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Entries in margaret atwood (5)


In Which We Live To Be Struck Down By Puritans



The Handmaid's Tale
creator Bruce Miller

Perhaps some day we will know the true story of what happened on the inside of Elisabeth Moss' marriage to Fred Armisen. The pet names, the sex, the types of sex, the frequency of sex, who prepared breakfast for who, who answered the door, kept the dog back from the mailman. Who stroked the hair of who. Who threw out the old bread, when Fred decided Elisabeth was maybe more boring than someone he could be excited by in a long term partner, when Elisabeth felt safe to criticize Fred's late nights, the smell of tequila on his breath, whether he smelled old, who was jealous, who showed it, who stopped the game, who started it again. Who fell out of love.

It feels like we will never know the real reasons that Offred (Elisabeth Moss) married her husband in The Handmaid's Tale. We are introduced to her family before all the events of the series happen in a scene where Offred, her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) and her daughter (Jordana Blake) are watching the aquatic residents of an aquarium. It is an extremely well-trodden scene; it is meant to convey pair-bonding when there is no other connection between the people involved other than shared witness. It is the kind of empty stuff The Handmaid's Tale is full of; I never expected such a serious adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel.

The real villains of The Handmaid's Tale are either Puritan values or modern American sexism. Neither is identified openly, because doing so would mean this is a real critique. It is not. Attacking the Puritans seems a broadside woefully out of date, given that any philosophy that allows individuals to survive in the wilderness without mass death should be admired for its efficacy. The English were really a very enterprising people overall.

Modern American sexism, too, bears no real relationship to what Offred discovers in the Republic of Gilead. In Gilead, the main vessels through which Offred experiences violence and discrimination are other women. She finds sympathetic companions in the men of her household, even though they are the only ones who hold any power. Offred never experiences catcalls, she is not objectified for her sexuality. She is used in her role because not very many women are capable of carrying children to term. The survival of the species is a far better reason for subjugation than "she looks hawt."

In her previous job, Offred explains that she was an "assistant books editor." This is her desk:

What naive scrumpet would seriously believe that this lifestyle could go on indefinitely without consequence? Offred's nostalgia for her old life seems entirely misplaced. Did she truly think that people would go on buying books and allowing her lifestyle to persist indefinitely? "The future is a fucking nightmare," proclaims one advertisement for the series, a statement which appears to refer to all elements of what is to come, including the ubiquity of Apple advertisements that subsidize your viewing of The Handmaid's Tale.

It has been several decades since The Handmaid's Tale was published, and Gilead is starting to not seem so bad in some ways. Yes, forced sex with her commander (Joseph Fiennes) is a drag, but at least she has a supportive community of other women who are going through the same thing. Alexis Bledel steals the show as Ofglen, a lesbian molecular biology professor who, you guessed it, talks very much. Bledel and Moss have an on-set competition going on as to which one of their respective eyeballs can protrude more prominently into the mise-en-scene. Moss wins pretty much every time.

It is kind of sad to see an actress who usually plays such prominent feminist characters reduced to romping meekly through each scene, although I guess this is sort of the point. In one particularly boring moment, Offred plays Scrabble with her commander. They shake hands afterwards, but instead of feeling bewildered by the interaction, as we are meant to, we merely start to judge Offred for feeling upset and rebellious towards all of this. I mean, when I think of how much her attic room would cost to rent if it were an apartment in New York, I want to cry. She doesn't pay for food or utilities, either. Is there any way we can all be transported to this dystopian future?

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is the author of your current dystopian present.


In Which Margaret Atwood Deserves Equal Recognition

Known For Being A Person


The Heart Goes Last
by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese, 320 pp.

"Sometimes you miss the newspaper," mumbles one character in The Heart Goes Last, the new novel from Margaret Atwood. Life in the twin towns of Consilience and Positron consists of one month as a civilian, and one month as a prisoner in a penitentiary. Atwood heard in her own newspaper about the vagaries of for-profit prisons, and decided they were some kind of hostile omen for the future of mankind.

Atwood has looked at the United States in the past with a viewpoint that alternates between condescending paternalism and utter forgiveness. The United States is a mess, she explains, full of different impersonations and desires that cannot help but fall into irretrievably broken pieces. Her protagonist Charmaine is a housewife turned bartender with no parents. After economic collapse forces her to reside in a car, she enrolls in the Positron Project.

Nothing really sounds all that bad about this dystopia. Charmaine and her husband Stan quickly grow apart, with him informing her that the shampoo on offer makes her smell like paint remover. There are evil workings behind the scenes, however, and Charmaine has just the right levels of cruelty and empathy to carry out Positron's executions with a smile on her face.

The entire story of Charmaine's struggle in dystopia is more window dressing than anything else. Atwood's real skill is on offer when she describes how human beings make decisions in the face of all the aspects of their lives. No other writer can as entertainingly explain how complicated and multilayered human motivations are. Even though Charmaine and her scooter mechanic husband Stan are flimsy archetypes when The Heart Goes Last begins, Atwood can't help but humanize them from their stale beginnings as she goes along.

Stan discovers that the scientists at Positron have discovered a way for human beings to imprint on each other "like ducklings." Stan meets a woman he knew outside of Positron who has accidentally imprinted on a blue teddy bear. Observing her love for the inanimate object becomes a turn-on for him as well. It is the most stirring emotion he has in the entire manuscript of The Heart Goes Last. "A person is a person no matter how creepy they are," observes Atwood.

We get the sense that Ms. Atwood may not really believe that statement. Charmaine's attentions wander from her husband to the man, Max, who lives in her house while she is doing her mandatory month of hard time. Atwood details their adultery in a relatively safe way, but the fashion in which she gets inside Charmaine's head, deciding how completely she gives herself over to the man who is not her husband, is chilling. In a broad satirical piece she has effortlessly unraveled a deeper psychological profile.

Stan finds out about the affair from the wife of the fellow Charmaine is boinking. (The sex of the married pair consists mostly of abbreviated intercouse with Stan occasionally begging Charmaine to "let go!"). Max's wife begins to force him to have sex with her on a regular basis. It is the darkest part of The Heart Goes Last, and the subtext is that there can be no compulsion between a man and a woman in this area. Men are helpless and inadequate when they cannot fill their roles as gainful providers, Atwood explains, but they are still men.

Most satires burn out of steam by the third act, but Atwood is supernatural at teasing out mysteries where there really aren't any. Near the end Stan takes up work in a sex robot factory, where he has some harsh words for people who desire such imitations of life. This joke seems relatively old, given that lifelike sex toys have been on the market for over a century. Atwood uses this discussion as an argument against relativism, as a way of explaining that not every human sexual desire deserves equal recognition.

Atwood's most recent novels in the Oryx and Crake universe were not for everyone. They were highly realized science fiction containing the interplay of genius level characters on a massive, world-breaking canvas. Despite their scope, Atwood is absolutely expert at never losing a grasp of the personal even within a large story. There is a conscious effort in The Heart Goes Last to slow things down. She has written a book that can have its impact on anyone, that addresses its lessons to a broader audience, with a firmer hand. It would be a bit overbearing if we didn't feel like this inspirational pamphlet was actually good for us.

Though much sought after, control is impossible in The Heart Goes Last. Even the ownership of time is brokered over — are the moments Charmaine spends fucking her boyfriend in an abandoned house those to do with as she pleases, or do they essentially belong to her husband? The fight against being taken over by events outside ourselves does nothing to change the fact that there is something intrinsic inside us that wants to be told what to do. In The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood wonders, at length, what exactly that thing is.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"Wedding Ring" - Glen Hansard (mp3)


In Which Margaret Atwood So Impotently Loved The World

illustration by jason courtney

Old Fashioned


by Margaret Atwood
331 pp

I once knew a writer who created, in a series of novels, a charismatic detective. Over time he began to loathe his own sleuth, and dreamed of killing him. Something like that happened with Margaret Atwood in the ensuing years since her brash novel of the future, Oryx & Crake, induced a subgenre of speculative fiction. 2009's The Year of the Flood followed, and the trilogy is concluded with MaddAddam, out from Bloomsbury this year.

The inviolable, elusive Crake was her detective. There is still so much we do not know about Crake. What is certain is that he had parents, but that they died. His father was murdered by the government, and his mother took up with another man who Crake called his uncle. After this/because of this, at some indeterminate point, Crake decided to change humanity permanently. To inculcate his plan, he started playing a computer game online with some friends.

The singular invention of Atwood's novels is the existence of the Crakers, the homo sapiens spin-off that Crake made with his online friends in order to ensure Earth would be a better place for everyone to live. They are small, gendered creatures of mirth and happiness who speak to animals and feel no shame of their sex. Their genitals, penis and vagina both, glow blue in excitement.

In 2003, Usenet groups and stuff were recent history. Atwood updated the cultural references for the satire in MaddAddam, since the original corporate puns (Helthwyzer, AnooYoo) that constituted her ridicule were dated at the time she wrote them. The important thing is that we do and do not recognize our world in this bleak parody of it.

Usenet is old-fashioned like Crake, who played an online game called Extinctathon instead of a more fashionable tract. Atwood rewrote the story of Crake from the perspective of all the women in the novel in the next two volumes, shedding light on Crake in small mysterious scenes told by those knew him before. He was sort of a creep, really, but we cannot say that for certain, since there is still so much about those who made us that we do not really know.

The central figure of MaddAddam is a woman named Toby who knew Crake. The main thing about her that engenders our sympathy is her love for a man in their group, Zeb, and her rage at the possibility of his betrayal.

Toby's relationship with a Craker named Blackbeard is actually the central one. He appears to be her bedmate at times. (Humans and Crakers produce small, green-eyed offspring with blue genitals.) Blackbeard is a young Craker, the first Craker to learn how to write in the short history of the Crakers. He writes:

And in the book she put the Words of Crake, and the Words of Oryx as well, and of how together they made us, and made also this safe and beautiful World for us to live in...

And Toby set down also the Words about Amanda and Ren and Swift Fox, our Beloved Three Oryx Mothers, who showed us that we and the two-skinned ones are all people and helpers, though we have different gifts, and some of us turn blue and some do not.

So Toby said we must be respectful, and always ask first, to see if a woman is really blue or is just smelling blue, when there is a question about blue things.

And Toby showed me what to do when there should be no more pens of plastic, and no more pencils either; for she could look into the future, and see that a time would come when no pens or pencils or paper could be found any more, among the buildings of the city of chaos, where they used to grow.

And she showed me how to use the quill feathers of birds to make the pens, though we also made some pens from the ribs of a broken umbrella.

An umbrella is a thing from the chaos. They used it for keeping the rain off their bodies.

I don’t know why they did that.

This language is childlike, but it is not childish. It is the most fun to watch Atwood communicate in these ways, when it feels like she is rewriting language itself in order to speak more honestly. As Chesterton wrote, "Satire may be mad and anarchic, but it presupposes an admitted superiority in certain things over others." MaddAddam mostly abandons the hit or miss satire of Oryx & Crake, replacing it with descriptions of Atwood's improvements to Earth.

In MaddAddam, Atwood discovers a new standard, a better way of living. Here all the detritus that filled the streets and avenues branding, high level MMO play, government spying has been cleared out. Things really are better because of Crake, we come to understand, and that is a more bracing critique than a pun or the recording of a cliche.

Atwood's perspective demands so much of the world. She holds mankind to the same standard she holds individual people, which is a rather high one. Like all liberals she is not as concerned with the method of control so much as humanizing its victims. In disordered Earth she even hypothesizes that man might not even be the most intelligent species on the planet. (That honor belongs to Earth's genetically altered pigs.)

illustration by jason courtney

While some may find it a bit tiresome at times to relive all the ways Ms. Atwood finds our current predicament lacking, excitement levels increase substantially in her vision of what is to come. MaddAddam is a parable, and all parables tend to insist it is the darkest before the dawn. Atwood delights in the breaking down, futiley attempting to resist her own inner desire for an anarchy she finds both horrible and necessary.

Having Crake live over and over again through the eyes of those who knew him is an enticing thought; two sequels may not be enough. What about Crake's barber? Even though Crake's base psychology (revenge) was obvious, he was also a thoughtful God. It's obvious that Margaret Atwood would have better at being God than almost anything or anyone.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"Lost Land" - Alela Diane (mp3)