The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it now.

Handmaid's Tale

“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”  – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I belong to an amazing book club of ten women, and we just finished reading and discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my first exposure to this iconic dystopian novel about the theocratic Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), where fertile women have been enslaved for purposes of reproduction due to dramatically declining birth rates.

Atwood has said that every aspect of extreme female oppression depicted in the novel has actually happened. The ghosts of New England puritanism and witch hunts haunt The Handmaid’s Tale: the novel takes place in Cambridge near a university (Harvard) that has been shut down. There are also strains of American slavery, the Bible, and the Third Reich, among other periods.

NOW is the perfect time to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. It has been getting a lot of attention because of the new Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss and, of course, because of the unsettling political era unfolding in the U.S. As Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker put it, “Our President is a Playboy-brash predator; his Vice-President is pure Gilead.”

I decided to simultaneously watch the unfolding Hulu series, which added interesting contrasts and depths to my reading and viewing experiences.

I quote Emily Nussbaum below because I think our book club would agree that reading Handmaid inspired us to reflect on how it was for women in the Reagan era when the book was published. (We range in age from 40s to 60s.) I was thirty when The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985. I’d just moved out of New York City, where I’d watched the Trump Tower go up on Fifth Avenue directly across the street from my office. In fact, the book publisher I worked for moved to a humbler downtown neighborhood once Trump’s golden tower was in place and the rent became unaffordable.

“…for many readers of my generation, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also a time machine back to the Reagan era, a mightily perverse period for sexual politics. Just a decade earlier, a woman could be denied a credit card without a man to co-sign, and yet, by 1985, when the novel was written, the media was declaring that feminism was over, dunzo, defunct—no longer necessary, now that women wore sneakers to jobs at law firms. At the same time, sexual danger was a national obsession, seen from two opposing angles, each claiming to protect women. On the right, there was the anti-abortion New Christian Right—led by figures like Phyllis Schlafly and the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker—intent on restoring traditional marriage. On the left, there was the anti-porn movement….It was a peculiar era in which to be a teen-age girl, equally prudish and decadent: the era of Trump Tower and cocaine, AIDS and “Just Say No.” Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

While I read and watched The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d been working on a scene in my memoir that takes place in New York City in 1978.  I’d been trying to remember how I’d seen myself in the context of the times at twenty-three, but my memories were delivering up a great deal of ambivalence and little clarity. I knew I’d felt grateful for the second-wave feminists and the 1960s cultural pioneers and that I’d thought that women’s liberation had done its work. Yet carving out a career wasn’t proving to be easy; mostly I’d blamed myself for that. Reading Nussbaum’s essay helped me flesh out my scene and my thoughts by reminding me that the late seventies already heralded a backlash: Phyllis Schafly and Ronald Reagan were just around the corner.

Atwood’s book, of course, shows us that history can move in cycles. Freedoms won can be lost.

Nussbaum points out in her essay that the Hulu show has to keep going season after season, while the novel is a self-contained work. Because of this, the spirit of the TV show eventually departs from the claustrophobic bleakness of the book. Offred’s quest on television becomes escape and reunification with her daughter and lover. (Offred is a handmaid forced to have sex with her married Commander; should she become pregnant, the baby will be turned over to the Commander and his barren wife.) The TV series becomes more like a thriller, while in the book there seem to be few ways the women can work toward liberation. The TV show is more hopeful, but be warned that it is graphic and violent. I think both the book and the series are excellent, but I don’t know how long I will watch the series. Season after season, a series can lose power and focus. It could eventually pale next to Atwood’s book, which reads like a bomb going off.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale or are you watching the Hulu series? What do you think?

AtwoodAutograph

“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone.”

 

(On the heels of The Handmaid’s Tale, I happened to find out about a new documentary series on Netflix, “The Keepers.” My husband and I watched all seven episodes in two nights.“The Keepers” depicts a real-life dystopia for young women who attended a Catholic school in Baltimore beginning in the 1960s, the life-long ramifications of untold secrets, and the confounding process of recovering memories. Well-crafted documentaries remind me how truth can be stranger than fiction. It’s got me thinking about how story and dramatization, no matter what the medium or genre, can so powerfully reveal truths about the human spirit. It’s not easy to depict such depth of character in documentary. I’m still thinking about the good women–and the handful of good men–in “The Keepers.”)

 

Station Eleven

Station Eleven book cover“On Day Seven the networks began to blink off the air, one by one. ‘So that all of our employees may be with their families,’ a CNN anchor said, ashen and glassy-eyed after forty-eight hours without sleep, ‘we are temporarily suspending broadcast operations.’ ‘Good night,’ NBC said an hour later, ‘and good luck.’ CBS switched without comment to reruns of America’s Got Talent. This was at five in the morning, and everyone who was awake watched for a few hours – it was nice to take a quick break from the end of the world – and then in the early afternoon the lights went out.”     Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

I’ve been reading dystopian fiction lately and looking forward to the third installment of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. When neighboring Buffalo was buried in over 70 inches of snow this week, I thought of Cal in the futuristic novel California, whose parents were lost in a massive snowstorm that destroyed Cleveland. And just as I dipped into pandemic-ridden Station Eleven, Ebola was front and center in the news. Reality and fiction are getting too close for comfort.

California book coverIn California by Edan Lepucki, it’s post apocalypse: climate change, inequality, and societal decay on a massive scale have pushed civilization over the edge. The “haves” live in fiercely guarded gated communities, while others band together in communes and cultish groups, and some eke out a living in the wilderness on their own.

It’s Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven I want to write about here, a National Book Award finalist. Of the two novels, I prefer this one, though both have gotten excellent reviews. In Station Eleven, a flu pandemic kills 99.9 percent of the population in a matter of days. We see the end of advanced civilization through the eyes of five characters, and the first decades after the collapse.

One of my favorite characters is Clark, a corporate consultant who specializes in coaching problematic executives and CEOs to change their behavior. Days before the outbreak of the Georgia flu, Clark interviews an especially perceptive employee to see what others think of a particular manager. I love this exchange:

“‘….it’s like the corporate world is full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.'”

“‘I’m talking about these people who have ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that….but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.'”

What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep?

“…you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day, and that’s what happens to your life.”

“Right,” Clark said. He was filled in that moment with an inexpressible longing.

“Guys like Dan, they’re like sleepwalkers,” she said, “and nothing ever jolts them awake.”

Clark, of course, is jolted awake in a very big way when his flight to Toronto is diverted to a small Michigan airport after the pandemic explodes. He and his fellow passengers, untouched by the flu, watch the end of life as they know it on television. They never leave the airport – it becomes their settlement, their home. Eventually, Clark establishes a Museum of Civilization, where people donate iPads and smart phones and other remnants of their now-lost advanced culture.

“Like educated children everywhere, the children in the airport school memorized abstractions: the airplanes outside once flew through the air. You could us an airplane to travel to the other side of the world, but….when you were on an airplane you had to turn off your electronic devices before takeoff and landing, devices such as the tiny flat machines that played music and the larger machines that opened up like books and had screens that hadn’t always been dark, the insides brimming with circuitry, and these machines were the portals into a worldwide network. Satellites beamed information down to Earth. Goods traveled in ships and airplanes across the world. There was no place on earth that was too far away to get to.”

Meanwhile, a roving theater troupe travels from town to town performing classical music and Shakespeare for groups of survivors living in abandoned Walmarts and gas stations. In this troupe are characters we’ve met earlier in the novel.  The younger members only dimly remember a world with electricity and and other marvels, and some were born after the collapse. One day, they arrive at Clark’s airport settlement, and there is a poignant reunion of sorts for Clark.

Station Eleven, among other things, asks whether art can save and redeem humanity. I can’t help but think of this outpouring of dystopian literature as the proverbial canary in the mine. A wake-up call for those of us who, like the characters in Station Eleven, may need it. Ursula Le Guin, in her stirring National Book Award speech the other night, said we will need more writers who can imagine a different way of being. Six minutes well worth listening to.

Redeployment by Phil Klay,  a veteran of the Iraq War, won the National Book Award for fiction, so this collection of short stories is on my reading list.

 

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