Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale (with Jim Geraghty)

Title: The Handmaid's Tale 

Author: Margaret Atwood

Publisher: Anchor

Date: 1985

ISBN: 978-0385490818

Length: 311 pages

Jim Geraghty's e-mail, quoted at some length below, was headlined "What Fans of The Handmaid's Tale Prefer to Ignore." Actually, for serious fans of Margaret Atwood, what JG then reminded readers is pretty familiar reading.

The Handmaid's Tale is "about" a totalitarian government. Any totalitarian government. As an Amnesty International activist, Atwood received reports about all of them. There are Islamic elements in the fictional dystopian "Republic of Gilead," where both literacy and sexuality have been forbidden to most people in the neo-feudal dictatorship; the life the narrator describes has a lot in common with the descriptions of Afghanistan in My Forbidden Face and The Kite Runner. There are also Christian elements--in order to take over Christian America, the totalitarian Party has adopted Christian rhetoric, although the point of banning literacy is that people are no longer sure which of the texts they're being trained to quote as sacred are from the Bible or from Marx, and there are references to persecution of Baptists. There are also Marxist elements--"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" has become a sacred scripture of the Gilead Party's official religion. The danger to which this book alerts us does not come from a specific school of religious or political rhetoric; it comes from the fundamental idea of legitimizing some people's "right" to control other people's lives.

For some more of Atwood's own commentary on The Handmaid's Tale, plus other essays--many, frustratingly, about Canadian books not easily obtained in the U.S.--you might want to check out this book, which has been published in the U.S.:

What I particularly loved about this book was that it came out when Alan Greenspan and a few other "progressive visionary" types were eager to build a "cashless economy." A "paperless society." Business is transacted through individual-identity-based Internet accounts. That's how the power-mad Party are able to disenfranchise, if not to wipe out, whole demographics overnight--the ultimate power grab comes when all females suddenly find their economic identities deactivated.

The next step after that was to grab readers' attention with kinky sex. When no woman has purchasing power in her own right, all women become de facto sex slaves. The Party initially claims to respect marriage but quickly trumps up charges against lower-status husbands of fertile women so that those women can be awarded as "Handmaids" to higher-status husbands of sterile wives. (In 1985 there was real fear that exposure to radiation from computers would cause unwanted sterility; in The Handmaid's Tale the ascendance of computer technology coincides with an epidemic of male and female sterility, although Party-sanction speech officially denies these conditions.)

The narrator, whose name may or may not be June, was happily married with a child, although her husband was unpleasantly comfortable with her sudden enslavement to him. Then the Party police separated the family. The narrator was drugged and "re-educated" with the goal of destroying her memory of her own family, her job in a library, and her ability to read, although this goal was not fully achieved. Her husband and daughter may or may not be alive; she never knows. Her friends may or may not be able to help her escape, or even really intend to try; the reader never knows. Her opportunity to narrate her "tale" secretly, as audio recordings, depends on her ability to conceive a living child in pleasureless three-way sex with "The Commander" and his wife, and her biological clock is ticking during the months or years the story takes.

Right...so this plot is fiction, and not particularly fresh, and its initial popular appeal depended to some extent on kinky sex and violence. If you don't like sex and violence but do enjoy Atwood's style, there's enough of the author's trademark wit and insights to keep you reading through the icky bits, which are filtered through the tough-minded but nonviolent narrator. If you're not familiar with Atwood's style and are thinking "Meh, what's so great about this story that I should unplug and read 311 pages of real paper?"--well, first of all, the new release of this book was triggered by Hulu, so you can (ironically) view it online if you want. More important, though, is what Atwood was really telling people in the novel, and has told people in at least one published essay approximately every ten years since. What you need to visualize vividly, and The Handmaid's Tale will sear into your brain in sufficiently vivid detail, is that if and when we really allow computers to edge out real printed books and newspapers and personal letters, a totalitarian dictatorship that just might select any easily sorted sub-group of the population for genocide is just a short step away.

You're reading this on a computer that connects to the Internet. I'm writing it on a computer that connects to the Internet. Obviously we agree that the Internet has its uses. But be vigilant, Gentle Readers. Stay ready to unplug yourselves from the Internet at any moment. You just might have to.

And if you've not yet read the book, or have read the book and want to see how well Hulu handles it, that's what today's Amazon post is for.

Now, from Jim Geraghty, beginning with a quote and continuing with lots of data links:

According to a rash of earnest think pieces from dozens of news outlets, The Handmaid’s Tale is “timely” (the Washington Post), feels “chillingly real” (the San Francisco Chronicle), and has “an unexpected relevance in Trump’s America” (the New York Times). Atwood’s dystopia, writes Rebecca Nicholson in the Guardian, “has reignited the interest of readers, who have been drawing fresh parallels between Gilead and Trump’s America, and the novel topped the Amazon bestsellers list around the same time that signs at the global Women’s Marches asked to ‘Make Margaret Atwood fiction again.’”
Never one to miss a good marketing opportunity, Atwood affirmed our apparent unfolding national horror show on April 19, speaking to the Los Angeles Times about the Hulu series: “The election happened, and the cast woke up in the morning and thought, we’re no longer making fiction — we’re making a documentary.” According to a recent article in The New Republic, lo, have mercy, for great woes have apparently befallen me, a wide-eyed, unsuspecting resident of the Lone Star State: “Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too.”
We heard a bit of “We’re turning into The Handmaid’s Tale!” panic-hysteria-accusation during the Bush administration, too. I’ll dust off my argument from then: To picture a near-future United States that is a Christian theocracy with open, systematic, and brutal oppression of women, you have to picture some unbelievable changes occurring very quickly: repealing women’s right to vote; a re-acceptance of slavery; widespread Christian acceptance of government-mandated extramarital sexual intercourse; total repeal of the First Amendment; total bans on any other religious beliefs (there are references to “Baptist rebels”). Perhaps most absurdly, almost all men have accepted a regime where the only sexual outlet of any kind is government-monitored breeding with the fertile “handmaids,” reserved for the most powerful.
Do you picture lots of American men signing on for a system that denies them the freedom to have sex with women? [...]
But Margaret Atwood could have set her tale in other places and made it practically a modern-day documentary: say, Saudi Arabia. Or any corner of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
How about Yemen, where there is no legal minimum age for marriage, 52 percent of girls marry before 18, and there’s a tradition of “honor killings” for disobedient women?
Or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where one estimate calculates two million rapes have occurred as part of that country’s continued violent instability, and armed gangs commit rapes with horrifying frequency.
Or Egypt, where more than 125 million women and girls have endured the barbaric practice of “female genital mutilation” and the practice is the norm.
Sudan’s penal code legalized flogging women for inappropriate dress, and girls can be married at age 10.
Human Rights Watch’s most recent report on Pakistan:
In Pakistan, with 21 percent of girls marrying before the age of 18. In January 2016, a proposal submitted to parliament by WHOM aimed to raise the legal minimum age to 18 for females and introduce harsher penalties for those who arrange child marriage. However, on January 14, 2016, the proposal was withdrawn following strong pressure from the Council of Islamic Ideology, a body that advises the parliament on Islamic law. The council criticized the proposal as “anti-Islamic” and “blasphemous.”
Violence against women and girls—including rape, murder through so-called honor killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriage—remained routine. Pakistani human rights NGOs estimate that there are about 1,000 “honor killings” every year.
Or Iran:
Women face discrimination in personal status matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. A woman needs her male guardian’s approval for marriage regardless of her age and cannot pass on her nationality to her foreign-born spouse or their children. Married women may not obtain a passport or travel outside the country without the written permission of their husbands.
The UN Children’s Rights Committee reported in March that the age of marriage for girls is 13, that sexual intercourse with girls as young as nine lunar years was not criminalized, and that judges had discretion to release some perpetrators of so-called honor killings without any punishment. Child marriage—though not the norm—continues, as the law allows girls to marry at 13 and boys at age 15, as well as at younger ages if authorized by a judge. Authorities continue to prevent girls and women from attending certain sporting events, including men’s soccer and volleyball matches.
UAE’s penal code allows the imposition of “chastisement by a husband to his wife and the chastisement of minor children” so long as the assault does not exceed the limits prescribed by Sharia, or Islamic law.
A 2010 decision by the United Arab Emirates Federal Supreme Court ruled that hitting a wife or child was legal up until the point where it leaves marks.
Horrific, brutal regimes that systematically deny basic rights to women and girls based upon religious beliefs are not hard to find. They’re just rarely Christian. (Worth noting about the above list, the most common religion in the Democratic Republic of Congo is Christianity.) The world has plenty of awful places that can be fairly compared to Atwood’s fictional dystopian regime of Gilead. They’re just mostly Muslim.

Any of Margaret Atwood's vintage books (first published before 2010) can be purchased here as a Fair Trade Book. The ones that have most in common with The Handmaid's Tale are, in my judgment:

(Bodily Harm was/is about the real present-time use of torture in totalitarian countries, although St. Antoine is a fictional composite Caribbean island.)

(Oryx and Crake and its two sequels warn us about the hazards of a different branch of science.)