Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Handmaid's [Explicit] Tale

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
I'm late coming to the party here.  This text has been set for classes across the U.S. for a while now, but I only read it this week.

I have very mixed feelings about it.  I hesitate to recommend it.

Pros first:
  • Atwood is undeniably clever.
  • Her speculative future is intriguing, worth exploring, and well-built.  The introduction to the world, culture and essential problems of the novel are painted well (instead of with a weighty or self-conscious "catch-up on how we got here").
  • Her writing surprised me.  At first, I was struggling to focus in on her listy prose.  Then there's the lack of quotation marks (she does use them, but not often).  But with time, I came to respect her chosen style of writing.  The (lack of) punctuation succeeded in creating a sense of a casual retelling and reported speech by the story's narrator, Offred.  Like I say, surprising -- as usually I would just call this sloppy or irritating, regardless of whatever defence others might make of the motives behind it. 
  • Similarly, the abrupt and fractured flashbacks (often interspliced) weren't as hard to make sense of as other sections that I've read employing this literary device (Chapter 3 of Brave New World, for example).
  • The metafictional epilogue is cheeky, and doesn't detract from the story the way I felt Goldman's metafictional content did.
Cons:
  • My anxiety about the treatment of what was inevitably coming in a book about fertility and procreation was warranted.  Atwood's interest in vividly characterising the emptiness of the sexual act results in very explicit scenes.  I can understand why the novel has so often been challenged as a part of school curricula.  I wouldn't want my kids to read it in their adolescence, if ever.  While I can understand Atwood's choices, I've always been a fan of understated and creative references to things that I consider sacred.  Yes, I get that this is precisely the point -- she is articulating the degradation of something once beautiful...but I'll never think that the f-bomb and comparing genitalia to slugs is the only way to do that.
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