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The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood This is an important book - although I did not particularly like it personally. That is, I don't necessarily think it's a GREAT book - it's well-written, but in some sense it still seems to come across as 'minor', rather than dealing with issues that we all deem central and important to our lives. Nevertheless, it encourages thought, which is always good. I see The Handmaid's Tale as an experiment - an experiment in putting forward to the reader the absurdities underlying our assumptions about life and love (and maybe 'treatment of women', although this phrase itself implies that women are in some way 'treated' by someone... which is itself problematic).

What's annoying about this book is that it's a book on totalitarianism written by a person who never experienced totalitarianism. Thus, it can never SOUND authentic, however hard it tries. However, what it CAN do - and what I think it does very well - is take themes that are embedded and underlying in much of our discourses, much of our lives, that we maybe take too much for granted, and exposes them in terms of authority: that is, it presents them as actual governing principles, rather than something that we constantly articulate as either ideals to strive for or absolutely abominable ideas to distance ourselves from. Thus, it shows the absurdity of authoritative power: the absurdity of attempting to symbolize, to institute, something that cannot be symbolized, something that can, at best, be grasped at the edges of our attempts to grapple with reality.

Despite this, the book is infuriatingly small-minded. It's not that it deals with 'intimate' issues only - ostensibly minor and trivial issues can definitely be dealt with in a way that is profoundly relevant to the human condition (as demonstrated by William Golding and Saul Bellow among others). Atwood doesn't necessarily do so, at least not explicitly - that is, she does not explicate or deal with these issues, merely hints at them. The issues are not implicated in the narrative as such - they have to be 'filled in' by an observant reader who needs to 'see through' the surface critiques of totalitarianism and fundamentalism implicated in the novel. It's all too easy to read it as a horrified reaction to the 1979 revolution in Iran - but I see it touching upon different issues: as it, in fact, shows us that 'Western', 'liberal' society may put different types on demands on its citizens, but they are still real DEMANDS that stem from the mere fact of living in a symbolized 'order'. It's a formalization - a 'hystericization', if you will - of tendencies that already exist in our own society. The Republic of Gilead is not something that we can (or should) avoid: it's a fear, a structure that's merely potentiated from something we already LIVE, as demonstrated by the fact that its principles are drawn from Biblical references (among others). Thus, The Handmaid's Tale is not a warning against what could be 'if we are not careful': it's a warning against what's already there, a reminder for what we have to deal, continuously. It's a sign, rather than a prophecy: an exclamation mark, rather than a predictive statement.

But as I've said before, I don't particularly like it as a novel. It demonstrates significant skill, but to me it simply fails to convey a sense of authenticity - the sense of duality, of external submission and dissimulation that is so typical to authoritarian experiences, just appears to be missing. If anything, it's too explicit in its hopefulness and bleakness at the same time, rather than 'switching' incessantly between them. It seems to suggest that the 'core' can always be kept apart, that there is something that persists, rather than showing the absurdity of investing oneself WHOLE into authoritarian modes of life, where hopefulness may remain just a glimpse on the horizon... It seems to postulate the coexistence of hope and despair, their SYNCHRONIC interlinkage, whereas actual authoritarianism appears to create more 'pulsing' experiences - of catastrophes in the fabric of authoritarian reality that can be exploited, a constant subdued BUZZ of subversion, rather than an entire discourse of it. But then again - as I've said - it's hardly a novel about authoritarianism: it's much more of a novel about liberal society, about its repressed 'core' that it fears yet has to live with. It's a novel of what we see authoritarianism could be like, if we made it. It shows us the absurdity of our own (Atwood's...) imaginations. It is important in that tangential, borderline, even 'twisted' way, rather than being an effective critique of totalitarian rule or religious fundamentalism: these are merely incidental because we ALSO fear them. The subject is different: it is ourselves. In that sense, it is also deeply parochial and non-universal - yet still important. In a way, it fits extremely well into the inward-gazing narrative of North American literature in general - of parts of Bellow, of DeLillo, more recently Franzen: it seeks universalism, and then recoils in horror at the prospect of it, producing absurdity that is the attempt to universalize very distinct cultural properties. It ends in Gilead; it doesn't end well; it's important that we see that; but those who learn from it will always be drawn from a very specific subgroup of people. Not an unimportant bunch, but certainly not anyone.