Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him. Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution.
Explicit sex, mental and physical dominance, and control are strong beats within a story of two young men discovering the truth about their own lives and those of others around them ... This powerful debut is filled with achingly tender and brutally raw prose. Szpara strikes out at capitalism as well as the pharmaceutical trade and its effects, while dancing on the emotional knife’s edge between love and obedience.
Every reader will have a different take, and I know many who love this book unequivocally. But my discomfort is twofold, beginning with the dual points of view ... I will never be comfortable being asked to sympathize with a man who not only is himself a slave owner, torturer and rapist, but who owns the company that enables it and actively perpetuates that system ... There’s nothing titillating about rape culture and assault. The tagline states, 'There is no consent under capitalism,' and that’s certainly emphasized, but the dynamic is so inextricably imbalanced, and the sex scenes are explicitly rape. Literary relationships certainly do not need to be healthy, and I love complex queer narratives, but it feels incongruent to ask the reader to reckon with the degree of sexual, emotional and physical violence and blatant lack of agency, and still be open to the idea of romance. Docile doesn’t inherently romanticize an abusive relationship, but it asks you to root for one ... Szpara’s writing is unflinching, effective and compelling, and serves to explore the beats of the power dynamic at play. I just don’t know if it’s worth further traumatizing queer readers and survivors for the sake of this point ... My other concern is that this is a book about slavery in America that never reckons with race ... fails to reckon with the racist realities at the core of its premise and this nation ... unquestionably sharp in many ways, and I love the queer, dystopian critique of toxic power dynamics on both systemic and intimate levels. Many readers find the book cathartic, and that isn’t something that I can police. But I personally walked away uncomfortable at the graphic abuse, the abusive relationship portrayed as romantic, and the lack of racial consciousness within a slave narrative.
... an incredibly clever set-up for a novel. And though parts of its set-up are predictable, the point of view toggles between Elisha and Alex effectively. It makes for an energetic opening to a dystopian narrative, one with a keen eye toward our current culture’s most fraught dynamics ... At times throughout my reading, I worried the world-building was almost too easy, that Szpara was simply reaching for every dial he could find and turning it up times twenty, but to his credit, the narrative remains grounded in the transforming relationship between Elisha and Alex ... Szpara is a master at making Docile feel like a love story when we know it’s not ... It’s perhaps Szpara’s most brilliant move, using salacious material to engross the reader until they are implicated in the horror of what is happening. In its ability to lead the reader astray, Docile shares more in common with Lolita (albeit a much simpler written version) than it does Fifty Shades of Grey...Or it does for its first movement, before the complexity of the novel’s sexual and personal dynamics are abandoned in the interests of narrative momentum ... The world of the novel dissolves into courtroom proceedings, and there is no shortage of the genre’s tropes ... should a book with themes so complex prioritize reader satisfaction above truthful engagement? Szpara’s empathy for even the most despicable of his characters is admirable, but should they be let off the hook so easily? ... When Docile does miss the mark though, it tends to be because its author shows a fidelity to the trappings of the novel. It displays the shortcomings of narrative itself, prioritizing catharsis and pacing above a rigorous engagement with its complicated themes. Docile, while compulsively readable, is limited by its own form, revealing the commercial novel as a weak vessel with which to try and critique oppressive capitalist systems. I can’t help but wonder what this book’s set-up might flower into with a set of less commercial sensibilities.