This story gets a separate post because it was very upsetting and I needed more space to think about it. I do NOT think these thoughts are entirely complete, and I may need to read it again and think it out further.
TW: gore, death, gender violence, genital mutilation, homophobia, misogyny, warfare
No Man’s Land is an extremely disturbing body swap story. I DO NOT recommend reading it if you have any triggers related to war or gender violence.
In the Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy” (3×15), an American WWII soldier wakes up as a Japanese combatant, and is made suddenly, jarringly aware of the equal humanity of his enemies. If it were about not just nationalism, but the consequences of misogynistic, hypermasculine military culture, this would be the result.
No Man’s Land opens with the main character’s horrifying discovery that he is in the enemy’s body, being called the enemy’s name, Cluny, and his own body is lying violently dead not far away. He is taken back to the (enemy) camp and looked over for injury, trying not to give himself away and in near shock over the difference in perspective and the loss of his body. The horrific center of the story is when he goes to take a shower and finds the scars on Cluny’s breasts and genitals. Repeat warning: this is very graphic and very upsetting. I reached this story while on a train, and nearly put it down.
The narrator is honest with himself. He admits—readily, even—that this atrocity might have been committed by one or some of the men whose lives he used to protect with his own, whose lives he feared for when he woke up dead. Perhaps the realization is not so difficult for him to face because Cluny isn’t the only victim. She is not the only one who has died in some degree, and she is not the only one who has been raped by enemy soldiers.
The story is an argument, not against the use of women combatants, but against the rampant misogyny and homophobia that are made “acceptable” in hypermasculine and hyperviolent cultures. It is about the universal costs of war. It is about dehumanizing the enemy and seeing enemy bodies as disposible—not just to fight, but to use and to wound—because sadism and hatred are not unlikely consequences of training someone to kill for a living, and putting them in front of someone else’s gun.
Playing “who gets it worst?” and parsing out exactly what this story says for gender is difficult, and not something I’m sure that I’m fully prepared to do yet. My thought is that Monette balances everything very well. The more brutal sexual violence falls on Cluny, and her self is killed before the story begins. I think the emphasis on a woman as the object of sexual violence is important, because women usually are. But at the same time, between the two of them, her identity is the one that survives. Her name is Miriam Cluny, and people still love her.
Though the narrator lives, his life is over, his body is more fully destroyed than Cluny’s, and he hasn’t escaped. He is in the wrong body, a hurt body, that he can’t stop knowing belongs to someone who hasn’t died right, trapped on a side of a war that’s no more terrible than the one he started out on. He’s not a survivor yet, because he’s lost his life and he’s still walking into death. (A note: the main character does not cease to think of himself as male just because he is in a new body that belonged previously to a woman. Many writers don’t understand the difference between body and identity, so I appreciate this marked distinction.)
The male narrator doesn’t have a name. He is not anyone anymore. It isn’t that Cluny’s body has been given to him to use, somehow—she’s not less than him. There’s no doubt of Cluny’s strength or worth, even as she dies in spirit. It’s that his self has been given to her life. He steps into it, frightened and horrified and traumatized, and he doesn’t even try to protest or strike out. He just takes her place on her side of the line, all of the motions familiar, all of the pains familiar—because there is no end, and there’s nowhere else to go.