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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

LBT's Generic Book Corner: The Handmaid's Tale

So I have kindof wanted to bring up this book since I first had the idea to chat into the I-ether about books, because, and for once I am not being hyperbolic, it is in my view one of the most terrifying paranoia-inducing books I have read, ever, EVER, and I seek that shit out. If you peruse TVTROPES (do not peruse TVTROPES, as you will never escape), the terms Paranoia Fuel and High Octane Nightmare Fuel most definitely apply.

In short, at first I was:

Then I was:

If you have not read this book (which I recommend so very, very much), it takes place in a distopia, set in the very near future (for fellow misties, Next Sunday, A.D.), in what had been the United States, and is now the Republic of Gilead, a Christian Theocracy. The narrator never tells her name - she is know by the other characters as Offred (Of Fred), and she is a Handmaid - a concubine assigned to a powerful man for reproductive purposes. The Commander (presumably named Fred) has a wife, the erstwhile televangelist Serena Joy (which is now the greatest insult I can level at someone). The novel details Offred's life as a handmaid, as well as offering glimpses to her past with her husband and daughter (the former is presumably dead, the latter had been separated from Offred and was given to a family more in line with the theocratic government).

Offred's life is so very claustrophobic. She has no privacy, no space, no belongings, no identity. Women in this world are not allowed to read. Communication is difficult due to surveillance, and to the constant fear of being reported. The punishments for any misbehavior are severe.

The book is great, but I do not actually want to talk about it at the moment, aside from why I found it so disturbing. What scares me is that it seems possible. And the more I pay attention to the world around me, the more possible it seems. For all of my life I have been sure that I have inalienable rights, that there was a set order that guaranteed freedom and autonomy. And, as a U.S. Citizen, I trusted implicitly that religious autocracies could only happen somewhere else. But, but, but. Sarah Palin is Serena Joy. Michelle Bachmann is considering a run for president. Tea partiers are...well, nothing I want to say in a place my mother might read it (hi mom, if you are reading! See, I can be nice!) Recent bills brought before congress are outrageous. We should be outraged.

I have to admit, I am not really sure what my point is, or if I even have one, per se. This book made me think a lot, and not especially nice thoughts, and it made me wake up some, and I am perhaps more skittish after reading it. But I am less complacent, too. What I love about horror fiction is that it is a safe way to explore fears. The Handmaid's Tale did not feel safe at all, but that might not be a bad thing.


  1. I'm male, and The Handmaid's Tale scared the shit out of me. I can only imagine.

    It's really good, though.

  2. Confession: I have not yet read this book though I have been meaning to and it is right up my alley from a genre standpoint. Why? Because I read Cat's Eye also by Margaret Atwood and it was really really well done but it also severely messed with my head and it took me weeks to get over it. What I'm saying is, that I am a chickenshit and that I am physically afraid of a book.

  3. I read this book during GWB's second term, and that definitely added to the atmosphere (e.g. terrorsphere). I can't imagine reading it now given the Tea Partiers and the madness spewing from congress these days. I want to read Atwood's other books, but I tend to prefer fiction when reading for personal pleasure.

  4. Politically speaking, she wrote Handmaid during the Reagan admin. So that definitely informed her writing.

    I read her more recent dystopian books right after this one, Oryx & Crake and its sequel/prequel Year of the Flood. Those books are more driven by environmental concerns and genetic engineering. Equally interesting, though, especially Oryx. She's very talented at imagining terrible fates for mankind!

  5. For me, it was The Edible Woman that really got me hooked on Atwood. I was afraid to have sex afterwards. And turned into a vegetarian as well.

    I'm not saying those are the only factors, of course, but Atwood is amazing.

    I read Oryx and Crake over christmas vacation, and let me tell you it is the new Handmaid's Tale for me.

  6. I haven't read any of Atwood's novels, even though I am pretty sure I would like them. I have Oryx & Crake on my shelf right now, but I haven't read it yet. This has inspired me to finally pick it up.
    That said, I really like her poetry, especially "The Journals of Susanna Moodie." Has anyone read the Penelopiad? It's her take on the Odyssey, and it's really great.
    One of my favourite poems of hers is this one:

    You fit into me
    like a hook into an eye

    A fish hook
    An open eye