One of the pleasures of reviewing anti-woke literature is discovering originality. Woke literature is predictable and unmeritorious. Here’s the formula: bigotry is bad, society is bigoted, but nonetheless a nonwhite immigrant woman/gay man/transgendered person triumphs. Since the publishing world explicitly seeks to publish new authors with the same identities, merit has declined. Woke literature is boring.
By contrast, anti-woke literature is full of surprises, rich characters, biting observations, and shocking situations. The woke world, after all, is rich with opportunities for ridicule and reflection. Anti-woke literature is the underdog the literary elite pretends doesn’t exist. While woke literature claims to be demographically diverse, anti-woke literature is creatively diverse.
In recent months, I have reviewed anti-woke science fiction and a darkly comic escape thriller. My own approach was to satirize the Anglo-American academia-media-political complex. In passing, I managed a dig at Fifty Shades of Grey (2011)—a dreadful novel that made it big after being marketed as empowering to women in particular and the woke in general (for whom any sexual perversion is a welcome strike against normativity). In my own novel, the hero awakens, after a long period of colorless drought, to a “dawn ruled with clouds arranged in parallel greys.” “Fifty shades of grey had never before seemed readable,” he muses.
Rasmus Sonderriis has gone further, by writing a novel satirizing both Fifty Shades of Grey and the woke. Fifty Shades of Woke is subtitled: “The flesh is weak. The whiteness is fragile.” Sonderriis, a foreign correspondent and columnist for a Chilean magazine, gets the prize for most striking title, and another prize for cover design, with photoshopped mockups of the book’s colorful characters, topped by fake reviews from the New York Times and the like: “Problematic . . . Literally literary violence . . . Totally not safe for you to read.”
The creativity of the cover, thankfully, reflects the creativity of the content. In real life, Sonderriis is a multicultural man with “lived experience,” as the woke would say, on which he draws to imagine his hero “Ruben.” The novel makes wordplay in English, Spanish, and Danish, as Ruben wages his woke war against capitalism and his own whiteness, from Denmark to Chile to America.
Satirizing wokeness, while writing in the first person as if one were woke, is not easy. Fifty Shades of Woke uses the hero’s Freudian slips, dissonance, and second-guesses to betray the internal contradictions of wokery. For instance, when a wholesome couple in a wealthy district of Copenhagen tells Ruben about their charitable work, he thinks to himself, “Rich people are ingenious with their alibis.”
In Ruben’s preferred hangout (the Anti-capitalist People’s Café), he notices “a transwoman in a tight, ruby-colored leotard.” He immediately observes, “She is big enough to also be a fat acceptance activist. She certainly has no need for breast implants.”
Sonderriis uses Ruben’s unwoke friends to challenge the incongruities that Ruben himself dances around. After the transwoman contrives to brush against him, punch him, and accuse him of assault, Ruben apologizes. A work colleague whose romantic interest he had privately discounted because she is too “materialistic,” however, angrily identifies the protagonist as a liar and as a man. “I have the right to be a woman,” replies the man. Eventually, that man excuses his behavior to Ruben “because I have my period.”
Ruben doesn’t give up his unknowingly sardonic self-talk. When participating in a fat acceptance activist video, he ponders, “It’s easy to forget that fat people have so many self-esteem issues, because we focus on their corpulent exterior and ignore their lean soul. And the window of the soul is the eyes. Which incidentally have no fat deposits.”
Sometimes, Ruben’s self-reflections betray his own hypocrisies. For instance, he sees himself online as a “progressive troll with an impish smile, not a primitive far-right one with a malicious grin.”
Even so, he starts to wake from wokeness. For instance, he admits to himself that “mass migration is not always problem-free,” after Venezuelan exiles warn Chileans against socialism.
His woke friends tie each other in knots trying to out-woke each other. In one conversation, Ruben agrees that white flight is labelled racist, but is told he is wrong to prescribe white return: “They must stay away, or else it’s gentrification, the new ethnic cleansing.”
Race is the dominant theme. The novel begins with an African-American activist lecturing a willing white audience, only to criticize its enthusiasm as “performative wokeness.” One man tries to sympathize with her personally, only to be told to “check your white savior complex!” He is hurt. “Hey, I’m not a racist,” he squeals. “But Denmark is racist. Not me! My best friends are black! I attend the Black Lives Matter Denmark rallies! I’ve been a solidarity worker in Kenya. I’ve even passed a goddamn antiracism course!” What is his reward for presenting this evidence in his own defense? She rules that the evidence proves “white fragility.”
The hero, Ruben, curses his Nordic good looks, inherited from a sperm donor. His impotent father is Amerindian, with which he prefers to identify. Yet ultimately he cannot escape the racism that his color provokes. He struggles to articulate his admiration for the activist’s “power” without bringing race into it. She doesn’t make it easy for him. She asks whether he means the power of exploited labor. Then she invites him to use the term “black woman,” while remonstrating that he looks like “the incarnation of a blue-eyed devil.” For his part, he worries that his attraction might be “a racist hate crime.” In his fantasy, he asks, “How can I make it up to you for 400 years of racial injustice?”
In a particularly delicious piece of dialogue, a second African-American woman culminates her psychological torture by accusing him of using the “n-word.”
“I never say the n-word,” Ruben retorts.
“You just did!”
“No, I did not say the n-word, I only said ‘the n-word,’ you know.”
“Now you’re doubling down on it.”
In the end, the narrative reaches the logical endpoint of wokery. For most of the novel, the hero enjoys a jaunty, libertine time as a kept man, in the mansion of a wealthy, sexually liberated African-American woman. For a heterosexual white man who confronts his inherited toxicity, the reversed power structure is fine. He takes the advice of her previous live-in lovers on how to have “a romantic relationship without any power struggle . . . by letting her have the power.” She herself justifies her polyandry as “restorative justice” for historical patriarchy, and characterizes Ruben’s plea for monogamy as “slut-shaming.”
Fifty Shades of Woke starts in 2019, in order to capture the disruptions triggered by COVID-19, lockdowns, and riots. Ruben welcomes race riots, but complains that “Trump supporters from the Flu [sic] Klux Klan have taken to the streets, heavily armed, to protest their right to infect vulnerable fellow citizens.”
Eventually, the narrative reaches decades into the future. By then, the tone of the novel turns from flippant comedy to futuristic horror, by brutally punishing the hero for his whiteness despite his solidarity with blackness. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Yet it is worth the commitment. Few novels can claim to be both satirical and horrific—and be thought-provoking in both genres.