Yes, More Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is going to have a big year.

I feel confident that I am not alone in thinking this. While her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is experiencing a revival thanks to our political climate and a Hulu television series, Atwood is also busy with lots of other projects. She had cameos in both a mini-series called Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale, her latest novel The Heart Goes Last is becoming a TV series, and her children’s book Wandering Wenda is also slated for television. “Why everything now? Who knows?” Atwood asks on her website. For me, the answers to those questions aren’t hard to figure out once you’ve read her work. Her mix of science fiction and speculative fiction reveal truths we need to pay particular attention to right now. Whether it’s urging readers to be cautious of using religion to shape policies that deprive women of their rights (The Handmaiden’s Tale) or how corporate greed and consumerism can lead us down a strange and frightening path (The Heart Goes Last), Atwood’s work remains cautionary and relevant.

After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I was curious to read more of Atwood’s work. When I saw that The Heart Goes Last, published 2015, was available from my library, I decided to give it a chance.

Goodreads says:

Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

I’m not sure that I would have totally bought into this book, except that I had recently watched an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, where he reveals the truth about how private prisons make money. Pairing that video with Atwood’s book made for a terrifying combination!  

Jocelyn sighs. “You don’t honestly believe this whole operation is being run simply to rejuvenate the rust belt and create jobs? That was the original idea, but once you’ve got a controlled population with a wall around it and no oversight, you can do anything you want. You start to see the possibilities. And some of those got very profitable, very fast.”

While I’ll have to keep reading Atwood’s work to find out more, she seems to keep telling readers that humans are susceptible to believing whatever lines they are fed, and that they like to take the easy way out. She also warns against censorship, government corruption, and corporate greed.

Corruption and greed, though these in themselves are no great surprise. But the misappropriation of people’s bodies, the violation of public trust, the destruction of human rights — how could such things have been allowed to happen? Where was the oversight? Which politicians bought into this warped scheme in a misguided attempt to create jobs and save money for the taxpayer?

But unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, The Heart Goes Last has unexpected moments of humor and levity. Readers who found THT too dark and anxious feeling will appreciate this book’s lighter style, though the book still has plenty of bite and mature language. The story starts out very believable, with a couple living out of their car when their part of the country suffers from a recession and they lose their jobs, their home, and their savings. Their desperation leads them to sign up for a program that will give them a house and a job – the catch is that every other month, they will be locked up in a prison and do a different job within its walls. The plot continues to grow more and more absurd as it goes on: sexbots, knitted teddy bears, adultery, Elvis escorts, baby blood harvesting, and imprinting operations. Somehow, despite the twisty turns the plot takes, Atwood’s social commentary provides plenty of food for thought. Get ready for a wild ride when you read this book!

Are you hopping on the Margaret Atwood fan wagon? Or maybe you’ve already had a seat there for years? If so, what Atwood novel should I try next?

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As long as there are a few compensations…

I recently tackled The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This was my first time reading a novel by the respected and revered Atwood, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Of course I knew her name, but I was unfamiliar with her actual work. After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m curious to learn more about her and her other books. As Hulu is set to release a television series based on The Handmaid’s Tale this April and some women recently wore handmaid’s robes to the Texas Senate, you’ll probably be hearing about this book, originally published in 1985, quite a bit.

Here’s what Goodreads tells readers about the book:

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…

It’s hard to say that I “liked” this book, because it made me feel anxious, on edge, and desperate for more information. The narrator held back a lot, in fear for her safety, but I wish more of the gaps could have been filled. I definitely wanted to know more about the world she was living in and the history behind it. Then again, this made me want to keep reading and my imagination was spinning with all the possibilities. This is a grown up version of a sci-fi(ish), dystopian story. Basically, the government has been replaced by an ultra-religious governing body which has stripped women of their jobs, money, privacy, and dignity. Why do people go along with it? Well, as the narrator’s mother says, “Humanity is so adaptable…Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.” Words that are ominous and thought-provoking, for sure.

In our current political climate – women ridiculed for rallying and voicing their concerns on many important topics, attempts to defund programs that provide quality medical care, advice, and contraception for women, government officials who claim to be Christians yet strip others of their basic human rights – Atwood’s book feels more cautionary and relevant than ever. Sales of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 may have gone up since Trump took office, but The Handmaid’s Tale makes me even more terrified of what would happen if, say, Mike Pence became president.

Our current president may have campaigned under the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but as Atwood writes, “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”