Wonkette Book Club: How Do You Undo A Dystopia?
As we noted last week, it's not easy to pull off a sequel to a iconic book. You'll probably get a bestseller, but it's hard to create a second cultural touchstone. We have a feeling that Margaret Atwood's The Testaments, the sequel to 1986's The Handmaid's Tale, won't ultimately attain the legendary status its predecessor has, but it at least won't be remembered as a disappointment. That's not faint praise at all, given how disastrously a lot of attempts to return to an iconic work of fiction have turned out. It may not become legendary, but it's a satisfying return to themes Atwood explored in Handmaid.
Since we're allegedly all finished with the book, there will be some spoilers ahead, but if you haven't done the reading, feel free to take part in the discussion. I'll try to talk around some of the surprises, maybe, like the fact that Darth Vader is Aunt Lydia's father, and she's been a ghost the whole time. I will at least offer you this much warning, OK?
No, not my fault if you keep whistling "The Farmer in the Dell" all day.
The Testaments picks up the fragmentary history of the Republic of Gilead, the rightwing, theocratic, patriarchal state that replaced the USA in Handmaid. As in the first book, we see events through surviving first-person narratives, although this time, instead of a single woman's voice, there are three: a secret memoir by Aunt Lydia, the head of the paramilitary Aunts, and "witness testimonies" by two young women. One, Agnes, grew up in Gilead and more or less believes its propaganda, at least until she starts seeing the casual hypocrisy everywhere. The other, Daisy, is a Canadian teen who knows of Gilead only as that inexplicable place to the south where women are oppressed, a horror that she's thankful she's safely distant from. To start with. As we mentioned last week, since we're no longer locked inside the head of Handmaid's narrator, Offred, the effect is less claustrophobic -- and since we know from Handmaid's "historical note" that Gilead fell, that helps too.
One especially nice bit that I forgot to touch on last week: I am kind of in love with this bit of framing from the opening of Agnes's "testimony," as she recalls her childhood as a daughter of one of Gilead's elite "Commanders":
I hope you will remember, too, that we all have some nostalgia for whatever kindness we have known as children, however bizarre the conditions of that childhood may seem to others. I agree with you that Gilead ought to fade away—there is too much of wrong in it, too much that is false, and too much that is surely contrary to what God intended—but you must permit me some space to mourn the good that will be lost.
Where Handmaid was a warning, The Testaments is more a reminder that nothing in history is inevitable -- for good or ill. There's no guarantee our democratic institutions or the gains of the civil and women's rights movements will endure no matter what. Crom knows they're being gleefully dismantled not just in the USA, but by fascist-leaning demagogues all over the world, and that's part of why Atwood has returned to Gilead.
But there's nothing inevitable about a failed state, either. Orwell's nightmare vision of a boot stamping on a human face forever requires a hell of a lot of capital investment and human resources, and the endless intrigues of those in power can create instability. Not that that's a hell of a lot of comfort to those in the camps or subject to the surveillance state right now.
A semi-digression, if I may (and yes, I may, because it's my column and I've gone mad with my very limited power): Go watch the excellent Frontline documentary, "In the Age of AI," which looks at, among a lot of really neat stuff (Artificial intelligence identifying the most dangerous tumors long before human diagnosticians can!), some of the scary dystopian applications, like China's use of facial recognition and cameras everywhere to reinforce conformity, discourage dissent, and oppress the Uighur minority. It's difficult for me to look at the vast state machinery of Chinese autocracy, then read Atwood's book, and feel especially hopeful. I can posit a future China that isn't built on paranoia and control, but sweet jesus, the when and how are difficult to imagine at this point.
But back to the novel!
In Atwood's novel, the seeds of Gilead's destruction are sown by a secret informant who passes a huge cache of embarrassing secrets to the "May Day" underground, the group Offred hopes will help her escape at the end of Handmaid. The quest of the resistance to get an operative into Gilead to smuggle those secrets out drives much of the plot of the novel, and since we know from the early pages that Gilead is already starting to fall apart by the time Agnes and Daisy are giving their testimonies, the suspense mostly comes not from whether the plot succeeds, but how.
Like the new trio of points of view, that structure also substantially shifts the fictional ground from Handmaid: instead of living inside the nightmare of one woman's recollection of how everything went to shit, we're following a story of rebellion. The world is still far too dark and misogynist to call it a "caper," but for all the horror, we know there's going to be some light behind that boarded-up window, if only the characters find a crowbar. There always remains the possibility that they'll fail, of course -- what if the "testimonies" end with the revelation that Agnes and Daisy didn't really make it to safety, and that their testimonies will reveal only that they failed? Or that Aunt Lydia's subversive observations on Gilead's moral rot are are revealed to be a forgery?
OK, that doesn't happen. While the details of Gilead's fall happen offstage (maybe in another sequel, though we sort of hope not?), the outcomes for our three narrators are in far less doubt than the uncertain ending of Handmaid. If anything, their plot lines are tied up with perhaps too neat a bow, almost as if Atwood is trying to balance out the utter bleakness of Handmaid with a happy ending. (We're tempted to say "imagine a vat of treacle smothering a dystopia, forever," but let's not get carried away.)
We're also not sure we share any confidence in the mechanism by which Gilead is toppled: As with so many narratives, once the hypocrisy and backstabbing of the regimes leaders is exposed, the commanders start purging each other, a popular revolt arises (we're told in historical retrospect), and the United States is eventually restored. Truth, eventually, sets the world free-ish. But the moment we're living through offers no such plot developments. Damned if we can find it now, but fairly early on in the Trump maladministration, we read a terrific essay questioning the value of the Scooby Doo ending.
Even when the ghost in the beloved old amusement park turns out to be Old Man Carruthers, who wants to develop the land for a resort, a lot of people think we should elect Carruthers mayor because he's a successful businessman. We've had no ends of truths exposed about Donald Trump, but so far, a plurality of Americans think he's got the nicest new set of clothes, and they also want an investigation of that rotten little boy who says he's naked. Tucker Carlson says the kid's getting paid by George Soros!
Then again. The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago this week. Nobody really saw that coming, either, and for all the claims that Ronald Reagan made it happen, it didn't fit into any easy narratives, and it didn't have any single causative trigger, either. So there's hope for contingency, huh? (Nice New York Times photo essay here.)
Which brings us to the "spoilers" in The Testaments. It's almost inaccurate to call 'em that, since Atwood telegraphs them so clearly from the start. There are a Dickens novel's worth of coincidental connections between the characters here! We suspect the very overt foreshadowing is less a flaw than Atwood having a laugh at the whole genre of serial storytelling, both in books and popular fiction. Plot twists have become such a staple of the genre -- especially in a prestige TV series like the one that's grown from her own best-known novel -- that it almost feels like she's subverting them. You want twists? I'll give you twists! You almost get the sense she may have been tempted to set the book's final scene in the Schlafly Cafe with Aunt Lydia listening to "Don't Stop Believin'" on an iPod she hid away from the Before Times.
That too, does not happen.
As with Handmaid, this novel ends with a "historical note," the proceedings of another scholarly conference, some two hundred years in the future. That first postscript was a coup de grace to Offred's narrative. The "good news" that Gilead was safely in the past is undercut by the voice of a conference speaker who's a sexist pig. The good professor reels off misogynist jokes while who seeming to have learned nothing from Offred's narrative of misogyny writ into a social system, and he treats Offred herself as a historical curiosity. Her tale of systematic rape meets the same fate as many women's stories: maybe she exaggerated, huh?
This time, while we shudder at the return of the same professor, he too appears to have come down with a case of happy ending syndrome. To be sure, there's a moment of tension when he refers to his previous year's keynote address, noting that the symposium's chair is now the president of her university, and he even starts to uncork another of his sexist bon mots, but pulls back:
We all congratulate you on your promotion, a thing that would never have happened in Gilead. (Applause.) Now that women are usurping leadership positions to such a terrifying extent, I hope you will not be too severe on me. I did take to heart your comments about my little jokes at the Twelfth Symposium—I admit some of them were not in the best of taste—and I will attempt not to reoffend. (Modified applause.)
On the whole, though, while this afterword still has its little digs at academe -- the professor's graduate students attempt to test the veracity of the two eyewitness testimonies by mapping their travels, which is nice and silly, but even the doofus professor, while hardly woke, seems to buy into the sorta-happy ending here. Unless Atwood is up to a far deeper irony than we can spot.
And that's where we'll end -- with a bit of a grumble that we don't share Atwood's seeming confidence that the truth will out. We've seen plenty of evidence that, as Kurt Vonnegut (happy birthday tomorrow!) said about artists and the Vietnam War, the canaries can all chirp and keel over, and the big fool of a mine boss will keep insisting we march into the poison. And damned if some of us won't insist it smells like victory. (There, did I mash up enough allusions in one paragraph?)
Discuss amongst yourselves!
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!
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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.