The Handmaid’s Tale

This was one of those books I ended up reading because is has recently been made into a movie (actually TV show).  But I’ve done this before – decided to read something because other people were watching it (then I usually don’t see the movie/show) .  I remember reading Sense and Sensibility for the first time when the Emma Thompson movie came out.  I also read this because a friend of mine and I have this book group (a book group of two, but a book group nonetheless).  This is also definitely one of those “should have read” kind of books, considering how often it comes up, and that it’s more than 30 years old.

The first thing I want to say was my friend’s idea, not mine, but he’s absolutely right: this is a book in which the actual events are fictional, but in which almost  everything included, save for a couple of awkward physical details, has happened in some place or time, just not all together.  This is a “dystopia,” which is, of course, extremely trendy right now – I’d like to know how much of a genre that was in 1985.  Obviously there was 1984, and I’m guessing a bunch of other books, but right now, ironically enough, we’re in the golden age of dystopian media.

That all these things have happened before, and that we can imagine just a couple of frightening events taking place that could lead us away from the USA to Gilead–the central event in Atwood’s book begins with the entirely mundane event of her ATM card not working–is part of the book’s appeal, especially since the idea of centrally controlled money supply is much more real in 2017 than it was back then.  I’m not exactly sure what keeps Chase from taking all of our money and then taking over the world, now that I think about it.  It’s certainly not their good will – it must just be they don’t think they could get away with it, that it would be too risky?  That they’re doing well enough already that it’s not worth the trouble?

A book this reminded me a lot of (though written 20 years after, so the influence-causality goes the other way, if it exists at all) is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.  What both books share is a sense the sense of epistemic limitation that grows so naturally out of legal restrictions.  Who’s a friend and who’s an enemy is a much more situational question.  I think a big takeaway for me from both books is to show me what people already in oppressive situations within our own world might live with: a sense that someone else is making important decisions that the oppressed have no legal way to influence, but also know way even to know about.  The novel gestures at this through the language of Cora, who I took to be black, but I’m not sure.  Cora’s wariness of the authoritarian restrictions upon the women seems already to have grown up out of her experience as a woman of color who lived in the “normal” society before Gilead emerged.  She already seems aware – already to have been aware – of the secretive moves that Offred is only just figuring out.

The Handmaid’s Tale is spare, but effective.  It is not obsessed with world-construction the way some more conventional sci-fi is.  I think I’ve heard Margaret Atwood say this isn’t sci-fi or fantasy, just her reading the paper and worrying about what’s coming next.  OR maybe she said that about her recent MadAddam trilogy: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MadAddam.  On a purely subjective level, I enjoyed those more than I enjoyed this: the cast of characters, and the sense of a world, was richer, more filled out, and also more dire.  In those books, the  technological and economic structure has almost entirely collapsed: all that’s changed here is that men have placed themselves in charge of money, fired all the women from their jobs, and used that as leverage to create a patriarchal system of  reproductive  (not really sexual) slavery.

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