WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT THE HANDMAID’S TALE
How do you get ready for Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale? If you're anything like us, you relive your MFA glory days with a chat about Margaret Atwood's book! (BOOK SPOILERS BELOW)
ADRIENNE: OK, Z, I can’t believe I got an MFA without reading this book? I just read it poolside at a resort in Mexico, which was a very dissonant experience, except Trump’s still president, so there’s that. This is your favorite book, it’s about to be a Hulu series, tell me why you love it so much.
ZANE: I love The Handmaid’s Tale because FEMINISM. Well, not only that but that’s a big part of it. I read this book the first time during summer between seventh and eighth grade. I know it was the summer because I have a clear memory of reading it in hot truck in Artesia, NM, while my dad bullshitted with a tire guy. I still have my original, mass market paperback with the ugly cover. I also have the nicer trade paperback and I own it on my Kindle. This is the book I’ve read the most times, I’ve taught it, and I can say confidently that it is my favorite. What I loved about it as a young teenager was the sci-fi elements (surprise, surprise, I was a young dork). And here was this book that blended dystopian science fiction with real world problems and then, to top it off, was beautifully written. But it also confirmed something that I, as a young dork feminist, was already aware of: the bastards DO want to grind us down. In fact, they’ll take any chance they get to do so.
What I love about it now, as a grown ass woman/dork/feminist, is the craft of it. It is so beautifully written that I find lines or phrases I lifted from it in my own writing. All my imaginary hardwood floors are blonde, just like the floors in the Commander’s house. I love the way it responds to Orwell’s 1984 and to the 80s feminist backlash. I love the way it explores power and powerlessness, the way surveillance robs everyone in a society of freedom, the way it skewers anti-porn feminism, and the way Atwood writes about sex. I love the way Atwood describes this slide into fundamentalism: one day, Offred goes to the market and can’t buy a pack of cigarettes because her credit card doesn’t work anymore. I love the scene where she talks about freedom from. I LOVE EVERYTHING.
But, A, here’s a question for you: how did you, as a grown ass woman, respond to your first reading of this novel? How did you like the science fictional elements?
AG: It’s funny, because I didn’t even really read it as science fiction. It was like an alternate reality, but so rooted in what feels absolutely real to us and our society. I wouldn’t generally say I’m a sci-fi gal, but I love the fantastic rooted in reality. Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt, which jeez, now as a parent, I’m like that’s a fucking metaphor alright.
One of the things I’m struck by as a reader is the slow building of terror. Like Offred is in this shitty situation at the beginning, it sucks, poor Offred. But I’m still in Mexico with the warm sun on my face, using my credit card, no biggie. Halfway through I was fucking terrified, like THIS COULD ALL HAPPEN WHY HASN’T IT HAPPENED YET SOCIETY IS A MIRAGE. This book really is a master class in how to reveal information. It’s like 175 pages in before you even find out how society collapsed! I had some like niggling questions about the second person addresses and then that last section at the symposium BLEW MY MIND. It was just so perfect. I wondered if she wrote that part first.
ZB: Atwood famously has said that everything in the book has happened at some point in human history. The institutionalized rape, of course, comes straight out of the Old Testament. She would 100% agree that it's not science fiction because she's a testy old broad and doesn't want to be ghettoized in genre. She's repeatedly said it is speculative fiction as opposed to sci-fi, but I'd like to have a gentle slap fight with her about that. But now is not the time!
Gentle slap fights aside, I also love the structure here. Want to talk about withholding information? How about the fact that she reveals this as a found audio recording in the last section: the (in)famous symposium. That's how she gets away with the second person! Here's another thing I love: in that last section, she leaves the reader with a little bit of hope, in that reveal that Gilead does fall and things go back to “normal.” Her real trick, though, is to show that MEN ARE STILL AWFUL. The professor speaking patriarchally chastises Offred for her lack of specificity. Men are still mansplaining even in the future. Now that's a spicy, bitter meatball.
So, A, what did you think about our heroine here? What about Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway forever!)
AG: Ugh ugh ugh oh my god, men are terrible. That mansplaining bullshit is so infuriating. But also a perfect narrative choice. Atwood is a genius. And married to a man! I didn’t know you could be both???
I like all the characters except for Luke. Who clearly was not a genius hahahahaha. And didn’t protect Offred or even get the damn passports right. A picnic?? What a dummy. I like Serena Joy actually. I saw her as a victim of this shit like Offred. Except I suppose she could’ve tried to be more of an ally. But that’s the point right, these things happen because people become silent? What do you think?
Can we talk about the sparkly can-can outfit and the gentlemen’s club and the Commander???
And tell me how she reveals information so deliberately and slowly, yet the book is a total page turner??? Is it because there are so many questions? So we want to know the answers?
ZB: See, I have less sympathy for Serena Joy. For starters, she was Tammy Faye Baker in her past life, and she helped usher in the regime. She’s the smiling Kellyanne Conway plus Ivanka, ya know? I think Atwood uses her to demonstrate that women can be complicit in the patriarchy (hello, over 50% of white women who voted Trumpkin) and to show that those women will be protected for awhile and then ultimately humiliated and punished just like the rest of us. She’s privilege adjacent, but she comes to learn that being adjacent to privilege doesn’t mean jack shit when your terrible husband is raping a woman while you hold her down.
Oh, Jezebel’s. See, I think that’s where Atwood has her fun. She lampoons this stunted, teenage boy sexuality that the Commander and his ilk enjoy. I mean, it’s like they’ve found a copy of Playboy in the woods and then made it into a club. There’s nothing truly kinky going on. Here’s a true story: when I was in college, my former best friend was dating an extremely religious boy. This boy was involved in a Christian student union and blah blah blah loved Jesus. The boys he hung out with would CROSS TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MALL IN ORDER TO NOT WALK BY VICTORIA’S SECRET. Apparently, the temptation represented by those headless white plastic mannequins was too much to bear. The Commander and his boys have done the same, but to the whole world. And so, when the clubhouse they create is filled with women in sexy French maid outfits and old Playboy bunny leotards and probably sexy Old West saloon girl outfits, it’s another manifestation of their priggish hatred of women and ultimately, their fear of them. I mean, it’s basically the sexy section of Party City.
One of the things I hate the most in this book is when the Commander lets Offred look at a fashion magazine as he woos her into an affair. And Offred falls for it. But she’s been starved for words and it does let her remember what life was like before. So, I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t love fashion magazines enough. If it were you, AG, he could use People.
So, the information: she uses this audio recording, she withholds, and if, I can put my MASTER OF FINE ARTS IN CREATIVE WRITING: FICTION hat on, Offred doesn’t want to think about what happened and how it happened. She’s PTSD, all the way. But, because she’s been sequestered in environment in which her only obligation is to ovulate, she can’t keep those thoughts away. They creep up, especially at “Night.” I also think that Atwood builds the world delicately and with skill. You can’t just dump a whole bunch of exposition right at the front. The reader wants to come to understand the world slowly. That reveal is one of the sources of tension. But that’s not to say that the book is slow or lacks plot--it’s actually filled with tension and conflict and complications. Offred just doesn’t have much agency in most of them. Almost everything that happens in the book is done to her.
It really is brilliant and a great primer for the writer looking to explore sci-fi--I mean, speculative fiction.
So, one last question. This book has shot to the top of the bestseller list. Is it timely? Is it likely? Are we closer to Gilead now in the time of Trumpkin than we were four months ago?
AG: I love everything you just said and agree completely. In regards to your last question, I don’t know. Here’s one thing I know, my friends who are minorities and social advocates are like WELCOME TO OUR WORLD, WHYPIPO. Like the feeling is that the fear that white liberals are feeling in the age of Trump is the fear that minorities and marginalized groups have felt since, well, like forever. And the whipipo are just waking up to it because now we feel threatened.
I think that’s an interesting viewpoint and also possibly an over-simplification. Obviously we are both two white women. Neither of us voted for Trump. We’re both invested in equality for all people. But the strides we, as white women liberals, felt were being made under Obama all feel very much under attack now. Though a majority of minorities and marginalized groups would say Obama didn’t do enough.
I can say that this book and our current point in time has me thinking about humanity in general and philosophy of government and what actually “works”. Like I said I read this book in Mexico. And while we were in Mexico my kid was scampering up these Mayan ruins from 1200 to 1550 A.D. and I’m just like, is this what it is? Societies rise and fall, rise and fall, and are we on a fall? It feels like we’re on a fall. Like that Chicago could be bombed any fucking day and I’ll just be shopping at Target when it happens.
I know reading this book in this point in time felt very real to me. Our banking systems feel very fragile. I’m not a survivalist with cash and gold bars under the bed (Shout out John B. McLemore!) But it is something I think about. How quickly we could become refugees and how our fear of that has us not helping current refugees at all.
ZB: I recently listened to The Gist podcast, and Mallory Ortberg (Dear Prudence, The Toast RIP) pointed out that in the novel, all people of color are removed and that Atwood takes things that have been done historically to “other” groups and basically applies it to white women. She made the point that there is obviously a level of privilege at work, and that this book represents white lady liberals freaking out about fictional versions of themselves instead of what’s happened or is happening to people of color, LGBTQIA+, or other targeted people. Which, okay. I think she’s making a fine point. But I also think that Atwood is exposing that privilege and saying, the patriarchy will crush everyone. White ladies might be second to last, but they’ll get crushed too. (Last to be crushed: MEN. But they will be crushed nonetheless, just as the Commander is crushed.) That ties into your point about the whites, or whatever.
I’ve always believed that we are only a hairsbreadth away from everything being stripped away. I read this book at a youngish age, and during the high times of the Clinton administration. Even in that 90's bubble of relative peace and prosperity, of equality gains, I knew that it could be true. But, you know, to quote Matthew McConaughey in True Detective: “I'd consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I'm what's called a pessimist.”
So, if we’re going to go full Rust Cohle (terrible fucking name, on-the-nose-screenwriter) or John B and start making figurines out of our Lone Star beer cans and burying krugerrands, where does that get us. We may be on a downslope, civilization wise, maybe. It feels like it in a lot of ways. We haven’t talked about the environmentalism in this novel, but we could probably spend another page just on that. The world is getting hotter. According to the gospel of John B., we are running out of resources. We could have nuclear war tomorrow. We are under an administration that seems actively hostile towards women. We have a vice president who won’t eat with women besides his wife. (BTW: if we do go full Gilead, it will be under President Mike Pence.) But, that’s why we wear pussyhats and call our representatives and march in the streets.
The other thing this novel teaches is there is always a Resistance. It is both physical and mental. It whisks people away to safety and it lives inside us: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum
AG: I love that you just quoted Matthew McConaghey in True Detective. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, Zane! Nolite te bastardes carborundorum!