In the opening chapter of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady (2010), Marylou Ahearn, a seventy-seven-year-old retired schoolteacher, contemplates murdering a doctor who fed her radiation cocktails a half century earlier. The novel’s protagonist tracks her poisoner to Florida, only to discover that Alzheimer’s has stolen the doctor’s memory of seven hundred pregnant women on whom he experimented. Stalking her geriatric prey from afar, Marylou recalls the unconventional circumstances of her vengeance:
Of course, the radiation she’d swallowed had made her sick. Weak. Anemic. Dizzy. Prone to headaches. Bleeding gums. And because she’d swallowed it, she’d killed Helen. After Helen’s death she’d had to focus her anger somewhere, and since the government of the United States as a thing to hate was too unwieldy, and all the idiots who got caught up in cold war paranoia—the morons who devised and funded and carried out the radiation experiments—were too numerous and anonymous to collectively despise, she focused her hatred on Wilson Spriggs.(5)
Within this brief explanation of a lethal plot, author Elizabeth Stuckey-French captures some of the most important and innovative features of the new revenge novel.
First, the target of Marylou’s vengeance is not her true enemy. The doctor-poisoner Wilson Spriggs is a proxy representative upon whom Marylou heaps her anger at the United States government. Although medical labs victimized citizens during the Cold War, including the narrator’s daughter, those programs are too structurally diffuse to detest in any practical way. Blame for Helen’s demise belongs equally to the nation’s policy makers, financiers, and scientists. In order to shape vengeful desire into something purposeful, Marylou channels her rage toward a single figure. She transforms Spriggs into the embodiment of mid-century US domestic politics, enlarging him into a symbol yet reducing the nation to a convenient personification. While Spriggs retains his individual [End Page 675] complicity in Marylou’s suffering, the avenger’s moral code also holds him accountable for every other governmental misdeed. Stuckey-French’s novel follows an abiding necessity in recent revenge fiction whereby the aggregate guilt for systemic crimes gets transferred to a synecdochal villain.
Second, attributing a government’s scientific abuses to one doctor gets Marylou closer to her dream of harming an abstract foe. According to her internal monologue, Marylou faults “numerous and anonymous” entities for a “cold war paranoia” motivating the deadly experiments. But that sort of adversary is useless to the avenger out for blood. Not only does it resist identification by hiding in obscurity, it verges on immateriality. Vengeance, a proportional retaliation designed for private satisfaction, cannot sink its claws into intangible enemies. Payback needs physical recipients to collect what is owed, even when it chases a dispersed antagonist like the government. Stuckey-French understands this basic rule of the genre and, in turn, her character knows the limits of vengeful craving. Marylou’s debt can only be repaid by destroying another person in kind. Thus, tabbing Spriggs as her mortal foe is not a narrative selection of convenience, but a necessity. By walking readers through Marylou’s thought process, explaining how Spriggs came to be the vengeful object, Stuckey-French demonstrates a dilemma common to revenge literature. Because recent history spreads its malevolence across complex systems, old narrative modes of arch villainy have become obsolete. Nemesis, that ancient, singular opponent at the center of honor sagas and revenge tragedies, disaggregates under modernity by seeping into intricate networks or fading into a barely perceptible realm. How can novelists represent the distributed nature of modern antagonism yet still depict visceral retribution? What does a revenge narrative adjusted to the reality of contemporary geopolitics look like?
I contend the answer lies in a patterned conceit defining twentieth- and twenty-first-century reinterpretations of the revenge genre, particularly those occurring in American literature. Over and over, contemporary novels create retributive scenarios (like the one described above) in which characters transform other characters into material signifiers as a means of rendering dominant, unassailable systems vulnerable.1 An impulse to punish the nation’s untouchable injustices haunts much of the...