Wonkette Book Club: A 'Handmaid's Tale' Sequel For The Resistance Years
It's not easy to pull off a sequel to a modern classic. For a case in point, see Closing Time, Joseph Heller's sad, unfortunate 1994 follow-up to Catch-22. How the hell did the same person even write both books? In the case of Margaret Atwood's The Testaments, the sequel to her 1986 bestseller The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood can rest easy: nobody's likely to say she's lost her edge. Amaze your friends with this trivia: just like Heller's sequel, The Testaments comes 33 years after the novel that made Atwood an iconic literary name (although Handmaid wasn't her debut novel, so let's not stretch parallels too far).
Set fifteen years after the events of Handmaid's Tale (Oh look! Our previous Wonkette Book Club discussions on that novel), The Testaments returns us to the patriarchal, nominally theocratic, thoroughly totalitarian Republic of Gilead, which replaced the USA. Atwood has explained in interviews that she wasn't interested in returning to the story of Offred, the handmaid who narrates the previous book. Instead, just as the first novel was a warning about the rise of the religious right in the 80's, The Testaments is an exploration of how a dystopia starts to wobble and fall from its own inevitable corruption -- with strategic nudges from within and without.
Before we go any farther, I suppose I should mention the issue of spoilers: I won't reveal any Testaments plot points here beyond today's "assigned" reading, the midpoint of the book (Part XV, "Fox and Cat"). And then just barely. Even if you haven't done the reading, you're very welcome to jump into the discussion, because "we all did the reading" has been truthfully said at no book club or class in the history of ever.
Atwood builds on and foregrounds the perspective-shifting she constructed in the epilogue to Handmaid, which imagines Offred's narrative has been unearthed and is being discussed -- and badly misinterpreted -- at an academic conference some two hundred years later.
This time out, the post-Gilead framework is explicit in the novel's structure; instead of one first-person "historical document" from the bad old days, we get three. One is a secret memoir written by Aunt Lydia, the most prominent character to return from the first book, and the others are paired narratives by two young women: one who grew up in Gilead, and one who grew up in that den of iniquity and vice to the godless north, Canada. These are labelled "Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A" and "369B," possibly from some sort of post-Gilead Truth and Reconciliation proceedings.
The shifting perspectives of the narrators, and the explicit after-the-fall framing help give The Testaments a somewhat less airless feel than Handmaid's Tale. Which is not to say it's a cheery book at all: Gilead is still oppressive and horrible, but in Handmaid, our guide is a woman who has had everything taken from her, including her name. Offred is a voice from the suffocating depths of a hell state that has reduced women to nothing, and she has no reason to think the horror will ever end. The two young women in Testaments have been through the nightmare of Gilead and are trying to explain to an unidentified historian or tribunal what they saw. Aunt Lydia is writing her private, insider's history of how she rose to the top of whatever power a woman can have in Gilead -- and repeatedly reminds us she doesn't know whether anyone will ever read her manuscript, and that she's very much aware it could get her executed.
The changes in points of view are nicely suited to the two books: We can identify with Offred because she's from our world, explaining hell to us; we live through her ordeal with her. Until we read the epilogue, we have no reason to think Gilead will ever be anything but a boot stamping on a woman's face, forever. (And even in the epilogue, we learn sexist assholes are still very much around in 200 years.)
We get a trio of Virgils for this new visit to hell, and each offers a fascinating set of eyes. Agnes, who begins her testimony telling us about her childhood, belongs to the generation that grew up knowing nothing but Gilead. She's the product of the system the Aunts put in place, but like any smart kid, she sees its hypocrisies and contradictions, even if she can't quite say why they're wrong.
Our Canadian narrator, Daisy, comes off as an amiable Everyteen, who knows about the horrors of Gilead only at a remove: it's in the news all the time, and her school organizes a protest against the treatment of women there, but for the most part, it's a horrible sad thing happening to other people. Her only firsthand contact with Gilead is seeing "Pearl Girls," the weirdo missionaries from the crazy nation to the south. Hardly a spoiler to say that doesn't last long, because there's a plot to get to. But just hearing from a "normal" person is a huge relief, as a reader, a reminder that there still is a world outside the horror.
A nitpick: one thing Atwood doesn't appear to address, at least not that I noticed. There doesn't seem to be any discussion of how the rest of the world is dealing with the massive environmentally-caused infertility crisis that leads to Gilead to "solve" the problem by assigning fertile women as "Handmaids" to powerful men. Hooray for Canada not having institutional rape of women to provide babies for the elite, but there's no mention of how that presumably worldwide crisis is affecting Canadian life, or anywhere else. Sure, they no doubt have single-payer IVF, but it feels like a bit of overlooked worldbuilding. Gilead, we're told in the first novel, is as much a product of multiple environmental disaster as it is of a patriarchal overthrow, but Canada, in the second, appears pretty unaffected. Fine, hand-wave it away as just Daisy being 16 and not dwelling on it, but we noticed.
And then there's Aunt Lydia, whose secret memoir is a bit like the secret history of Oceania that Winston Smith gets hold of in Atwood's dystopian touchstone, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Except while Winston suspects Emmanuel Goldstein's guide to how things really work might be a forgery, produced by the Party to ensnare would-be radicals, Aunt Lydia's story seems to be an authentic insider account. (Mind you, I haven't finished The Testaments yet, so I suppose some new epilogue may yet reveal Lydia's Tale to be a forgery. If that's the case, and we learn that Lydia is an unreliable narrator on multiple levels, that would be a serious Philip K. Dick move on Atwood's part. If that happens, consider this not a spoiler but a lucky guess. If not, somebody should write that fanfic.)
While both Agnes and Daisy tell their stories at some remove from the events, Aunt Lydia's narrative is a bit more like the unfolding-diary perspective used in the first novel -- like Offred, Lydia doesn't know whether she'll have a future reader at all, and constantly reminds us she's imagining us unto hypothetical existence. She wonders who's reading her: a historian, or perhaps her executioners?
Where she was merely presented as one more dreaded face of Authority in Handmaid, the head of the handmaid indoctrination center, Aunt Lydia in this volume is the head of all the Aunts, Gilead's separate (and unequal) government branch which organizes and dictates the lives of women, leaving men to do the important leadership and war stuff.
Lydia grows into a fully realized, complex villain in The Testaments; her voice is wonderfully Machiavellian. We learn she was a family court judge in the Before Times, and that once everything went to shit and she found herself still alive, she decided to make the most of the very limited options for survival left to her. As God is her witness, she'll never be powerless again. And since she remains certain the new rulers of Gilead really worship raw power, that's the only god whose morality she intends to obey.
While she's at it, she's also going to keep careful notes on all the men running Gilead, because knowing where the bodies are buried is very useful. If she can best stay alive by serving what seem to be the aims of Gilead, she'll do that. And if she can sometimes blunt the brutality a little without getting caught, she'll find ways -- but only without sticking her neck out. When an innocent underling is arrested due to Aunt Lydia's machinations but she learns the woman isn't likely to be punished, Lydia reflects, "That was a relief to me. No pain unless necessary, but if necessary, pain." That's her motto.
Lydia is a bit like that Trump White House insider who wrote the anonymous New York Times op-ed about resisting Trump inside the White House, only far more self-aware, and armed with Margaret Atwood's sharp sense of irony. You might find her enjoying being an insider with all the dirt, but you'll never see her pretending she's an avatar of morality. She isn't trying to justify herself; only to explain how she fit into the insane world she's in, and determined not to be destroyed by it. We truly enjoy her glorious nastiness, and if she chews the scenery a bit, she at least points out that she knows it — and might prefer a different meal, but it's what's for dinner.
And that's where we'll wrap up for the moment; let's discuss in the comments, which of course we don't allow.
Programming Note: As with our other book club posts, please keep the comments, which we do not allow, please save your off-topic comments for the real Open Thread, which will go up in a while. Yr Friendly Neighborhood Comments Moderator will be fairly aggressive in flagging off-topic posts and asking you to take 'em to the Open Thread. No malice or marks on your permanent record; we just want to be sure this discussion is about The Testaments, also too The Handmaid's Tale, and Margaret Atwood -- and DO feel free to discuss her other works, as well as stuff you think makes good supplementary reading!
[The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Wonkette kickback linky to Amazon works for ebook ($14.99), hardback ($16.90), and even used copies ($12-something and up)].
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.