Reading the future: The Handmaid’s Tale and All Our Wrong Todays

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An image of handmaids from the Hulu production of The Handmaid’s Tale. Source.

Like everyone else in the world, I’m rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, inspired by the release of the new Hulu series to rediscover something I first read, oh, about fifteen years ago, I think. I was not assigned to read this book in high school, unlike many people, but when you grow up Canadian, a little Atwood comes your way no matter what.

I’ve been thinking lately about being the “right” or “wrong” age to read a book. Maybe there are some books you don’t appreciate fully until something in your life makes you appreciate them. Whenever I tell people about this theory, I cite Wuthering Heights as my prime example. Love (well, respect) the Brontes, can’t stand that one. Sorry, Emily! I think I was too old when I read it, even though I was only 16. Of course, I haven’t read it since then. Maybe it’s really a book for a 30-year-old (a year and a half to go until I find out!).

Maybe there are some books you don’t fully appreciate until you are the “right” age, whatever that means. Or it’s a matter of having had enough life experience to appreciate a book. I still hope that someday I will be able to love Middlemarch the way I so desperately want to.

Then, there are books that you appreciate even more when the world around you appears to be falling apart. That’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Written in 1985, the book feels ever more relevant in Trump’s America, which people point out so often that this observation already feels tired. I get it. This is great marketing for the TV show because it feels like the planet is in a collective free-fall, and we might as well watch a show about it.

As Atwood has famously said, she made a choice to base everything in the novel on things that had already happened in history. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a dystopian future as much as it is a funhouse mirror held up to our messy present, showing us all the ways that things could turn bad with just a stretch here or a distortion there. That’s what sets Atwood’s Gilead apart from its fictional counterparts like Oceania and Panem. Gilead is just recognizable enough to be truly terrifying.

When I first read this book, I didn’t quite grasp this. As a know-it-all teenager, I too thought, just like Offred in the before, that this could never happen. The gap between the time before and where we are when Offred begins her narration, this place where women are assigned roles based on fertility and there are public executions and forced sex, felt too large. But, as Offred observes, “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” That gap isn’t large at all. We live in a world where rapists go free, where Indigenous women go missing or are murdered while the government does nothing, where a man can brag about grabbing women’s body parts and still be elected President. A world where women still make 72 cents on the dollar, and women of colour make even less. We’re already in the bathtub. Reading this book again, right now, is a frightening experience that makes me think about all the signs we’re missing, here on our path to our own dystopia. And so, as so many other people have discovered, this is the perfect time to read The Handmaid’s Tale.

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Cover of All Our Wrong Todays.

I recently finished another book about the future and about how we create it for ourselves, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays. There are three possible futures for the main character, Tom, who goes back in time and ends up catapulted out of his world and into another: there’s the technocratic utopia that resembles 1950s and 60s futurism, where everyone is happy but Tom has never quite fit in; there’s our version of 2016, full of pollution and disease, where Tom finds a better version of his family and the woman of his dreams; and there’s a third future, a dystopia, that Tom only glimpses through flashes of another version of himself but which includes radiation and endless global conflict.

All along, Tom thinks that the only choice is between the technocratic utopia of his world and the disappointing mess of our real world, but it turns out there’s an even more horrible future that only he can prevent. It makes me wonder. Are we indeed living in the darkest timeline, or is an even darker one still possible?

Things can always get worse. Time to get out of the bathtub.

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By and about women: books and International Women’s Day

I was at my book club meeting on the weekend, and we were talking about David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. This post has nothing to do with DFW, by the way, and let me say that I genuinely liked about half of that book, so no literary bros need to get mad at me. The conversation got round to male authors writing women, as it often does at book club (mostly because I bring it up, but this time it wasn’t me, I swear, friends who are no doubt rolling their eyes right now). I’ve said it before at book club and I’m sure I’ll say it again: so many male authors are very bad at writing female characters who feel like real people.

That’s not a point I’m trying to argue here, because it is just something that I believe to be true. Dickens, whom I love, is not exempt (though many of his characters feel nothing like real people, male or female). Neither is F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Philip Roth, or even writers who are still alive and working in the year 2016 like Dave Eggers and Tom Wolfe, or any number of other male authors. (Philip Roth is also still alive! Who knew.) I could go on. Often you don’t notice, because there might be one woman in a book by someone and she’s just there, the Token Woman, and you’re grateful to have one at all. Even then, it doesn’t always prevent me from enjoying a book, but it does usually prevent me from feeling that pang of recognition that yes, this author understands me in some indefinable way. And why read books if you’re not going to feel that feeling every so often? 

There are about a million reasons for this, I’m sure, not least the fact that patriarchal societies don’t bother to teach boys much about caring about girls as people. I do think women are better at writing men (though of course I don’t know for sure), simply because to be a woman is to be forced to recognize and empathize with, over and over, the experiences of men. Watching movies, reading the news, maybe even in our own private lives: stories about men, front and centre, all the time.

Because good writers are, you know, good at their jobs, there are exceptions to this. Read Brooklyn. Read Far from the Madding Crowd or Winter’s Bone or, seriously, even The Fault in Our Stars, and there they are, female characters who behave in recognizably human ways. They aren’t ciphers, or sex symbols, or Manic Pixie Dream whatevers. There’s no one way to be a woman and thus no one way to write a female character who feels human, but you’ll know it when you read it. Especially if you’re used to reading Kerouac.

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The reason I can’t come up with more exceptions is that I don’t read that many books by men these days. Another topic that came up at book club! A friend asked if I make it a point to not read books by men. The short answer is that it usually just turns out that way, especially lately, but it’s not a conscious choice. But then I wondered if it should be a conscious choice. I like to think that people should just read whatever they want, so usually I do, and that turns out mostly to be books by women with the occasional Jude the Obscure thrown in. But when I just read whatever I want without thinking about it, I’m not great at reading books by diverse authors and authors who aren’t British/American/Canadian. (I’m still not great at that even when I think about it. I’d like to be better.) And, okay, you may argue this point, but I think it is important to read books by diverse authors. Representation matters, especially in reading, because reading allows us to see and experience lives that aren’t our own.

So, I think, it is important to make conscious choices about what you read, and International Women’s Day seems like an appropriate time to say it. I don’t feel bad about not reading tons of books by men. Most of them sell plenty of books without my help. I’ve worked in bookstores for many years, and let me tell you, it is disappointingly impossible to sell a book about a woman written by a woman to a male customer. (Even a book about a woman written by a man is a very tough sell.) The only thing I can do is buy those books myself and encourage as many others as I can to do so.

I meant for this to be an International Women’s Day post about the books by women that I’ve loved, the books that have understood me in some way or helped to shape my idea of womanhood. So here’s to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lucy Maud Montgomery and Judy Blume, to Jane Austen and the Brontes (sometimes, anyway!), Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lorrie Moore, and Roxane Gay, Eden Robinson and Alice Munro. To all those female teen sleuths whom I think I still idolize, and Miss Marple, and Cassandra in I Capture the Castle and the March sisters and Sylvia Plath’s glorious fig tree passage in The Bell Jar. Thanks for the twin pangs of recognition and possibility.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

I finished a book! Only 48 to go. Unfortunately, this was the easiest read on the list. It’s all 800-page Victorian novels from here on out.

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A survey of the available covers. I love the middle one with its creepy house and bloody tree. 

Gillian Flynn is pretty hot right now. She’s a bestselling author. Not only that, she’s written three novels and has sold the film rights to each. Pretty good odds! Gone Girl, which took bookstores by storm when it came out in 2012, stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike–perfect casting–and is in post-production now. Dark Places, a straight-up disturbing, nightmare-inducing read, stars Charlize Theron and comes out this fall. And Sharp Objects, Flynn’s first novel, has been optioned, but no other details are forthcoming just yet. My favourite of these three is Dark Places because it is so twisted and awful that it will “mess you up” (to quote my coworker).

It’s easy to see why Flynn’s novels are making the transition to film: they’re atmospheric and suspenseful, with legitimately twisty endings. Okay, I did guess the big twist in Gone Girl, but I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie over the years. I have enjoyed each of Flynn’s novels, if enjoyed means “lost all peace of mind after reading,” and Sharp Objects, although probably my least favourite of the three, was also a fun, quick read. If you are inclined to just read books and then stop thinking about them, you’ll enjoy Gillian Flynn and your resulting nightmares.

But! If, like me and other recovering English majors the world over, you feel the need to analyze every detail of everything you read, you’ll also enjoy Gillian Flynn. All three of her novels are a masterclass in exploring and exposing the dark undercurrents of contemporary femininity, with mixed results.

First, a synopsis of Sharp Objects. Reporter Camille Preaker, who’s recovering from a stint in the psych ward, is sent back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover a horrifying story: the murder of a nine-year-old girl. Police suspect a serial killer is on the loose, since this new murder fits the profile of another murder from a year before. Being home again with her mother Adora, stepfather Alan, and half-sister Amma brings up all of Camille’s insecurities and deepest fears. The memory of her dead sister Marian is everywhere, her high school buddies have turned fake and mean, and Camille worries that her mother’s neuroses are having an unhealthy affect on Amma. The longer she’s in Wind Gap, the closer Camille comes to finding the killer–and the closer she comes to losing her own grip on reality.

The twist ending here is not super shocking (bonus points if anyone can guess who done it just from my synopsis!), but it’s effective. Flynn excels at building the dark, dank atmosphere of Wind Gap, a hick town filled with hybrid midwestern/southern stereotypes. It’s a town of old Victorian mansions, slaughterhouses, and secrets. The odour of the local pig factory hangs over the town’s less attractive neighbourhoods. One of the murdered girls is found stuffed in a narrow alley between two businesses on Main Street–as if the town’s dirty secrets are literally bursting out of the cracks in its facade. (Aside: My only other pop cultural frame of reference for Missouri is Meet Me in St. Louis, which is a lovely film featuring Judy Garland at her most winsome and loveable, and those characters also live in a big old Victorian house, so I had some fun imagining Judy Garland as Camille.)

But I have a problem with how Flynn characterizes women, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Admittedly, in Gone Girl she eviscerates the phenomenon of the Cool Girl in one glorious chapter, and I admire her hugely for that. You know that girl, the one who never gets mad when her boyfriend comes home late, who doesn’t mind if he makes fun of her friends, who likes sports and beer and eats tons of junk food but still looks beautiful and boyishly slim at all times? She hangs out with the boys. Maybe she doesn’t have any female friends because she just can’t deal with their drama. She never nags her boyfriend about picking up socks or proposing. Yeah, that’s the Cool Girl. This woman does not exist, says Gone Girl‘s Amy. And Gone Girl is certainly an amazing send-up of all of those Cool Girl tropes that fascinate us so.

Written before Gone Girl, though, Sharp Objects relies a little bit on that Cool Girl. Camille isn’t easygoing enough to be “cool,” but she is effortlessly beautiful (so many characters tell her this, and I rolled my eyes anew every time), and doesn’t seem to care. She has casual sex with both a murder suspect and the main detective on the case. She drinks various men under the table. She tells the story of what was pretty clearly a gang-rape as just another wild night out on the town. And lest you think this is just because she was so damaged by the experience that she has learned to see it that way, the man to whom she’s telling the story gets very upset and even raises the r-word, and she brushes off his concern. That’s just how teens encounter sex here in Wind Gap, she says (more or less). I think we’re supposed to admire these traits in her–while recognizing that she is deeply traumatized from her childhood, of course. There’s a running thread about her past as a cutter that feels a little obvious. But why do we admire her? Because she’s the only remotely Cool Girl for miles. Every other woman in Wind Gap is a mess of pink and girlish stereotypes.

Camille’s mother Adora is definitely a candidate for Worst Mother of the Year. She’s so overly feminized, with her brightly coloured dresses and girlish voice and motherly concern for her daughters’ health, that she’s really just a nightmare portrayal of the perfect wife and mother. Ideal femininity taken to its terrifying extreme, like a Stepford wife. Camille’s 13-year-old sister Amma is described alternately as a sex kitten and as a beautiful, innocent young girl who’s being corrupted by her mother (and this is why Flynn can be so disturbing: she crosses and recrosses that line between titillating and inappropriate over and over). Camille’s former high school friends are all stay at home moms who glorify motherhood and shoot dirty looks at Camille because they assume she’s a feminist. Flynn draws a pretty stark connection between “traditionally feminine” and “mean or straight-up evil.”

But are there any normal women in this world? No, there are not. There is the quasi-Cool Girl, perpetually drunk on bourbon and up for a good time, and there are the Mothers, sinister and guarded, judgmental and mean. Cool Girls, of course, don’t have time for traditional femininity–dresses, makeup, having children, even being married. They don’t want any of that, they’re too cool. It’s sort of a Madonna/Whore complex, but the Whore is the heroine and the Madonna really doesn’t love her kid as much as she claims to.

There’s also a fascinating subplot where Flynn pathologizes traditional femininity, much like some of the best Victorian novelists. Adora is a hypochondriac whose obsessive mothering and nursing of her daughters masks her own sick need for attention. In many Victorian novels, women fall ill with nebulous, unnamed illnesses because their lives are so narrow and repressed. Illness is the only form of self-expression open to them. At the same time, though, being ill–pale and delicate–really just reinforces the very femininity that makes these characters so powerless. In Sharp Objects, it’s similar–illness is how Adora asserts control over her family, how she finds her purpose, sick and twisted though it may be. I really loved that thread in the novel and I wish Flynn had fleshed it out a little more instead of making Adora such a cartoon villain. (Aside #2: In grad school, I researched and wrote a lot about femininity and illness in the Victorian novel, so that is my Number One Literary Obsession and it’ll probably come up again and again on this blog.)

Flynn once wrote that she herself “was not a nice little girl,” and Sharp Objects is very preoccupied with this idea. The two little girls who are murdered are not “nice little girls,” either. One shoves a pen into another’s eye, and the other likes to bite when she doesn’t get her way. Camille likes this about both victims because it means she can relate to them. As if a murder victim who was a “nice little girl” would be less worthy of her investigative skills, less interesting, too conventional.

Flynn has been accused before of relying on misogynist tropes in her writing, and she’s defended herself. I definitely don’t think that all portraits of women need to be flattering in order to be feminist–I don’t think that’s what feminism is about, nor is it what I want to read about, nor is it even what I’m saying here. But feminism also isn’t about the freedom to make women into villains or hate on other women for liking pink things. For one thing, there are plenty of female villains out there already, and not just, as Flynn says, soapy vixens who are “merely bitchy.” Let’s see–we’ve got Mrs. Bates, Baby Jane, Kathy Bates’s character in Misery, even a character like Nellie Oleson (she was the worst!), the narrator (Judi Dench’s character) in Notes on a Scandal, the list goes on.

But also, and I think we all know this, it’s okay to like things that are traditionally feminine, and it doesn’t mean that you’re boring, or less worthy of some investigative reporter’s attention after you’ve been brutally murdered, or whatever. And creating complex female characters is not just about acknowledging that women have a dark side. It’s more about the fact that women can have as many sides as they want.