by Ann Harleman
Conscience Place, a novel by Joyce Thompson, Jericho Hill Publishing, Alfred, New York, 224 pages, reprint edition 2019, $14.99 paperback.
IN THE AUTUMN OF 1976 I went to live in the Soviet Union for six months. A U.S. citizen, I was on an academic exchange between two bitterly opposed governments. Because of the way the exchange worked, my three-year-old daughter and I were thrown on the Soviet economy, under surveillance but on our own as far as navigating daily life was concerned. I had not expected this. Reluctantly, resentfully, I stood in long lines for the few kinds of food available, shopped at GUM for the warm coat my daughter needed to survive the Russian winter, relied on the spartan Polyclinic for our medical needs. My daughter went to a Russian nursery school, where she picked up the language with a speed born of toddler sociability. A good thing, because our life had to be lived in Russian. And then something incredible happened. As we made Russian friends, were drawn into their homes and their lives, the beauty of their sealed, constricted world began to reveal itself. Deprived of material goods, of freedom of speech and movement, the Russians I knew had developed a far deeper emotional and intellectual life than my countrymen. I came home with a changed perspective on my own (supposedly far superior) culture.
This is what Joyce Thompson's Conscience Place does for its readers. As the novel opens, we are in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world. Its inhabitants are physically deformed: partly or wholly limbless, or with a flipper for a limb; one-eyed; lacking noses or external ears; covered with fur or with scales. Thompson's intention, as she announces in the Foreword to this reprint of a work originally published in 1984, is "to make people identify, even love, beyond the furthest outposts of their aesthetic prejudices."
Reader, she does.
For the first quarter of the novel, we experience the Place—as this world is known to its inhabitants, the People—through the eyes of Bartholomew, whose job is to film its daily life for television. Kept illiterate by the Fathers—unknowable godlike beings whose authority the People willingly accept—the inhabitants' only source of information is television. Bartholomew's useless legs and prosthetic arm make his eyes all the more discerning, his imagination all the more vivid. As with the other characters whom we see through his vision and come to—yes!—love, his limitations are inseparable from his gift. There's the limbless Clotho, who paints with a brush held between his teeth; Leda, who with only one arm and one leg, "swims like a spirochete"; Peter, whose seven-fingered hand lets him play a specially made instrument so that "his music speaks with two voices." The People receive their vocations upon coming of age, "work chosen to match his aptitudes and predilections, work that will serve the community and encourage the individual to grow." This is the simple "code" of the Place: to give and accept help.
Thompson's lyrical style, dense with detail, makes the unreal real. Consider Brother Alice, governor of the Place: "His skin is silver and scaled, like the bright skin of a fish. Round and green, big as three ordinary human eyes, Brother Alice's right eye is positioned on his face several centimeters higher than his left one. This green eye never moves or blinks.…Bartholomew imagines…that this eye sees more deeply than other eyes."
But wait! Brother Alice is not what he seems. (The People are all hermaphroditic; in their language only the masculine pronoun exists.) As Conscience Place unfolds, we discover that this is not a post-apocalytic world, but a subset of our own. A secret region where people born with defects caused by nuclear mishaps are hidden away. Alice is actually an anthropologist—her deformities are an ingeniously designed costume—who has been living among the People for sixteen years, studying them and reporting back to the committee of scientists who run the project.
Now, with government funding about to be withdrawn, the committee is considering using the population of the Place for experiments supported by various sources—experiments that sound a lot like those conducted by the Nazis on their prisoners. In short, the People would become human subjects. The unity of their culture, the beauty of their communal life, would be destroyed. The code of giving would give way, as Alice puts it, to the code of money.
That this feels like a great and tragic loss is a testament to Thompson's narrative gift. She pulls us inside her imagined world and lays bare the flaws in the real one. Like my time in the Soviet Union, the days I spent with Conscience Place made me homesick for what might exist, and heartsick for what does.
Could an alternative world ever exist? What will happen to this one, in the clash between it and the larger world?
Read this bewitching, fiercely original novel and find out.
Ann Harleman's fifth book, just published, is Tell Me, Signora, winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Award. She was the first woman to earn a PhD in Linguistics from Princeton University, and has lived and worked in Italy. Having taught for two decades at the Rhode Island School of Design, she is now on the faculty of Brown University. She lives in Oakland. For more, see www.annharleman.com.