Margaret Atwood on her cameo in The Handmaid’s Tale pilot

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From Margaret Atwood’s essay of 10 March 2017 in The New York Times:

In this series I have a small cameo. The scene is the one in which the newly conscripted Handmaids are being brainwashed in a sort of Red Guard re-education facility known as the Red Center. They must learn to renounce their previous identities, to know their place and their duties, to understand that they have no real rights but will be protected up to a point if they conform, and to think so poorly of themselves that they will accept their assigned fate and not rebel or run away.

The Handmaids sit in a circle, with the Taser-equipped Aunts forcing them to join in what is now called (but was not, in 1984) the “slut-shaming” of one of their number, Jeanine, who is being made to recount how she was gang-raped as a teenager. Her fault, she led them on — that is the chant of the other Handmaids.

Although it was “only a television show” and these were actresses who would be giggling at coffee break, and I myself was “just pretending,” I found this scene horribly upsetting. It was way too much like way too much history. Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. Some of the controlling Aunts are true believers, and think they are doing the Handmaids a favor: At least they haven’t been sent to clean up toxic waste, and at least in this brave new world they won’t get raped, not as such, not by strangers. Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists. And they are adept at taking some of the stated aims of 1984 feminism — like the anti-porn campaign and greater safety from sexual assault — and turning them to their own advantage. As I say: real life.

Which brings me to three questions I am often asked.

First, is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a “feminist” novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.”

On Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a story about storytelling

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Talhas been adapted into a television series by Hulu, a fact which you probably already knew if you are on the internet and are interested in these sorts of things.

Initial clips of the show seem promising enough. Elisabeth Moss, who I loved in Top of The Lake,  plays the novel’s protagonist Offred, and Margaret Atwood, a consulting producer, has been a vocal supporter of the adaptation. And, as many have pointed out lately, the story’s backdrop—a patriarchal theocratic regime—seems, uh, timely. (Hell, there’s even a Wall).

In anticipation of Hulu’s adaptation, I decided to reread The Handmade’s Tale a third time in a third decade. I found it subtler, more personally intense than the broad, voluminous epic my memory had concocted. My memory had filled in some of Atwood’s strategic gaps; one of her rhetorical gambits is to deliver the so-called “worldbuilding” common to sci-fi novels in tiny morsels and incomplete glimpses. She refuses to give us a big picture. We see this world like one of the handmaids, who view it through a veil of white wings around their heads.

Our narrator Offred is one of those, whatchamacallit, unreliable narrators (as she frequently, subtly reminds us), and her picture of the Republic of Gilead is necessarily incomplete. My memory filled in huge swaths of backstory—a caste system, forced breeding, a plague of infertility, civil wars, ecological collapse, mutations, religious infighting, spy networks and underground railroads. There’s something of an epic scale there, no? But the The Handmaid’s Tale actually elides much of the its genre’s heavy baggage. Exposition hides in bits and pieces for the reader to scrabble together. Even in some of its more straightforward expository passages, as when Offred describes the theocratic regime’s coup d’etat, we still only get the events from her perspective. We experience the effects of the revolution as the effects on her life. There’s no big picture geopolitical analysis. The causes aren’t clear.

Indeed, the lack of clear causality between events is one of the scariest aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our narrator emphasizes how quickly norms can change in a culture, which is, from a plot-standpoint, quite important. Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been a point of comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in Orwell’s novel the totalitarian regime has presumably been in power for decades (although of course, the protagonist’s job in that novel is to revise historical documents so that they align with the past, making “history” suspect).

In The Handmaid’s Tale, crucially, the protagonist is still connected to the pre-Revolutionary, pre-theocratic world. We’re reminded again and again that she’s one of the first generation of handmaids; we’re reminded again and again that after the first generation takes hold, the practice of forced breeding will become completely normalized. The Handmaid’s Tale is the preamble to dystopia. Offred remembers life in the U.S., life before her role was absolutely proscribed by a patriarchal theocracy. The narrator’s disconnection between that life and her new one drives the narrative.

This radical disconnection threatens the narrator’s sanity. It’s not just the wings of her habit that obstruct her vision, but also a veil of creeping instability. The unraveling of history, the sense that she is dislocated in time threaten to undo her. Her way of seeing the world and her self in the world is completely destabilized. Consider the following passage, in which our heroine gazes at the “smile” of a dead man hung from the Wall as a warning:

I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind.

The protagonist’s defense against the threat of dislocation, displacement, and insanity is her power to tell her tale. In this sense, The Handmade’s Tale has as much in common with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” as it does with Orwell’s dystopian classic.

Our narrator’s need “to be very clear [in her] own mind” carries (what many readers will consider) the main thread of The Handmaid’s Tale on a straightforward, linear path: Offred is pressed into the service of the Commander (Fred, from whom she receives her patronymic) so that he can impregnate her, become a father, and perpetuate his class tier. If she can’t produce a child in a certain time frame, it’s off to the colonies! (Never mind that the Commander is likely sterile).

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The narrative’s linear sequence will provide a sturdy frame for Hulu’s adaptation, and the constant flashbacks that interweave through the novel will also likely help to flesh out the series, both in tone and characterization. The ways in which the novel’s narrator weaves and unweaves these story strands might be much more difficult for the show to capture though. Indeed, Atwood’s rhetorical technique here is something native to literature itself. Atwood evokes consciousness under duress. She shows us a heroine trying to weave strands of a story together into something meaningful, to make a story where there is none, to find a space to speak where there is only the specter of mute doom. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about storytelling as resistance and self-preservation:

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.

It isn’t a story I’m telling.

It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.

Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.

Even when there is no one.

A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.

You can mean thousands.

Our storyteller—we are her You—is finely attuned to language. She constantly points out old phrases, commonplaces, and cliches, and remarks on what they used to mean in “the time before.” In some of these moments of linguistic mulling, Atwood calls attention to language’s destructive potential, of its ability to unravel the very meaning we seek to pin to it. If language connects, it can also disconnect. Consider the following passage:

It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.

The Book of Job.

Language can protect, but it can also threaten. It can slipslide from a random memory to an existentialist myth in the span of a breath. It can turn tulips into bloody smiles and bloody smiles into explanations for executions. Language can turn into stories, but stories can swallow up whole lives, whole cultures. That’s the threat of theocracy.

Atwood highlights the novel’s attention to storytelling itself in the final chapter, which reads almost like an appendix. Called “Historical Notes,” and separated from the text proper by its own title page, the final (unnumbered) chapter purports to be the transcript of a speech given at an academic conference on “Gileadean Studies” in the year 2195. There is much exposition and analysis here. Our anthropologist lecturer informs us that what is known as The Handmaid’s Tale is the composite of a number of audiocassettes. Furthermore, we learn that the narrator Offred (apparently) fabricated or synthesized elements of the story, either to protect certain persons’ anonymity, or for her own pleasure—or simply in the service, of, y’know, good storytelling. The lecturer laments that Offred failed to give future listeners more details about politics and war and the culture of Gilead at large. In a sense, the lecturer’s complaint is the one that many readers who go to Atwood’s novel expecting “worldbuilding” might have. The narrator isn’t telling a story about dystopian Gilead. She’s telling a story about storytelling. She’s making herself a story. Speaking to a You helps to preserve her I.

The “Historical Notes” on The Handmaid’s Tale are an example of a particular trope I generally dislike—the “expert shows up at the end and explains everything” device. However, Atwood’s final chapter is successful, and perhaps even essential to the novel’s critique of patriarchy and of how institutions tell and what they tell. The key, of course, is to recognize the layers of irony in this “explainer” chapter, in which a male authority arrives and asks all the wrong questions about Offred and criticizes some of her narrative choices. Even though he’s an expert on her text, he manages to miss that she’s woven her true name into the story. It’s right there at the end of the first chapter.

“Historical Notes” shows the problems and limitations in telling “the truth,” highlighting that all tales are constructions, syntheses of pre-existing elements. At the same time, the chapter points towards a narrative future, and a fairly stable future at that. “Historical Notes” thus provides the “happy ending” that the text proper—The Handmaid’s Tale—refuses to offer.

After finishing Atwood’s novel, I indulged in a favorite treat: sifting through one-star Amazon reviews with the express purpose of rearranging lines and fragments into…something. A complaint that arose again and again about The Handmaid’s Tale was the novel’s ambiguous ending. Only “ambiguous” wasn’t a word I saw used—our stalwart reviewers insisted that the novel had no conclusion. Such an interpretation is either a misreading or a failure to see that ambiguity is its own opening to adventure.

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Our heroine concludes her tale: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” The line might frustrate many readers and even license them to accuse Atwood of simply not knowing how to finish her story. The final line’s ambiguity is structural though, part and parcel of the narrative itself. The heroine crosses a threshold. She’s pregnant, both literally and figuratively. The novel’s final ambiguity opens a space for our heroine to “step up” into. As Scheherazade understood, storytelling isn’t about closing off, but opening up. When the narrator walks out into either darkness or light, she’s entering a new narrative possibility—one that can be imagined by the auditors of her tale, her future You.

Perhaps its best to assess Atwood’s ending using her own rubric. Here are the last lines of her 1983 short story “Happy Endings”:

So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.

That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.

Now try How and Why.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds in answering How and Why. 

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. (For the record, I think The Handmaid’s Tale is pretty great).

 I’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews].


 

shrill

Strange

no hope

anti male story

boring and odd

Feminist dogma

anti-religious zeal

poorly researched

futuristic yet dated

no good verses evil

Political propaganda

socialist point of view

Too many adjectives!!

extremely depressing

It all-around too much

tries to be all futuristic

I’m not a Christian, but

Overuse of punctuation

Sorry but no one liked it

a lot of words were used

twisted grossness and blah

Not a feminist novel for sure

Actually, it is about infertility

Written by a 12-year-old shut in

It’s hard to glean what happened

Not realistic as a futuristic fantasy

pointless exercise in self-contempt

annoying stream-of-consciousness style

these fertile women aren’t treated badly

an academic’s paranoid bondage fantasy

a lot of sexual situations and foul language

The reader is always in a confused state of mind

The main character doesn’t grow or learn anything

The author created a lot of terms but didn’t explain them

literally fills the pages by talking about grocery shopping

obviously has an ax to grind with Judeo-Christian principle

There isn’t much focus on what women are not allowed to do

Mostly just someone running errands in an American dystopia

an author who obviously doesn’t understand the passages from the Bible

main character is weak, conviction less and incapable of making any exciting moves

I’m going to bury it in the ground and let the worms eat all those words unfit for human consumption

drones on and on about brick sidewalks and rays of sunlight and tulips and blue stripes on kitchen towels

Is this supposed to be 1984, Brave New World, or even Hunger Games? If you compare it to any of those books, it is utter fail.

A Lazy Riff on Margaret Atwood’s Novel MaddAddam

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1. Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, MaddAddam concludes the trilogy she began with Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009).

2. Both of those novels are superior to MaddAddam (Oryx and Crake is the strongest, in my estimation, although I read it almost a decade ago).

3. I audited the audiobook of MaddAddam, read by Bernadette Dunne, Bob Walter and Robbie Daymond. The actors do a fine job and the production is swell.

4. I am now going to rip off elements of my own 2010 review for The Year of the Flood.

5. In that review I wrote:

Apocalypse lit isn’t so much predictive as it is descriptive of the contemporary world, and Atwood’s dystopian vision is no exception.

I still more or less agree with that sentence, and MaddAddam is, like the two books preceding it, a satire of sorts on modern life.

6. And–

Viscerally prescient, Flood paints our own society in bold, vibrant colors, magnifying the strange relationships with nature, religion, and our fellow humans that modernity prescribes.

I don’t know if it’s me or the book or just the fact that so much of what Atwood conjures in her trilogy seems more real than it was just a decade ago—but MaddAddam didn’t read quite so bold or vibrant as the first two books.

7. I also wrote:

Atwood ends her book in media res, with Toby and a handful of other characters somehow still alive, ready, perhaps, to become stewards of a new world. Flood concludes tense and, in a sense, unresolved, but Atwood implies hope: Toby will lead her small group to cultivate a new Eden. Despite all the ugliness and cruelty and devastation, people can be redeemed.

MaddAddam picks up right where Flood and O&C end (those novels essentially converge). In some ways—often very obvious, sometimes boring ways—MaddAddam provides a sense of resolution for the trilogy’s many threads.

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8. What is the book about?

I will lazily slap in publisher Random House’s blurb here, interspersed with my riffage :

Months after the Waterless Flood pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, Toby and Ren have rescued their friend Amanda from the vicious Painballers.

The opening of MaddAddam was a bit too in media res for me: I think the beginning of the book will probably read much smoother if the reader has immediately read the first two books. I had to go reread a summary of the first two books (thanks Wikipedia!) to refresh my old brain.

They [Toby/Ren/Amanda] return to the MaddAddamite cob house, newly fortified against man and giant pigoon alike. Accompanying them are the Crakers, the gentle, quasi-human species engineered by the brilliant but deceased Crake.

The Crakers are potentially the most interesting aspect of MaddAddam, but Atwood keeps them on the margins; in the book’s most disappointing moments they’re behavior is basically relegated to punchlines. (Maybe I wanted the book to be an entirely different book—never a fair position for a reviewer to take, but hell, I’ll just say it here in the protection of parentheses—I wanted the book to be about the Crakers in the new world).

Their [the Crakers’] reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is recovering from a debilitating fever, so it’s left to Toby to preach the Craker theology, with Crake as Creator. She must also deal with cultural misunderstandings, terrible coffee, and her jealousy over her lover, Zeb.

MaddAddam kinda sorta takes the form of an oral history (the novel is polyglossic, fragmented, decentered, blah blah blah). Toby, taking over Jimmy’s storytelling role with the Crakers, essentially invents a mythology. These are some of the best moments of the novel—little riffs on storytelling and memory and legend and myth and history and language and how meaning is made and preserved and transmitted. By the end of the novel, Toby has taught a Craker child—Blackbeard—to read and write. He becomes a translator between the MaddAddamites and the pigoons, but he also takes on the role of storyteller and scribe. He becomes Blackboard, Blackbard.

Zeb has been searching for Adam One, founder of the God’s Gardeners, the pacifist green religion from which Zeb broke years ago to lead the MaddAddamites in active resistance against the destructive CorpSeCorps. But now, under threat of a Painballer attack, the MaddAddamites must fight back with the aid of their newfound allies, some of whom have four trotters. At the center of MaddAddam is the story of Zeb’s dark and twisted past, which contains a lost brother, a hidden murder, a bear, and a bizarre act of revenge.

Atwood devotes most of the novel to Zeb’s backstory, which is mildly entertaining but oh lord! exposition exposition exposition. Even when Zeb’s backstory is conveyed with action and energy, there’s often this constant state of clarification/reminder/callback going on, where the narrative voice has to remind the reader for some reason how the particular event being narrated squares against events in the previous two books.

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9. In my review for YotF I wrote

Atwood’s prose sometimes relies on placeholders and stock expressions common to sci-fi and YA fiction, and her complex plot (disappointingly) devolves to a simple adventure story in the end, but her ideas and insights into what our society might look like in a few decades are compelling reading (or, uh, listening in this case).

Okay, so ditto most of that for MaddAddam, only perhaps less compelling. There’s nothing wrong with the simple adventure story that Atwood uses to move her ideas along on here, but there’s also nothing especially engaging either.

10. MaddAddam features an overlong dénouement, culminating in several deaths and births. Even though the ending seems stretched (and often predictable), it nevertheless offers the most cohesive vision in the novel: A future of hybridization and radical diversity that is still beholden to the Darwinian economy of the natural world.

11. The novel resolves by clearing out all of its major characters (sorry if this is a spoiler, but it really isn’t), freeing the imaginative space that Atwood has created—and to be clear, that’s a rich, fertile space—for new adventures, new ways of living, new creatures. I suppose I wanted more What now? explored than the novel had to offer—more exploration of what the genetically-hybridized world might look like with  humans no longer the dominant species.

12. But a review (or even a lazy riff) shouldn’t fault a novel for what it doesn’t set out to do. Perhaps leaving the post-flood world barely explored is Atwood’s parting gift to the trilogy’s readers: She offers us a chance to imagine more.

Margaret Atwood Offers Three Reasons to Keep Physical Books

Margaret Atwood on Hiding Exposition from the Reader

 

What Does the Internet Think About DFW, Franzen, Lydia Davis, Bolaño, Atwood, and Some Other Contemporaryish Writers?

What Does the Internet Think? is a somewhat addictive site that aggregates and analyzes opinions on the internet — I’m not sure exactly how it does this, but it’s fun. I plugged in a few writers this morning (when I should have been working) and here share the results (and, yes, I know that this means almost nothing. Just for fun).

 

Margaret Atwood’s Self-Portrait

Book Shelves #14, April 1, 2012

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Book shelves series #14, fourteenth Sunday of 2012.

This is a strange shelf: it’s the bottom shelf of the ladder book shelf I’ve been photographing over the past few weeks, and it’s probably the least organized so far. There’s also a higher ratio of unread books on this shelf than in previous shelves. Anyway, left to right:

I was far more enthusiastic about Jonathan Lethem just a few years ago. I still think The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn hold up (they do in my memory, anyway), but Chronic City was awful (then why is it still on my shelf) and You Don’t Love Me Yet is one of the most pointless, silly, and gross books I’ve ever read.

I had good intentions to read John Crowley’s Little, Big and  Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco and John Wray’s Lowboy and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: I’m actually pretty sure I got all these novels around the same time. They must have been in a stack that eventually got shelved here during a reshelving.

I’ve read at least five or six more Margaret Atwood novels than the ones here, but have no idea where they are (likely a combination of cheap mass markets that I gave to friends or lost).

Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! is an underread gem. Chris Adrian: Again, I was more enthusiastic about his work a few years ago, but I think it holds up. Also, would the person who borrowed my first edition hardback of The Children’s Hospital please return it? Padgett Powell’s slim novel is not bad.

Will Self’s Great Apes holds the distinction of being the ickiest novel I’ve ever read. Horrifying stuff. I bought it at an airport—in Bangkok? LA? Houston? I really can’t remember—I was returning to the US from Thailand and had bought the cheapest possible plane ticket—one that would basically keep me en route for three days, sleeping on planes and in airports. Anyway, Self’s nightmare book is bound up in that experience: it’s a riff on Kafka; dude wakes up to find that he’s become a chimp. It’s just so gross on so many levels. (Maybe I should add that I find seeing chimps dressed as humans to be the acme of perversion).

The Wells Tower collection is gold.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is gold, but I never got past the first 20 pages of number9dream, which seemed to really bite from William Gibson. I loved both the Tom McCarthy books, particularly C. Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a bit overrated and Baudolino’s first half is not bad, but it just goes on and on and on . . .  but it’s funny.

Margaret Atwood Talks About Twitter (Video)

Books Acquired, 11.08.2011

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Swung by my favorite local bookstore this afternoon (and, for regular readers who wonder why I seem to do this so often, I might point out that said bookstore is like, 7/10ths of a mile from my house). I picked up George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline after numerous reader suggestions and more or less enjoying his later collection, Pastoralia (review this week?).

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I don’t think the lousy iPhone pic conveys how aesthetically pleasing this tpb version of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaiden’s Tale is. It’s an oversized version, really. I used to own the book but a student permanently “borrowed” it (yes, a guy who posts under the scaredynym “Biblioklept” shouldn’t complain about book theft, but still . . .), and anyway, the version I owned was a cheap mass market paperback copy that I got my mom to buy for me at an airport years ago in Australia, so of course it had no special sentimental value, right?

How to Enjoy the Apocalypse: A Post-Rapture Reading List

We published this list last year under the heading Ten Excellent Dystopian/Post-apocalyptic Novels That Aren’t Brave New World or 1984, but what with the Rapture going down and all, why not post it again, this time with links to pieces we’ve written on these novels—

1. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban

2. Camp Concentration, Thomas Disch

3. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

4. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

5. The Hospital Ship, Martin Bax

6. Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

7. VALIS, Philip K. Dick

8. Ronin, Frank Miller

9. Ape and Essence, Aldous Huxley

10. The Road and Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s Bloody Mary and Other Author Cocktails

At HTML, chief mixologist Jimmy Chen has concocted a satirical round of writer cocktails. Here’s “Cormac McCarthy’s Bloody Mary” (which calls for something called a “salary stick” — not sure what that is, but we suggest a celery stalk if you can’t find one)–

This is fun-mean–

And this is just mean-mean–

 

Two Visions of Apocalypse: Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship

I finished Martin Bax’s surreal dystopian romance The Hospital Ship last night and then finished the audiobook version of Margaret Atwood’s hyperreal dystopian anti-romance The Year of the Flood today. Both books take their cues from that first apocalypse story, the story of Noah and his ark, and continue that tradition imagining a version of the end of the world. Despite their mythical-biblical origins, such books tend to get ghettoized into a certain genre of science fiction — let’s call it apocalypse fiction — despite the artistic power or literary merit of the author’s prose itself. Apocalypse books like Kurt Vonnegut’s satire Cat’s Cradle, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence diverge in style, tone, and execution. It’s their subject that compels us, each vision a proposition, a promise of some kind of future, a future after the future. Many of these apocalypse books remain prescient today. However, others feel dated simply because so much of what the author wrote twenty or fifty or more years ago more or less came true. For instance, is the homogenized, greenzoned aristocracy of Brave New World who lavish in the trivial culture of the feelies and centrifugal bumblepuppy all that different from contemporary exurbanites who basically live in walled-off compounds, little homogenized townships that strive to exist outside of civic reality and history? Robert Siegel’s recent report for NPR on the The Villages, an eerie Florida compound for senior citizens, illustrates how willing people are to buy into a company-owned, company-governed greenzone. The Villages even has its own whimsical fake “history,” complete with markers and plaques. It’s like The Prisoner or something. But enough about real life. We have apocalypse lit to tell us about the present.

The heroes of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood are not, for the most part, from the corporate-controlled compounds that keep the rest of the world at bay. There’s Toby, the orphan who grows up tough yet learns the healing arts. There’s Ren, a young girl trying to find her identity wherever she can. There’s their would-be spiritual guide, Adam One, and his lieutenant/rival Zeb. They are outsiders, members of an eco-cult called The Gardeners who worship saints like Rachel Carson, Ernest Shackleton, and Sojourner Truth. Flood is the sprawling companion to Atwood’s 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, which I enjoyed very much. Both take place in a world where the “Waterless Flood,” a SARS/mega-flu type virus brought about via genetic tinkering, has turned most people into zombie-goo. I could go and on about the world Atwood shapes here, one full of genetic modification, eco-terrorism, religious fervor, and radical disparity, but other folks have already done it. So, in the grand tradition of internet laziness, I point you to excellent reviews here and here, which do a better job explicating the plot than I’m willing to do now (and it was an audiobook, remember, so I don’t exactly have it in front of me. Mea culpa). Apocalypse lit isn’t so much predictive as it is descriptive of the contemporary world, and Atwood’s dystopian vision is no exception. Viscerally prescient, Flood paints our own society in bold, vibrant colors, magnifying the strange relationships with nature, religion, and our fellow humans that modernity prescribes. Atwood ends her book in media res, with Toby and a handful of other characters somehow still alive, ready, perhaps, to become stewards of a new world. Flood concludes tense and, in a sense, unresolved, but Atwood implies hope: Toby will lead her small group to cultivate a new Eden. Despite all the ugliness and cruelty and devastation, people can be redeemed. The audiobook rendition of The Year of the Flood is very good, employing three actors to play the three principal roles, Ren, Toby, and Adam One. There are also terribly cheesy full-band versions of the hippy-dippy songs the Gardeners like to sing on certain Saint Days that are witty as parody but ultimately distracting. Atwood’s prose sometimes relies on placeholders and stock expressions common to sci-fi and YA fiction, and her complex plot (disappointingly) devolves to a simple adventure story in the end, but her ideas and insights into what our society might look like in a few decades are compelling reading (or, uh, listening in this case). Recommended.

The doctors, specialists, sailors, and patients of the titular vessel in Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship are afloat in their own greenzone of sorts, a moving compound that seeks to treat the troubled world. What’s the trouble with the world? No one’s sure, exactly–there’s permanent all-out-war, of course, famine perhaps, insanity for sure. There’s also a bizarre army of bureaucrats going from continent to continent crucifying men and raping women for no clear reason. The ship’s psychiatrists diagnose it “The Crucifixion Disease.” Euan, Bax’s erstwhile lead, tries to figure out how to love and how to heal in the middle of hate and extinction. Aided by the eccentric, Falstaffian Dr. Maximov Flint, Euan conducts an experimental therapy between a Moi prostitute named V and a suicidal Wall Street broker named W. He also finds a lover and partner in an American girl named Sheila. About half of The Hospital Ship comprises citations from a variety of non-fiction texts, including medical textbooks, psychiatric studies, sociology texts, travelogues, war diaries, and more. The technique is bizarre and jarring, and Bax often imitates the style of such texts, most of which linger on sex or death. There’s also an obsession with the Vietnam War, which makes sense as the book was published in 1976. There’s a lovey-hippie type vibe to the hospital ship’s personnel, and like Atwood with her Gardeners, Bax is satirical and loving to his heroes at the same time. He mocks some of the silly idealism of the movement even as he finds solace in their vision of love and healing in an apocalyptic world. Bax’s book is wholly weird, disconnected, lurching and farcical, a madcap dystopian Love Boat on peyote. I spotted it at my favorite used bookstore, intrigued first by the (now retro-)futurist font, then the name, echoing Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, another book about a hospital-as-ark. If the black-and-white collage cover art didn’t seal the deal, then the blurb from J.G. Ballard comparing Bax favorably to William Burroughs did. Burroughs is an appropriate reference point, with the sexual alienation and the medical flavor and the cut-up technique and all, but Bax’s writing is utterly Ballardian (he even directly cites Ballard among other authors–like, you know APA style in-text citations). The Hospital Ship is a cult novel which might not have a big enough cult. It definitely belongs in print again; until then, pick up a copy if you can find one.

Wealtheow — Ashley Crownover

In her novel Wealtheow, author Ashley Crownover retells Beowulf from Queen Wealtheow’s point of view. In the original epic poem, Wealtheow doesn’t have much of a voice. Her marriage to King Hrothgar is more a matter of politics than love, and her role in the poem is largely limited to an episode where she speaks up to secure her own genealogical futurity. Adopting a first-person voice, Crownover portrays Wealtheow as a young, somewhat naive bride thrown into a political marriage arranged to prevent war between the Danes and the Helmings. Wealtheow tries to fit into her new role as wife and queen, as well as her new culture, and strives to produce an heir for Hrothgar, suffering miscarriages and other adversities. Crownover parallels Wealthow’s plighted road to motherhood in the tale of Grendel and his mother (called Ginnar here). When Grendel is born deformed, his father rejects him and he is bound for infanticide–only Ginnar’s motherly instinct resists custom, and the pair become fugitives. Crownover’s technique here builds sympathy for Ginnar in echoing the narrative proper of Wealtheow. Ginnar in many ways is a far more sympathetic (and interesting) character than Wealtheow, and the counter-plot of her and her monster-spawn/beloved boy Grendel is the highlight of the book.

Inevitably, Wealtheow must invite comparison to John Gardner’s masterpiece Grendel, the 1971 cult novel that retells the story from the monster’s point of view. Unlike that work, which is densely poetic, ambiguous, and often lyrically experimental, Crownover relates Wealtheow in a simple, straightforward style. The writing is thrifty and competent, and propels the narrative forward with ease. It’s tempting to pigeonhole Crownover’s effort as a feminist revision of an overtly-masculine text, and there’s of course merit in such a description–she does, after all, take a woman’s viewpoint here (or, arguably, the viewpoints of two women). But Crownover’s depiction of Wealtheow–and the men in the narrative–never unravels into gender politics (or, worse, tempting revisionist caricatures). Instead, she keeps the narrative upfront. It’s not as subtle (or ironic) as The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s marvelous retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective, but it does adhere to the same complex view of male-female relations. Fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon series and Beowulf enthusiasts in general will want to check this out.

Wealtheow is available now from Iroquois Press.

The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

thepenelopiad

The Odyssey has long been my go-to example for phallocentric literature in the high school classes I teach. The story of wily Odysseus and his crew wandering the high seas for a decade after the Trojan War prototypifies a literature of masculine fantasy full of adventure, intrigue, and romance. While Odysseus explores the world, bedding nymphs and witches and having every kind of adventure with his boys, his wife Penelope is at home, faithful and chaste, raising kid Telemachus and keeping the would-be usurpers at bay. In short, the story of Odysseus licenses an entire tradition of phallocentric literature wherein the clever protagonist is able to duck familial and social duty and have a great adventure in the process. Think of Huck lighting out for the territory. Same deal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But as Margaret Atwood saliently demonstrates in The Penelopiad, her reworking of The Odyssey, there’s always another side to that story of masculine escape–and a price to that adventure, as well.

As its title suggests, The Penelopiad tells the story from the perspective of Penelope, a plain but clever girl, who–like Odysseus–must learn to live by her wits. Atwood, working from several myths, details Penelope’s divine parentage (she’s half-naiad), and her upbringing as a young maid in her father’s home. In an early key scene, Penelope’s father supposedly (the details are fuzzy, she admits) tries to murder her by drowning her, after learning that she will weave his shroud. This infanticide echoes the story of Oedipus, and also serves as a dominant motif throughout the story (it’s also twinned with a motif of eating meat–Penelope remarks at one point that she is just “meat” to be eaten). As the story progresses, young, shy Penelope slowly transforms from a naive gal with a chip on her shoulder about her preternaturally beautiful cousin, Helen, into a woman as wily as Odysseus himself. Atwood treats us to Penelope’s inner thoughts on all sorts of subjects, and even though Penelope claims to love Odysseus, it’s repeatedly clear how angry she is at not only him, but also her son.

While Penelope’s story is dominant, Atwood is very concerned with Penelope’s twelve maids, orphaned servants slain by Odysseus and Telemachus after Odysseus’ return. The maids serve as a chorus, interjecting their voice in short chapters written in a variety of styles, ranging from epic poetry to sea shanties to short skits. One of the most fascinating choral sections plays as an anthropological seminar, in which Atwood’s maids suggest that the real story of Odysseus and Penelope is in fact the displacement of a matriarchy by a wandering warrior. There’s also an inspired court scene where Odysseus is tried for killing the suitors, and the maids sue for justice.

Ultimately, Atwood paints the maids, poor orphans and slaves, as the real victims in this ancient tale. While Penelope complains that she is treated as “meat,” Atwood makes it clear that it’s really the maids who are treated as mere flesh to be consumed–slaves forced to clean, bodies subjected to repeated rapes. And while Penelope repeatedly expresses sorrow and dismay for the murder of the maids, complaining that their deaths were a result of tragic miscommunication, the maids have a different story to tell–one that ironizes much of what Penelope has to say. As the story progresses, we are frequently reminded by Penelope herself that she is a liar and storyteller on par with Odysseus and because of this insight we begin to realize that there might be something to some of the slanderous rumors she’s been protesting in her narrative. It would’ve been simple for Atwood to give Penelope a straightforward and strong voice, a voice that communicated the virtue classically identified with Penelope along with a feminist slant of insight. Instead, Atwood’s Penelope is far more complex and human, gossipy and spiteful, sympathetic and ripe for contempt. The Penelopiad ironizes not only The Odyssey (and the phallocentric literary tradition after it), but also itself; its a book that complicates our notions of history, memory, and identity, and it does so in ways both playful and profound. Highly recommended.

“Manet’s Olympia” by Margaret Atwood

“Manet’s Olympia”

She reclines, more or less.
Try that posture, it’s hardly languor.
Her right arm sharp angles.
With her left she conceals her ambush.
Shoes but not stockings,
how sinister. The flower
behind her ear is naturally
not real, of a piece
with the sofa’s drapery.
The windows (if any) are shut.
This is indoor sin.
Above the head of the (clothed) maid
is an invisible voice balloon: Slut.

But. Consider the body,
unfragile, defiant, the pale nipples
staring you right in the bull’s-eye.
Consider also the black ribbon
around the neck. What’s under it?
A fine red threadline, where the head
was taken off and glued back on.
The body’s on offer,
but the neck’s as far as it goes.
This is no morsel.
Put clothes on her and you’d have a schoolteacher,
the kind with the brittle whiphand.

There’s someone else in this room.
You, Monsieur Voyeur.
As for that object of yours
she’s seen those before, and better.

I, the head, am the only subject
of this picture.
You, Sir, are furniture.
Get stuffed.