Margaret Atwood…Again

When I was a voracious young reader, I would devour a book again and again and again. I never got bored. I read Where the Red Fern Grows at LEAST ten times and cried every. single. time. I would have categorized it as my favorite book because I read it the most.

As an adult, though, time has become a factor. Rereading is a luxury. So many books, so little time. I read across many genres of fiction and myriad nonfiction subjects. I don’t have time to read something I’ve read before. Now, I say a book is among my favorites, even if I have read it only once, because it sticks with me.

The Handmaid’s Tale — which I chose for the Read Harder Challenge category “read a book you’ve read before” — has stuck with me for over a decade. I read it while I was boning up on American classic literature, having missed out on that class in high school and college. I was working at the now-defunct Borders Books. Even though I had read 1984 a few years earlier, Atwood’s novel of a not-too-distant future in which a theocracy has been established in what was the United States, and women are oppressed and prized only for their ability to bear children, opened the door to my love of dystopian literature. The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Divergent series would not exist without The Handmaid’s Tale.

The New Yorker just published an extensive profile of Margaret Atwood. She has written across multiple genres, including poetry, children’s books, short stories, screenplays, a stage play, a graphic novel series, and nonfiction. “I always wrote more than one type of thing,” she said. “Nobody told me not to.” Her breadth of subject matter is breathtaking.

She prefers to call her dystopian lit “speculative literature.” She researches new technologies and political and social trends meticulously to ensure that her speculations are believable. The ideas she includes in her Maddaddam series (published between 2003 and 2013) are astonishingly and uncomfortably on point. While it seems odd to think of animals that grow human hair of all colors or pigs that grow human organs, it is certainly not odd to envision a future in which the sun is unbearably hot, and people eat food so genetically modified that no one is quite sure that it is even soy. From there, it is easy to extrapolate a cult that eats nothing but homegrown foods and worships conservationists.

What I love most about Atwood’s writing is her astute observations of human character. Offred, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, recounts how the theocracy of Gilead came into being, and it was largely through passivity. Major events, such as the suspension of the Constitution and stripping away of women’s assets and freedoms, are received with barely a murmur of resistance from the majority. Sure, there is an army presence, but fear of the unknown is the best societal control. People try to hold on to what they still have, until they have nothing but a life. While longing to break free one way or another, Offred finally concludes:

I know this can’t be right, but I think it anyway. Everything they taught at the Red Center, everything I’ve resisted, comes flooding in. I don’t want pain. I don’t want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head a faceless oblong of white cloth. I don’t want to be a doll hung up on the Wall, I don’t want to be a wingless angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject.
I feel, for the first time, their true power.

This morning, while doing laundry and contemplating my lateness in getting to an appointment, I realized that I would miss out on the political demonstration downtown. I have been doing the bare minimum of political action: reading the news and listening to smarter people than I discuss current events. I have not made phone calls to my representatives. I have not attended a town hall. Then, I started justifying my lack of action. I’m totally consumed with the idea of moving and staying engaged in a job I abhor. I’m going to buy a car. I’m getting my old one fixed before I sell it. I am training my cat to sit and stay. I don’t have time for political engagement.

Atwood foresees the consequences of the majority of society justifying their own action or inaction and the actions of those in power. On a small scale, it’s disturbing. Nationwide or globally, it’s terrifying. (We seem to be experiencing this on a daily basis.) She always ends on a somewhat optimistic note. The Handmaid’s Tale has an appendix about a conference at which experts are lecturing about the Gileadean era. The key note speaker discusses tapes that Offred ostensibly recorded about her experience as basically a slave kept only for purposes of breeding with her Commander. Civilization has moved on and advanced enough that academics and historians value combing through relics and researching records. Gilead has faded into the past.

I look forward to reading her latest speculative novel The Heart Goes Last. I picked it up on a whim. It’s about a couple who must spend half of each year living in a prison facility. I’m sure her research has turned up plenty on the prison system. I’m sure her speculations will be disturbing…and spot on.

A television series based on The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men), premieres April 26th on Hulu.