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Old 1st Jul 2008, 11:43   #11
John Self
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Location: Belfast
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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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