Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.

And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.

There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.

There’s been so much written about The Handmaid’s Tale recently, that this review hardly felt necessary. Atwood calls the novel “speculative fiction,” and the speculation feels that much harrowing with every passing day of the Trump administration. One of the (few) things I’ve enjoyed about the slow decline of our democracy is how much airtime Atwood is getting, with pieces in the Times and a profile in the New Yorker. The New Yorker story quotes a letter she wrote to a Texas school district who had just banned The Handmaids Tale: “If you see a person heading toward a huge hole in the ground, is it not a friendly act to warn him?” That, more than anything I could write, sums up why you should stop everything and read the book if you haven’t already (no, watching the Hulu miniseries isn’t enough). Atwood emphasizes over and over that nothing in her novel is fully made up. Her alma mater in Canada hosts the cartons of newspaper clippings she used when researching the book, documenting the subjugation and enslavement of women everywhere from Puritan New England to Saudi Arabia to North Korea. This isn't science fiction.

I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale several times now and taught it twice, but this reading, my first since 45’s election, definitely felt different. The gentle slip into an authoritarian regime was especially haunting: Atwood’s narrator flashes back to the time before Handmaids and remembers the moments that connect forward to where she has ended up: the day they did away with paper money, the day any bank account with an “F” associated with it was shut down, the day the government is taken over. Throughout it all, the familiar complacency: "There were marches, of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought." Atwood is a master of the disconcerting detail that shifts the reader from reality into nightmare. Here the narrator describes the day she (and all other women) lost her job to her husband: 
I described the director coming in, blurting out his announcement. It would have been funny if it wasn't so awful, I said. I thought he was drunk. Maybe he was. The army was there, and everything.
Then I remembered something I'd seen and hadn't noticed at the time. It wasn't the army. It was some other army. 
Her prose is peppered with moments like this with details so small and so disturbing that you can’t get them out of your brain. I'm sure I've wondered this each time I've read this novel, but it feels so much more imminent now: What would I do? I want to imagine myself into a rebellious heroine (and there are several in the novel), but it seems more likely that I would Wait and See, much like the narrator, until it is too late.

One of the new things that stuck out to me this reading was the prominence of all-female spaces. I've made an effort this year to read more female authors and have been rewarded with more female protagonists and storylines, but I can't think of a book that is so full of purely female gatherings. Of course the gatherings here are monstrous--betrothals of child brides, collective lynchings, and births of babies immediately stolen from their mothers--but it's shocking that it took a dystopian tale of female subjugation to give me a room full of women that passes the Bechdel test. 

Atwood is such a fabulous writer that the ending of the novel, a "Historical Notes" section that provides some reflection, has always disappointed me a little. You have to read it--I accidentally skipped it the first time and was very confused by what I thought was the last scene--but it's an odd departure from the rest of the novel and it feels didactic and heavy-handed after an entire novel that is artfully oblique. Perhaps the most jarring is that the bulk of the addendum is a speech delivered by a male academic. 

In one of my favorite redemptive moments in the text, the narrator finds a message left behind by her Handmaid predecessor. Scratched into the baseboard of a closet she reads: Nolite te bastardes carborundurum. She later learns that the phrase is Latin (sort of) for "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Even with the mansplained ending, Atwood manages to stay away from anything resembling oversimplification, but she does weave in flashes of hope, moments of women supporting each other and pulling each other through the depths. They aren't big or dramatic, they're messages scratched on baseboards, but they do make you think that we may make it through. 


Christopher said...

Good review.

Davida Chazan said...

Have you read her novel "The Heart Goes Last"? You should. It is a scary (although also humorous) look at what happens when you mix privatizing the criminal justice system with a for-profit solution to the problem of homelessness. You can read my review here