Manjula Padmanabhan’s Escape is about entrapment. The victim? A girl child incarcerated in voyeuristic prose. Meiji is the last girl in a world where women have been eliminated. This nymphet is 16, but her development has been arrested by ‘pills’. The book traces her uneasy pubescence, monitored, hair by convolute hair, by an elderly guardian with the hots for her.
Meiji has been brought up in isolation on the Estate by her three uncles—Eldest, Middle and Youngest. She has no notion of gender, and probably expects to grow into an Uncle. The book begins with the Uncles deciding that Meiji must leave the Estate and cross the Waste, or be killed by the mad General who rules their world. Her ‘pills’ are withdrawn, and Uncles One and Two drop out of the book. The next 300 pages span an encounter between Meiji and Youngest, queasily lusting after his ward.
As Meiji veers between being Alice and Lolita, the writer strives to keep Youngest at half-mast. No easy job that. There’s skinny-dipping and a lesson in porn at daybreak, and the use of the nursery idiom for sex increases the yuck factor.
Their journey is a Carrollian nightmare. The Waste is full of terrors set off by the General’s psychopathic Boyz. Blindfolded, her breasts bound, fitted with an artificial penis, and uglified to look like a grimy peasant boy, Meiji is paradoxically encouraged by Youngest to experience her femaleness. Through all this, Meiji remains unexplored. She is reduced to an adolescent body the writer probes like an inept gynaecologist.
Escape stays clear of complexities. It objectifies and inventories the child’s body to an extent that might delight paedophiles, but leaves others outraged. To rise above such petty criticism a novel must make the inspired leap from salacity to epiphany. Escape never does that.
All tropes of pornography are exploited in Meiji’s journey from innocence to awareness. Isolation, the quest for a new world, protection from unknown dangers, instruction, self-exploration, the Snark is hunted through it all, to eventual revelation. As Meiji claims her sexuality, Youngest ducks neatly: the Snark is a Boojum, you see. It is hard to imagine the Reverend Dodgson as Youngest, but Meiji makes a determined Alice.
Why this in a novel with a strong premise, and an even stronger pen? The writer’s trademark satire is elegant, as in the brilliant description of the cloned generals. Despite strengths, Escape disappoints. The Change is not fully explained. The narrative is not Swiftian enough to camouflage some very iffy science.
Dystopia is a state of mind. It necessitates subversion of the human spirit. To project such a vision, everything must be dislocated. We are eventually cheated in Padmanabhan’s very-bad-place-to-be.
What will happen if women go extinct? According to Escape, reproductive technologies will diversify and paraphilias will become endemic. That’s all? What about extant women? What about the writer’s own philosophy? In this novel dystopia serves as a device for child porn.
Escape puts me in mind of Balthus’s paintings of innocence celebrated through its doom. With one crucial distinction. Balthus’s nymphs, in their terrible beauty, cry out for rescue and make it impossible for the viewer to unhook from that repulsive world. Escape is just not strong enough for that.