Saturday, August 7, 2021

Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I'm not really sure why this book was written. In the afterward, Atwood says it was in part a response to the many questions she'd received in the 30 years since The Handmaid's Tale about how Gilead fell. But the Gilead state was not, to me at least, the interesting part of the novel, as I've written before. Instead, I loved the exploration of how Offred, Moira, the Commander, and others reacted to the changing society; how they survived, how they rationalized their choices. It was very human; these dynamics exist in us now, in non-Gilead states. That is, to me at least, what 'good' science fiction and fantasy should be.

The book instead reads like fan fiction: some fan desperate to know what became of Offred's daughter and her suspected pregnancy writes a well-paced if somewhat predictable and plothole-riddled [1 (spoiler)]
account of the two half-siblings reuniting and bringing down the dystopian State.

I said above that I'm not really sure why this book was written, but I have a theory that Atwood used it to explore her own feelings in response to changing cultures as someone in a position of relative power. Atwood is included on many lists of prominent Canadians and on many lists as standout authors of twentieth century literature. With this clout, she has come under fire for protecting the status quo, and complaining about the mobs on twitter.

It's hard to read parts of Aunt Lydia's autobiography and not see in them Atwood defending her own actions (or lack thereof), warning of the terror of cancel culture, and pondering her own legacy:

How will I end? I wondered. Will I live to a gently neglected old age, ossifying by degrees? Will I become my own honoured statue? Or will the regime and I both topple and my stone replica along with me, to be dragged away and sold off as a curiosity, a lawn ornament, a chunk of gruesome kitsch? Or will I be put on trial as a monster, then executed by firing squad and dangled from a lamppost for public viewing? Will I be torn apart by a mob and have my head stuck on a pole and paraded through the streets to merriment and jeers?
I meant well too, I sometimes mumble silently. I meant it for the best, or for the best available, which is not the same thing. Still, think how much worse it could have been if not for me.
She also perhaps still has some things to say about #MeToo that she wasn't able to include in her OpEd:
Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I am sure you have noticed, my reader. Listeners are inclined to believe neither.
She seems aware, also, that some may read into this book the way I have:
You’ll labour over this manuscript of mine, reading and rereading, picking nits as you go, developing the fascinated but also bored hatred biographers so often come to feel for their subjects. How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.

There was an intriguing bit of revisionism I noticed. In The Handmaid's Tale, the birth crisis was blamed on AIDS and nuclear power. In The Testaments, it is blamed on nuclear power, no mention of AIDS. (Is this cancel culture at work?)

I found the prose in this book much less vivid and enthralling than in the first. The first had these beautiful/horrific passages weaving together imagery of flowers and sex and food and death. These were not entirely absent in The Testaments, but they were sparser. The emotions of the narrator in The Handmaid's Tale were dynamic, switching from boredom, to hate and anger, to thoughtful critique of the patriarchal system, to a self-aware desire to be cared for by the system. Agnes, Lydia and Daisy were somewhat stock characters with limited emotional range. I did, however, enjoy how through Agnes' eyes, we explored how patriarchy and oppressive social norms are instilled in girls. Agnes's feelings of shame and fear surrounding men and her own sexuality before she even understood the mechanics of sex were, I thought, portrayed well.

The tone of the book was quite different from its predecessor. Where The Handmaid's Tale was meditative and focused on the narrator's internal journey, this novel read much more 'screenplay-ready', plot-driven with heists (the first also had a woman smuggled in a car, but the focus of the writing was Offred's dettached reflection of the Commander's boot, the only thing she could see during her smuggling, rather than a tense narrative of if she would be allowed through or not). Perhaps that's why this book was written? As additional fodder for the television show based on the first book?

There were a few Easter eggs and references I enjoyed picking up on, such as the Schlafly cafe being the site of Aunt wheeling and dealings. It was neat to see little bits of french language and quebecois culture alluded to, such as Ada's use of the phrase "toot sweet" (toute suite) and Daisy's reading list at school. It was also neat to follow the characters across Canadian land - which isn't portrayed often in fiction - from Etobicoke to New Brunswick.

In sum, this book didn't need to be written, and it certainly doesn't need to be read.

 1. Why did Lydia need to smuggle her report via Nicole at all? Does Canada not also have a problem with birth defects and declining fertility?

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