Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale (Everyman's Library)
So, what can you say about another story concerning a post-apocalyptic, misogynistic, murderous, far right-wing theocracy plunging the United States into a new Dark Age.  Not much, you would think - I mean considering the Bush years brought us within a wasp's nipple of that possible future.   But think again!  (Now think one more time - OK that's good, you're there.)  The extremely witty and wonderful Canadian (of course) penned this literate and compelling imagination of an America run by James Dobson, back in 1985!

That's right, she predicted the future when George W. Bush was still snorting coke off strippers and drinking rum and cokes.  Now that's clairvoyance!  Not only was this genre-fusing (near-future sci-fi/post-feminist polemic/totalitarian memoir) novel precognitive, it also turned out to be a damned good read.  Atwood has always had a wicked sense of humor, if dry as a bone, and here the satire is so subtle, and yet so cutting it draws blood (a prominent metaphor in the book, with obvious connotations). 

In this brave new dictatorship, the vast majority of American men have become sterile, through a combination of epidemic disease and environmental poisons.  To keep up the birthrate, a right-wing junta assumes power by force, and remakes the nation in its own image.  Those in power (i.e., presumed to be potent) now have Wives - one to each man, and not required to procreate.  The Commanders also are expected to keep Handmaids - provably fertile young women ripped from previous relationships and children to serve as brood mares on a monthly basis. 

That the novel is the self-narrated story of one of these Handmaids is a gross oversimplification - Atwood's knack for insinuating the details of the new "republic" into her heroine's tragic story is profound - so much so that the comic afterword, an academic seminar looking back on the presumably short-lived theocracy, is unnecessary, though still satisfying. 

Revealing more about this deep and complex book would be counter-productive, and attempting to pick apart it's brilliance would merely be redundant.  Enough to say go get it!  I mean right now.  No - stop - get up from the computer and go to a book store.  Or a library.  Now!

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