If you have read a lot of my reviews in particular, you might have noticed that I enjoy reading books from the perspective of an individual’s relationship to society. So when offered the chance to read a book with the tagline “there is no consent under capitalism,” you can imagine the inhuman sounds of excitement that spawned within my mouth. Not only does it scratch the aforementioned itch, but I get to think about capital “C” Capitalism too? Sign me up, I’m ready to report for duty. Fortunately, for people who are not me, K. M. Szpara’s debut novel Docile, is not quite the screed I was looking for. Instead, Szpara delivers an intelligent, emotional and deeply human exploration of how society, economics and power can affect those struggling at the bottom, as well as those who rest at the top.
Docile is the story of two men, Elisha and Alex, in a near future Baltimore where trillionaires reign supreme. The state of Maryland enacted a law in which debt is shared by members within a family, but can also be sold to those with the means, for years, even lifetimes, of servitude. Luckily, for those willing to sell their debt, there is Dociline, a drug that inhibits the short term memory of the user and turns them into an effective automaton, allowing them to serve out their term in relative “peace” and ignorance. Elisha’s family is millions of dollars in debt, and he takes it upon himself to sell it and serve so that his younger sister has a chance at life. Alex is a trillionaire and heir apparent to the Bishop Family, the makers and distributors of Dociline. After a recent breakup that makes the board question his abilities, Alex purchases Elisha’s debt and takes him on as a Docile, as part of his plan to prove the effectiveness of a new version of Dociline. Alex’s plans are thrown to the wind when Elisha refuses the drug, creating new terms for their relationship. What follows is a story of sex and abuse as the two men try to discover who they are to themselves, and each other.
Szpara accomplishes an incredible amount within Docile and interweaves so much of it together that it’s very hard to separate and highlight the strengths of the individual parts. Fortunately, I do not have to break that much down to really get to the good stuff. The characters are honestly the star of this book, and I owe that to Szpara’s attention to baseline emotions, deterioration of said emotions, and the internal monologuing he provides for Elisha and Alex. Both characters are written in incredible detail but not in a way that overwhelms the reader. Their transformations through the book are gradual, aided in part by time skips that feel natural as the characters follow the emotional paths their decisions set them down. Elisha’s journey of defiant and somewhat naive farmboy to cowed subservient plaything was as heart wrenching as it was believable. In turn, Alex’s transition from uncertain scientist to a domineering and demanding master was cleverly executed through his understanding of playing the role, and yet he still becomes the mask.
Much of the excellent characterization is highlighted by Szpara’s efficient and descriptive writing style. He is straight-forward and not ambiguous in his descriptions of character’s feelings, sexual acts being performed, or societal roles being played. It is a raw and unflinching look at power dynamics from an economic, social and personal level. That is not to say however, that morality shines through every step of the way through the book, with Szpara highlighting what is wrong in every situation. Instead, Szpara questions the systems at play through the character’s own inner monologues, following their own trains of thought after they did something they found distasteful. Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms. It pulled me in while allowing me to think about the things Szpara’s characters were dealing with.
The lynchpin argument of the book is right there on the cover – “There is no consent under Capitalism.” If this feels daunting and in your face, do not be alarmed. Szpara’s handling of that thesis is more human and intimate than I expected. Instead of a sweeping system wide exploration of all the different ways big and small people are affected, the whole of Docile is focused on a single pair of men, one with power and privilege, the other without. Szpara goes to great lengths to paint this relationship with as many colors of abuse and intimacy as he can, highlighting the lack of choice, and the gap between Elisha and Alex. The author also emphasizes how the economic system bleeds into every aspect of life, every interaction is tainted in some small way, that it’s impossible to know where the system ends and one as an individual begins. Szpara surprised me most with his exploration of Alex, and his role within the system he was perpetuating. The small amounts of maliciousness that start to get infused in his daily life as he “trains” Elisha to prove to the company board he is a stable and productive member of Elite society. How he, along with Elisha, become the embodiment of his theme of “you change a little bit every day,” until they both become unrecognizable. It was cleverly and masterly handled.
Lastly, I just want to commend Szpara for writing a dystopia that in its bones, reflects the material conditions of now, instead of just the worries and anxieties of where we as a culture might be headed. I think there is a tendency to slip into “the worst possible scenario,” and, to me, it feels like the author avoids that here. Instead, Szpara tries to highlight what is already concerning today, with a slight step up on the absurdity scale. Instead of billionaires there are trillionaires. Instead of working your whole life to pay for debts incurred in order to participate in life, you sell your debt to become a docile and take a drug to ease the pain. The questions that characters ask themselves do not just relate to their specific situation but highlight general concerns that then branch into other questions. On top of that Szpara avoids spiraling, and digging too deep where everything feels hopeless, choosing to focus on what’s important: the people who inhabit their/our lives and who we choose to be around them. It was an incredibly touching revelation.
Overall, Docile, is an incredibly fascinating read, with wonderful characters and a world that feels all too real. Unfortunately, some may be put off by the incredibly vivid and descriptive sex scenes, or the large amount of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse on display. However, if that is not a hindrance to you as a reader, this is definitely worth your time. Rarely has such a monstrous world felt like it was dealt with in such a human fashion. I definitely recommend it, and look forward to more of Szpara’s work.
Rating: Docile – 9.0/10