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Old 1st Jul 2008, 11:43   #11
John Self
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

I tried The Handmaid's Tale a few years ago, got about 100 pages into it, and have since disposed of my copy. I haven't (yet) reacquired it for the purposes of this book group read, so all I can do at present is paste the comments I made at the time - pre-Palimpsest I think, but probably only just.
The Handmaid's Tale is the Margaret Atwood novel that everyone can agree is a masterpiece. I hated it, or the first third of it anyway, where I have just given up.

The setting of the novel as you probably know is a 21st century dystopic America, some or all of which is now known as the Republic of Gilead, which, according to the blurb, "allows Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness." Now this is more than I actually learned in the 100 pages of the book I read (almost: actually the narrator's name was disclosed as Offred on page 98. Offred, Ofglen, etc. - "of Fred" and "of Glen", geddit, reinforcing the patriarchal regime where even women's names are references to their male forebears. Of course the Icelandics do the same thing with the -son and -dottir suffixes, and they all seem to rub along pretty well. The other names in the book, like Serena Joy, are no less heavily symbolic).

This lack of disclosure and lack of forward movement was one of the problems with the book for me. If you're going to create a futuristic dystopia, then for God's sake have the guts - like Orwell or Huxley or Philip K. Dick - to make it full-blown and full-blooded, rich of the history and causes of the situation and all its multifarious aspects. Atwood seemed to be inching her way along, only fixing something (not even the name of the country was revealed in the third I read) when she could vary and waver no longer; everything was in flux, where we might expect a totalitarian regime to be very very fixed. This lethargic approach was perfectly reflected in the prose, which was flat and uninflected, not to mention badly punctuated (at the risk of sounding like Lynne Truss, her use of the comma is positively criminal; she seems to think it's really just an alternative option for a semi-colon, and often just sticks one in for the hell of it) and riddled with portentous one-line paragraphs.

Still, it must be hell, to be a man, like that.
It must be just fine.
It must be hell.
It must be very silent.

Dreadful, terrible stuff. Of course much of what I am complaining about is, with a generosity of spirit, excusable. The prose is flat because Offred is oppressed and flattened herself; there is a paucity of hard details about Gilead and the regime because people don't talk explicitly about how their world is run: you have to pick the facts out from the context. And a first person narrator doesn't have to be grammatical. But it still drove me nuts and I just couldn't go on. The quote on the front from the Daily Telegraph - "Compulsively readable" - is laughably, gloriously off the case. The Handmaid's Tale has got to be one of the most, um, compulselessly closeable books I've ever not read.
Now these comments are very unkind and intemperate, so I must have really hated it. Reading this now, with nothing else to go on but my own words, I can see that I am probably wrong when I complain about the lack of fixed details in the (early parts of) the book. An alternative, and probably more valid, way of looking at it would be to say that it's more plausible for the author not to give us constant exposition about the background to how Gilead came to be, and just to let us work our way through it from the characters and the progression of the story.

Anyway, this is just one of a line of Atwoods I couldn't get on with (The Blind Assassin, 60 pages or so; Surfacing, did finish but can't remember; The Robber Bride, also finished and thought absolutely terrible). Her story collection Wilderness Tips is the only book of hers I've really liked. Despite this inability to get on with her, I'm quite tempted by some of her other titles like Cat's Eye and Alias Grace, or would be if they weren't so long. Are any of her earlier, shorter novels (when editors were still allowed to interfere with her stuff, perhaps) really outstanding?

It strikes me too that she hasn't published a novel since The Blind Assassin in 2000, though we've had various stories, poems and a Myth. Probably we should anticipate another 600-pager any year now, which like most of her last half dozen, will be shortlisted for the Booker.
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Old 1st Jul 2008, 11:58   #12
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

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It strikes me too that she hasn't published a novel since The Blind Assassin in 2000, though we've had various stories, poems and a Myth. Probably we should anticipate another 600-pager any year now, which like most of her last half dozen, will be shortlisted for the Booker.
Oryx and Crake was one of my favourites from the Booker shortlist of 2003 (Vernon God Little, Astonishing Splashes Of Colour, Brick Lane, The Good Doctor, Notes On A Scandal). Another 'speculative' fiction book that MA refuses to call 'sci-fi'.

She also has a new title listed on Amazon for next year - God's Gardeners. I'm assuming this might be another future dystopia novel because 'God's Gardeners' featured in Oryx and Crake.
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Old 1st Jul 2008, 12:05   #13
Colyngbourne
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

I was okay with the flat prose, though I gritted my teeth through some of it, especially the more floaty bits: it seemed in character and in context. But I found the exposition of the regime and how it arose soooo longwinded and detailed in the wrong way. It didn't seem consistent. Where were the people arguing for freedom, for joy? There are plenty of Biblical quotes that could counter the dogma of the regime, that no thinking person seems to have tried out (in the account we're given anyway).

If Atwood was going to explain her dystopia (unlike Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go (where characters are repressed and buried alive in an entirely different way), who is writing not sci-fi and rightly tells us nothing about how the status quo arrived), then she didn't do it quite well enough.

(I have read at least three, possibly four, other Atwoods and enjoyed them all, particularly Oryx and Crake.)
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Old 1st Jul 2008, 12:12   #14
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

Dur! Oryx and Crake, of course, thanks pj.
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Old 1st Jul 2008, 12:15   #15
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

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I think this is why I feel it is not so much a feminist piece. The exigencies that Atwood has put upon her alt.history corner of the States (and the wider world by implication) makes it far more a novel about society, for me, than anything else.
I raced through The Handmaid's Tale in a day last week. A mistake, I think, as I'm not sure how I feel about it. The narrative was obviously absorbing and alarming enough to pull me in thoroughly, the kind of reading experience that I generally love. Certainly, the fact that this was a second read-through complicates my reaction a little; the first was when I was in my early- to mid-teens.

Then, The Handmaid's Tale was a horrifying work, one of a set of dystopian novels that I devoured as I drank in concepts and big ideas all around me. It was feminist, in that it championed the oppressed and suppressed female. I think it was probably mixed up with a lot of confused feelings of fear and fascination about sex.

But now, I'm struggling with the question of whether The Handmaid's Tale is a feminist work. I can't quite see how the novel works as a warning. I can see that the categorisation of women into Wives, Marthas, Handmaids, Jezebels, Unwomen, etc. echoes and complicates the virgin/mother/whore trichotomy. The pre-Gilead society is hardly free from this problem. Atwood makes this clear: her university-educated heroine takes a menial job, whilst her best friend burns her bra, and as society slides towards dystopia it is the powerful men, the Wizard of Oz figures, who are the architects of the new regime. So a fundamentalist regime is not the only thing that can oppress, surely? But am I allying myself with the Aunts by suggesting this?

The clearest moral lesson I can see, is that the kind of patriarchal structures that are in society encourage women to participate in the oppression of women. Will that do?
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Old 1st Jul 2008, 12:27   #16
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

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..make it full-blown and full-blooded, rich of the history and causes of the situation and all its multifarious aspects. Atwood seemed to be inching her way along, only fixing something (not even the name of the country was revealed in the third I read) when she could vary and waver no longer; everything was in flux, where we might expect a totalitarian regime to be very very fixed.


...An alternative, and probably more valid, way of looking at it would be to say that it's more plausible for the author not to give us constant exposition about the background to how Gilead came to be, and just to let us work our way through it from the characters and the progression of the story.
Apologies for massacring your post, JS. I found this to be a real problem: Offred's narrative was not satisfactory. She retained too much knowledge and experience of the pre-Gilead society to be so unreflective and narrow in her portrayal of Gilead. I think that the timing of the novel is probably key to what Atwood was trying to achieve - a relevance and a connection with contemporary (70s?) society. But at the same time it denies the reader a kind of concreteness and richness that s/he can explore and believe.

There are far too many points at which Atwood says something like: 'They still allowed us to behave like this, because they hadn't yet evolved a perfect system'. Are these instances real examples of a system in flux, or are they simply excuses for plot points to further the narrative, or a rather incompletely realized vision on Atwood's part?
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Old 1st Jul 2008, 13:29   #17
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

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Where were the people arguing for freedom, for joy? There are plenty of Biblical quotes that could counter the dogma of the regime, that no thinking person seems to have tried out (in the account we're given anyway).
I think this gets to the heart of my fondness for the novel in that June does argue for freedom and joy. She creates her own, as you said above, through relationship and even (hallelujah chorus refrain here) the occasional game of Scrabble. Plus all of the word games she plays when she's alone, and her continuous attempts to understand and process what is going on around her. In my thinking, this is feminism, the search for personal power as opposed to giving up.

Found an interview with Atwood at the back of the Anchor Book edition.

Quote:
Q: What are we to learn from The Handmaid's Tale?
Atwood: This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. For example, I explore a number of conservative opinions still held by many -- such as a woman's place is in the home. And also certain feminist pronouncements --women prefer the company of other women, for example. Take these beliefs to their logical ends and see what happens. As a writer, you can choose to create a mainstream novel in which these issues appear only as the characters discuss them sitting around the kitchen table. But I decided to take these positions and dramatize them, carry them to their furthest logical conclusions.
Did this help me? Nope.
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Old 1st Jul 2008, 13:33   #18
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

She does that, yes. And it's a positive thing to read, I wholly agree. But where did the passivity of all the (both religious and non-religious) non-fundamentalist people come from that they didn't practially present an alternative to the situation that arises?
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Old 1st Jul 2008, 13:39   #19
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

I think that the quote helps me, Beth, because I don't really think that this is a novel about the dangers of fundamentalism, for example, but about the pernicious nature of some of the things that we hold to be simply matters of common sense.

But I like your reading of the novel as well. Offred/June has and maintains an independence of thought that is denied to the inhabitants of Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Brave New World. Ultimately, I suppose that the future of Gilead would be more horrifying than the present described in the book, where people still retain a memory of a different world.
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Old 1st Jul 2008, 15:12   #20
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Default Re: Book 54: THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood

Beth, yes, I agree with your view of the feminism in the book.

Offred/June is never going to be the most reliable of narrators because she is still obviously processing what is going on herself, so if she can't fully make sense of what is going on around her, then neither can we. Also, with regards to the lack of detail about how the regime came to be, perhaps even she doesn't fully know?

Also, I agree with Becca about the future of Gilead being more horrifying when people still retain a memory of the old world. I think the other horrifying thing about Gilead is that there seem to be no chance of a resistance building. Those who hold power will protect it at all costs, the Eyes are everywhere, and there is no leniency for anyone who is caught doing something wrong.

In some ways we can compare the situation of women in ultra-fundamentalist Muslim states. I don't mean that to sound glib, but think about it: there are countries NOW where women are stoned to death for being raped, because *they* committed adultery (in Gilead only women can be infertile). Women can't drive in some countries, and where they are allowed to, they have to have a family male in the car with them. They lose rights to their children. They are killed for bringing dishonour to their family by being attracted to the wrong person. In that light, Gilead isn't so very far away from some things that are happening to women in the world now, let alone when THT was written in the 80s. So while I've read other people over the years saying that the feminist aspects are cack-handed or overly simplified, in many ways they're really not, and perhaps that's the warning we can take from it.

Obviously, the situations aren't exact - part of the horror of THT is that there was a "normal" society that has been destroyed. Just a feminist-y though.

The thing I would like to know is what countries outside the US think of Gilead... international political ramifications. Which it's not the place of the novel to shed light on, but just a thought I had. For example, if they'd fled to Canada then presumably life would have carried on as usual. Is the military might of Gilead so strong that Canada didn't try to intervene? Or is that what all the men are off fighting about? Trying to protect and expand Gilead's borders?
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