04 March 2006

The Handmaid's Tale

I've read this book a few times already, and I still think it's excellent. It really deserves to be counted among the classics of dystopian fiction along with Brave New World, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, etc.

I've never met a man who enjoyed Atwood's fiction, and this book especially. I think I understand why, in that it seems to me that there's a deep-rooted mistrust and suspicion of men haunting her works, a belief that they are truly "Other". Her texts are firmly anchored in a woman's perspective in very curious ways. I don't think I even noticed it the first time I read the book, which may have something to do with the fact that I was an adolescent girl at the time, and the narrative voice seemed incredibly close to me. Reading it now though, I resist this portrayal of men as these totally foreign creatures, both beautiful and terrifying, sometimes wonderful, sometimes dull-witted, but inevitably somehow strangers, even in moments of intimacy. In this book, of course, this is brought into high relief because it's precisely the point that this society has turned women into vessels for childbirth and attempted to rob them of their personhood, but honestly, I think it's present, to varying degrees, in all of her books. But as I said, for this book, it's highly appropriate. The vision of the future is chilling, particularly in that it does hit close to home in a disturbing sort of way. The description of the present is dated somewhat now - it's the world of the 80s - but recognizable, and the vision of the future is more plausible than one would like it to be. The narrative of causation isn't fully fleshed out, but is nonetheless pretty well done. The vision of the totalitarian, dystopic future, however, is quite well thought out and fully rounded. What's most eerie is that it's only well into the book that you realize that a. the story is set in Cambridge, at Harvard, b. that the events described are happening sometime around the year 2000, and c. that the whole world hasn't yet been taken over by this bizarre system. What's most effective about this third point is that by the time you realize it, the descriptions of the normal world we know seem bizarre and other-worldly, exactly as they're meant to for the character in the book. The Harvard of today does seem like a distant relic. In other words, the text effectively converts you to its perspective, estranging you from the world you know.

Another strength of the text is the way it depicts the heroine's inner life - you really feel close to the character, and have a strong sense of her personality. The writing is really excellent, more so, I think, than in Atwood's other works. Then again, maybe it's just that this was the first book of hers that I read - her style kind of wore off on me after awhile. But returning to it now, I appreciated it again. She has an extremely sensual style, in an interesting sort of way. Describing a character, for instance, as feeling `like the word lonely', gives language itself a sense of palpability that's really wonderful.

Anyhow, despite the fact that I now find the extreme feminist view of the text somewhat off-putting, I still think it's a great book. It sticks with you, resurfacing in your thoughts often, and despite the fact that I was reading it for the third or fourth time, I nonetheless found it gripping, and was breathlessly racing to finish reading it.

Hmmm. I feel like there's more to say about it, but perhaps I haven't finished thinking it all out.

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