Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Handmaid's Tale (of woe)

It is odd that Margaret Atwood's most famous novel, which many consider her best, should have won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 for the best work of science fiction published in the United Kingdom (during the previous year). She herself thought of The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake (published in 2003) as "speculative" or "social science fiction." In a few places, it has also been referred to as a "thriller"; it might be that, if one could conceive of a Hitchcock movie with the sound turned off as thrilling.

Handmaids in the Republic of Gilead perform their function in the coldest, starkest, most denatured interpretation of Rachel's request to Jacob: "Behold my maid ... go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her." To call the society of The Republic of Gilead puritanical is a slander on the Puritans. A reference to Victoria's alleged advice to her daughter (perhaps to everyone of them married off): "just close your eyes and think about England," is more like it.   

"A shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman in red carrying a basket, comes along the brick sidewalk towards me. She reaches me and we peer at each other's faces, looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us. She is the right one." Thus a mood of paranoia that swirls around the handmaiden is conveyed. The Eyes are watching. The Guardians are barely to be trusted. A woman was shot for fumbling in her clothes. "They" thought she might have a bomb. She had not even been a handmaid or a Wife or an "econo-wife," but a Martha.

The handmaiden slept in "what had once been the gymnasium... I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat... Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound... There was old sex in the room and loneliness."

Alas, the way of a man with a woman, told in this Tale from the Maid's point of view is bleached of all sentiment, denuded of lust, and bleak, bleak, bleak. It has the intimacy and arousal of a gynecological examination. Even a society like that portrayed in A Thousand Splendid Suns, devoid of any notion of romantic love, betrays more feeling, more affection.

I wish, said the Handmaid, this story were "about love, or sudden realizations important to one's life, or even about sunsets and birds, rainstorms or snow... I'm sorry there is so much pain in this story... But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story." 

"Our sweetest songs," a Romantic poet once said, "are those that tell of saddest thoughts." The thoughts in this story are sad beyond bearing, but the songs are exquisitely acrid. The writing in this volume may indeed be better than that in The Year of the Flood, but I found the later novel, dark and weird as it might seem, more life-affirming.

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