She thought that it wasn't David, it wasn't even sex; it was some kind of deeper trouble, not only painful but unbearably, exasperatingly boring, something that would've been a lot better if it had been tragic and easier if it'd been sad.
Something unbearably disillusioning.
And old. Very, very old.
I've been working my way through a couple of different lists of Best/Favorite science fiction by women in Gwyneth Jones' Imagination/Space, mostly recently Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World and McIntyre's Dreamsnake. For Joanna Russ, Jones quite rightly recommends The Female Man, but because the Tiptree and McIntyre were both published in 1978, I chose to re-read The Two of Them, which was also published in 1978 and has long been one of my favorite Russ novels. I've always found it a difficult novel, and it's hard to imagine that I could provide a better reading of it than Jones' "Postscript to A Fairy Tale," which finds in the novel a Cinderella story and a parable of the failure of what's now called second wave feminism to achieve gender equality.
The Two of Them begins with two agents of the Trans-Temporal Agency, Ernst and Irene, arriving on a hollowed out asteroid that houses a neo-Islamic culture where women are treated like ornamental birds in a cage, supposedly for their own protection but really to keep them under control. What Ernst and Irene's mission is, and what the nature of the Trans-Temporal Agency is, is left unclear, but when Ernst and Irene discover the twelve-year-old daughter of the emmisary who greets them and discover that she wants to be a poet but will never be allowed to in this culture (where her aunt Dunya was declared insane for wanting the same thing), we flash back to Irene's adolescence as a bright, awkward, misfit in the USA of 1953. This is pretty clearly an autobiographic element in the story, and I feel that Russ used a similar situation in her Alyx story, "The Second Inquisition." Like the girl Zubeydeh, Irene is unhappy with her options in a culture that is repressive of women like her housewife mother. When a mysterious friend of her mother's named Ernst shows up at the house, Irene is fascinated and soon finds out that he is an agent of a mysterious agency that exists somewhere in an alternative reality. (It seems to me that the agency is not Trans-Temporal so much as Trans-Reality, where Reality conforms to the Many Worlds Hypothesis).
Back in the neo-Islamic asteroid, we find out that Ernst recruited Irene into the agency, rescuing her from the limited future she was facing in her home reality, and that they have been lovers and colleagues in the agency for many years since then. They have a very close, loving relationship, and when Irene decides that she wants to rescue Zubeydeh by recruiting her as Ernst recruited Irene, Ernst is willing. But as Irene mulls the situation, she realizes that rescuing Zubeydeh doesn't accomplish much. What about Zubeydeh's pill-popping housewife mother, who seems to prefer her cage to freedom, or her mad aunt, or Irene's own mother left behind in the home timeline, or her disabled best friend Chloe, who is so socially isolated that she lives vicariously through operas that Irene dismisses as heartless stories about women trapped and killed by social rules while men (especially the morally-ambivalent baritones) are free to have fun while they suffer.
The Two of Them is difficult partly because it's so conflicted. Irene is consumed by guilt for her failures and limitations. She wants women to be as free as men, but she can see that women are often their own worst enemies and complicit in their own oppression. The novel is also self-aware of its own contradictions. This self-awareness starts out as awareness that all stories are artificial, as Irene dissects the cliches of operas and the neo-Islamic poetic fables on TV on the asteroid. Trashy romances that Zubeydeh consumes with a passion and wants to eventually write herself. The fact that Irene and Ernst are moving between probabilities also emphasizes that in some ways they are choosing which story they want to inhabit, which in turn underlines the fact that the one we're reading about is just as arbitrary and full of plot holes as any of the others. Russ takes glee in mocking her own story, in fact, and examining the ways in which it doesn't make sense. Eventually a shocking death occurs, and the novel seems to start unraveling before our eyes, as Irene tries to fix it by imagining that it is a comedy instead of a tragedy.
Yet the nightmare of history won't allow Irene wake up in a comedy. Irene has to face the reality that the oppression of women is deeply engrained in the world and is always working against her, constraining her choices. Ironically, once she cuts herself loose from the agency, which she comes to see as a conspiracy against women, granting freedom to a select few such as herself while abandoning the rest throughout the multiverse, she loses all power of self-determination.
I've always found the end of the novel hair-raising, as Irene dreams of a dream of the mad aunt Dunya, about a valley of dry bones: "Innumerable skeletons are spread from wall to wall, and piled up immeasurably into the half-grey, half-lost rocky ceiling so far from any open love or light, are skeletons lying as they fell long ago in aeons-old attitudes of terror or flight, bones intermingled with bones, heaps of bones choking the dry watercourse and stretching back between the valley walls, a dry, silent carpeting as far as the eye can see." These are pretty clearly the bones of all the women who have died in servitude to men, and nothing in that valley has changed for a very long time. This is an expression of hopelessness and fear that true gender equality can never be achieved in the face of the long history of inequality.
But then, magically, a voice begins to whisper, "Shall these bones live!" and creates a breeze that begins to rustle through the bones, promising new life. I never really understood this ending until a couple of years ago when I discovered that it's a reference to a passage from Ezekiel, where Ezekiel has a vision of a valley of dry bones and then hears the voice of God, '“Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel."'
I'm still not sure what Russ intends with this reference. I don't think she believes gender equality will be wrought miraculously by a supernatural being. It seems more likely that the miracle will be caused by books like The Two of Them, in which women are given a voice, even if only a bare whisper. Of course, while Russ kept writing for a short while after this book was published, she all too soon fell silent herself. But of course Russ was a Jew and would have been well aware that throughout history the people of Israel have never long been free of oppression, enslavement and exile. There's a deep sense of pessimism in this book, for all the agile acrobatics and humor of the narrative. One thing I noticed this time through is that Irene is furious the whole time, but she is also aware that her anger causes her to make strategic and tactical mistakes. Looming over all of this is the question of whether sympathetic men -- such as Ernst -- can be allies in the project of equality, or whether we are doomed by our culture to keep replicating the same power relationships that our culture has stabilized for thousands of years. It's a powerful meditation, if ultimately a gloomy one.