April 9, 2013

Starting Margaret Atwood

The second author in my START HERE project is Margaret Atwood, and this time I get to be much more enthusiastic than with the first author. However, I hardly needed an introduction to Atwood, because she has been one of my favorite authors for decades.

Even though she's a favorite, I haven't read close to all of her many books. So I was pleased to see that the reading pathway (created by Brenna Clarke Gray) has only one book I'd read before (and wanted to reread anyway) and two I hadn't tried yet.

→ I first read THE HANDMAID'S TALE when I was probably a teenager, and maybe another time since then. I was glad for the opportunity to read it again and glad to find it was just as good -- and just as horrifying -- as I remembered.

The novel speculates an America that has been taken over by religious fanatics who want to put women back in their Biblical place. The narrator, who until recently had the life of a modern woman with a job and a husband and a child, has been forced into the role of Handmaid to a Commander and his Wife. (There are a lot of new and repurposed capitalized terms under the regime.) As a Handmaid, she is supposed to bear a child for this infertile couple, in the manner described in the book of Genesis.

To be clear, this story is brutal and depressing. The moments of happiness are nearly all in the flashbacks to the time before and serve to make the narrator's present even more awful. But the book is amazing in the way it unfolds, the style of the storytelling, the care taken with the details of life in this dystopia, and the moments of humor and wordplay.

While this is a work of speculative or science fiction (Atwood has frequently commented on these classifications), it feels strongly rooted in reality and is often far too plausible for comfort. The text isn't specific about dates, but it seems to be set not long after its 1985 publication. The narrator grew up around the 1970s with a mother involved in the feminist movement of that time. At one point she imagines saying to her mother, "You wanted a women's culture. Well, now there is one. It isn't what you meant, but it exists."

Atwood wrote in her 2011 essay collection IN OTHER WORLDS (my review): "Someone graffitied on the Venice Beach seawall: 'The Handmaid's Tale Is Already Here!' It wasn't already here, not quite, not then. I thought for a while in the 1990s that maybe it never would be. But now I'm wondering again. Of recent years, American society has moved much closer to the conditions necessary for a takeover of its own power structures by an anti-democratic and repressive government." This book is perhaps the most chilling horror story I've ever read. It's also an impressive and beautiful work of fiction.

I watched the 1990 movie adaptation not long ago (but before my reread). I knew it was poorly received, so my expectations were low, but in fact I thought it was a good movie, and I'm not sure why it was panned. In my opinion, it's an effective and relatively faithful adaptation, taking much of the plot and even dialogue directly from the novel. Of course many parts of the book had to be left out, as is always the case, and the movie has to do without the narrator's voice. Still, the horror of the premise is fully conveyed, and the film medium allows viewers to experience the unsettling visuals suggested by the book, such as the seas of Handmaids in their identical red cloaks. The movie is no substitute for the book, but it's worth watching.

POWER POLITICS is a collection of poems. I have enjoyed some of Atwood's poetry in the past, but most of these didn't appeal to me much.

The poems in the collection are all addressed to "you" and are a woman speaking to a man. The relationship between the two characters (if they are meant to be the same characters in every poem) is not a happy one, and the poems explore the many ways that people can hurt each other. There are also a few poems concerned with how humans hurt the earth, foreshadowing Atwood's more recent association with environmental causes.

→ In ALIAS GRACE, Atwood takes the story of a real historical person and fills in the blanks that have been lost to time. Grace Marks was a young servant in a village near Toronto who in 1843 was accused of participating in the murder of her master and the housekeeper who was known to be his mistress. Another servant was hanged for the murders, and Grace was sentenced to life in prison and considered possibly insane due to her claims of not remembering her role in the events. The case was a popular scandal in the press, and Grace remained a subject of curiosity for decades afterwards.

To inform the reader of all this information at the beginning of the book, Atwood uses the clever technique of starting with a ballad of the sort that might have been passed around at the time to sensationalize the murders and the trial. After that, we get the "real" story as Atwood imagines it, from Grace's perspective. She is interviewed by a doctor who wants to determine if her gaps in memory are real and whether or not she is mad.

In telling her story, Grace gives detailed accounts of her day-to-day life at various points prior to the murders, minutely describing her work as a servant and her personal interactions. These long descriptions are the sort of thing I would have expected to find boring. Instead, I was enthralled by both the historical information about a very different time and the constant undercurrent of tension as I waited (as eagerly as the doctor) for Grace to get to the day of the murders.

The novel's narrative style is less straightforward than I've described it, with multiple points of view and sometimes a disjointed chronology. In other words, it's a very Atwoodian book, which I consider an excellent thing. This is a fascinating take on the life of a fascinating woman, and I'm glad I was finally prompted to read it after having it in my bookcase for years.

Other Atwood novels I especially recommend are THE BLIND ASSASSIN, THE ROBBER BRIDE, and CAT'S EYE. I loved these all when I first read them, and I hope to find time to read them again soon.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the Slate Book Review, Matthew Kirschenbaum identifies the first novel ever written on a word processor: "A few weeks later, [Len] Deighton stood outside his Georgian terrace home and watched as workers removed a window so that a 200-pound unit could be hoisted inside with a crane. The machine was IBM's MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter), sold in the European market as the MT72." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

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