Review of Docile
K. M. Szpara. Docile. Tor.com, 2020. Hardcover, 496 pp. $27.99. ISBN 9781250216151.
A book like Docile requires a reviewer to provide a strict content warning at the beginning. This book (and this review) contains discussions and depictions of sex, slavery, and abuse. It contains moments of harm that can be triggering for survivors of sexual violence and abuse. K. M. Szpara handles violence and forgiveness with grace and civility instead of gratuitousness and voyeurism. Under Szpara’s pen, these topics become molded into a story that is aware of the harm they can cause and the future that all survivors must live through.
Having inherited his family’s insurmountable debt, Elisha Wilder “chooses” to sell himself into the docile program, a program that allows a person to give up their agency for monetary return. The man who buys Elisha Wilder’s contract is none other than Alexander Bishop III, the inheritor of the company that patents, manufactures, and markets Dociline, the drug that makes dociles docile, numb to the choices they make and obedience to those who bought their contracts. Upon entering the contract, though, Elisha refuses to use Dociline, something usually not done but provided for as a docile’s right. The book then delves into questions around systemic capitalism, consent, and change. Switching perspectives between Elisha and Alex allows Szpara to dismantle the dystopic future he has built and thus provide readers with a possibility of dismantling the dystopic present in which we live.
In the previous paragraph, I provide quotes around chooses to highlight one of the central themes of this book. What is choice and consent? The question occurs over and over again as the characters grapple with being benefited by, trapped in, and assaulted with a system that does not let anyone out. Szpara’s text highlights the sexual and capitalistic system of a dystopian, near-future America, but the questions he poses are universal as we struggle in the relationship between humanity, humanness, and all institutions. Szpara shows a keen awareness of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Louis Althusser, and so many others as he engages in dismantling and deconstructing what agency and consent mean within a system that grips the very soul of humanity; in other words, Szpara’s thoughts, questions, and beautiful eloquence are on par with (and in some cases better than) the writers and thinkers we enshrine in academia, but his text fundamentally undermines that same system that builds up, defends, and obscures knowledge. Indeed, to understand what Szpara is saying and to allow it to work within you, a reader simply needs literacy and empathy, instead of a degree or an intellectual guide.
Docile’s handling of sexual violence, consent, and capitalism is genre nuancing. On its surface, one could see it as a book about the relationship, even a form of romance, between Elisha and Alex, but its complications of this relationship turn it from a simple book into one of the most evocative written in recent years. As with dystopian novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Docile is never what it completely seems and will always evoke reread after reread as we mull over and consider what Szpara is saying about institutionalized control and (the lack of) consent within that system.
But Szpara doesn’t simply portray his capitalism as necessary of anarchistic response or proletarian revolution. Szpara realizes that systems, institutions, and the humans who make up both are more complicated than the necessity of overthrowing them. Docile grapples with the humanity that philosophical treatise and systemic interventions cannot. Through the relationship of Elisha and Alex, readers receive an intimate complexity to what it means to live in a world of systems and institutions. By the end of the novel, readers are not left with a one-way path to an answer, but they are instead given a diversity of intersectional roads by which to travel.
Not only does Docile deliver a resounding critique of debt and prison, but it also provides room for readers to think, consider, and rethink their positions. At every page turn, I found myself questioning how I viewed the systems around me and how I might be able to change them. Docile delivers where fiction is needed most: it is not a systemic takedown of an institution but rather the systemic buildup of awareness and possibility that a reader can gain in experiencing this America that almost is but hopefully never will be. It delivers the perfect package of dystopian philosophizing and fictional questioning that empowers the thoughtful reader to return to reality better equipped to battle our own tyrannies and our own docility.
Adam McLain recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a master of theological studies and holds a BA in English from Brigham Young University. He will be a Harvard Frank Knox Traveling Fellow in Fall 2021, studying 20th-century dystopia and the legal history of sexual violence in the UK.