Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reading THE HANDMAID'S TALE: IV (by res ipsa)

So ... could it happen here? I read that Margaret Atwood considers The Handmaid's Tale to be speculative -- rather than science -- fiction, the difference being that in speculative fiction, everything that happens in the story is possible right now, whereas science fiction describes things humans cannot yet do. So if we look at at Handmaid's is it possible? And, twenty-six years after its publication, is it probable? (I have to admit that the whole freezing-womens'-accounts-via-electronic-banking thing gives me the creeps. That was possible in 1986 and with the volume of data that's been collected, stored, and cross-referenced since then, it's possible to an even greater degree of accuracy now.) In 1985, when the book was published, what did people say about the possibility of a theocratic Christian regime staging a terrorist attack, blaming it on Islamic fanatics, assassinating the president and congress, suspending the Constitution, and re-ordering society from the ground up? What would they say about it now? As I mentioned, I didn't pay too much attention to Handmaid's when it came out (too cool for school, that was me). How was it received? Did people scoff at such fiction? Declare Atwood "hysterical"? Or did they seriously discuss the likelihood of such a takeover?

After I finished the book, I clicked around in search of some reviews and I found this one by Mary McCarthy, (yes, that Mary McCarthy). McCarthy's main gripes are that the book extrapolates too far from then-current conditions, there's no Newspeak equivalent, and that women just aren't funny. With regard to the first criticism, I wonder what she'd say now? If she got a load of say, this person, could she see an Aunt in waiting? Or a Serena Joy in this person? And how would this woman fit into the narrative? About the lack of a Newspeak-equivalent, well, there's only one Newspeak. And with regard to women not being funny, well, I'm rolling my eyes. (Besides, Offred could actually be quite droll.)

The GC told me that when Handmaid's came out, Atwood was interviewed and reported that the reaction to the plot differed by nationality of its readership. The English would say, "Great story!" Canadians would say, Do you think it could happen here?" And Americans would say, "When do you think it will happen." Why was the book prophesy for Americans? Did the difference between the English and American reactions (in the age of Thatcher and Reagan) have to do with the fact that Thatcher was female?