Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Review: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

There's a scene at a doctor's office in The Handmaid's Tale that seems particularly relevant today in light of the #MeToo movement when the doctor offers to help the main character get pregnant. Many other little details are reminiscent of events happening now - the timidity of Margaret Atwood's female characters is similar to those of women who are just now opening up about sexual misconduct from famous men, years and decades later. The Handmaid's Tale should be an important, relevant novel, and yet the way that Atwood withholds details about her world, the inability to make the world believable, prevent this novel from touching on anything outside of its pages. This is a nothing much happens sort of novel that has an aura of importance, what turns out to be a deceiving aura.

The biggest problem for me is that Atwood does not do a very good job of building her dystopian world. Based on flashbacks that the main character, Offred, shares, it seems that society has changed almost overnight. Women don't work, but serve in a variety of feminine roles, such as a handmaiden, women meant for breeding purposes (and for some reason people don't have babies very easily anymore). Being set in the United States, I find it very hard to buy that this society would change so quickly, or that it would become this sort of dystopia at all. America is so entrenched in big business, which would find profits crippled if half of America's buying power was made powerless. When we do learn some backstory about what happens, it is even more preposterous. And even so, it makes little sense why anyone would want to run the world in the way it is run here. Things are done inefficiently.

Even outside the story and ideas, the writing doesn't dazzle either. Atwood makes use of simplistic, cringe-worthy similes. The style is that of dull literary writers who write for literary crowds in literary magazines - sounding important, but lacking vitality. This stems from Atwood's bad habit of telling rather than showing. Oftentimes the reader is told how somebody feels, and sometimes this doesn't make much sense in the context of the event, or it just feels forced. The dialogue doesn't help either, especially during flashbacks when Offred's mother speaks. Her words sound unreal, unlike anyway people really speak. All of this adds up to defeat the magic of the world.

The Handmaid's Tale sounds an awful lot like YA dystopia today, only with actual sex (mostly rape) and obvious sexual symbolism. The heroine sounds much more like Divergent's Tris than a 30-something year old woman. Because Atwood doesn't quite sell the world, when characters do things that break the rules of society I feel no sort of sympathy or tension that such rule breaking is supposed to evoke. In the end, this hurts any sort of larger picture message that Atwood might be aiming at. If the world doesn't make sense, then how could it apply to our real world that largely does make sense, even if it's not always fair?

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