myself that looking at a constant feed of news (Instagram) keeps me informed, but when I come to catch up the next day, I haven’t missed anything and find I concentrate properly, reading whole articles, thereby being more on the pulse than had I spent a day exhausting the zeitgeist.

At a lunch with friends that I couldn’t cancel, I worried that people would tire of the mute in the corner, but actually they enjoyed having a captive audience. If you can’t talk back, you hear more. And you notice other things. I slowed down to eat, really tasting my food rather than shovelling it in between trying to keep up with the conversation.

However delicious my pizza was, though, it was annoying not being able to join in, especially when I had a great anecdote to contribute to the conversation. I told myself it would hold but knew it wouldn’t. I can’t imagine having to be silent in my open-plan office either.

At the end of the day I assumed I would be a better person, one for whom every word mattered. Instead, I blurted out a jumble of observations that I didn’t realise had been building up all day. And then I had a glass of wine and said thank you.

I am a social animal and I have no desire to do it again.

Vox by Christina Dalcher (Berkley Books, €17.99) is published on August 21.

Irish Independent

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