Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments” and Other Stories

the testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Disclaimer: This is NOT a book review. This is a commentary on books, current events, and how all that gets filtered through my brain.

Over a year and a half ago, I reviewed Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It has since been adapted to a wildly popular television series on Hulu. I signed up for the one-month free Hulu trial and have watched some old movies and TV shows, but I tend to avoid “Handmaid.” I’ve quit watching all television series because I just don’t have the time to be chained to a streaming service. Plus, I suspect in the era of Trump, the message has been adapted to “white, religious men are all bad.”

No thanks. I have a hard enough time keeping my head above water as a white, religious male, and my anxiety attacks under control.

But I just found out that Atwood has gotten around to writing a sequel called The Testaments, set fifteen years after the original novel. I’m surprised she didn’t do this earlier.

According to the NPR interview (see the link above):

Atwood says it just seemed like the time for a sequel.

Really? It seems like a terrific marketing move. Have an old novel made into a hit TV show? Write a sequel. It’ll become an instant best seller. Don’t believe me? NPR does:

Margaret Atwood has written a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale — that sentence alone will move millions of readers to buy the book ASAP.

To be fair:

“People had been asking me to write a sequel for a long time, and I always said no, because I thought they meant the continuation of the story of Offred which I couldn’t do,” she says. “But then I thought, what if somebody else were telling the story? And what if it were 15 or 16 years later?

One of the things I found disappointing about “Handmaid” is that we never find out what happens to Offred. She just disappears from the narrative after escaping her captivity in Gilead and that’s that.

The “Handmaid” novel was written during the Reagan administration and a time when Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority were being particularly vocal, so I can see them as influences for Atwood.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Donald Trump era, with a liberal mixture of the alt-right, are direct influences for the television series (okay, not having seen even one episode, I could be wrong, but I bet I’m not). In fact, Variety interviewed Atwood last year in an article called Margaret Atwood on How Donald Trump Helped ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ which convinces me that my allegation is well founded. It’s also confirmed in The Guardian’s story The Handmaid’s Tale held a mirror up to a year of Trump.

In my opinion, Donald Trump is one reason, maybe the major reason, why the TV show is such a winner. I suspect Atwood will have to credit not only the television series but Trump himself for the successful sale of her new book.

At Amazon, I found out that it isn’t available until the 10th (next Tuesday). but based on pre-sales, it is number 1 in Dystopian Fiction, number 4 in Literary Fiction (Books), and number 1 in Literary Criticism and Theory.

Will I read it?

Maybe. Probably. Eventually. I read and reviewed “Handmaid” both to be fair and to figure out what all of the hype was about. Perhaps in a few years when all the “hub bub” has died down.

In the aforementioned, review, I said I didn’t think the events chronicled in “Handmaid” could ever happen in this country. I don’t think we have to worry about some sort of totalitarian, dystopian religious takeover here. Women have more of a chance being oppressed to the “Gilead” degree in Muslim nations, since Islamic law tends to overlap into or be outright mirrored in those governments.

Still, I don’t doubt that a psycho-pathologically paranoid fear of “The Donald” makes it easier to believe that he has vast, overarching powers, and can make any evil thing possible, even when our entire government is set up to prevent it.

Actually, while keyboarding this wee missive, I got an email from Bookbub recommending Miriam Toews’ novel Women Talking. Bookbub’s notice specifically said it was recommended by…you guessed it, Margaret Atwood. Atwood supposedly stated on twitter:

This amazing, sad, shocking, but touching novel, based on a real-life event, could be right out of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Sorry for this deviation, but I was immediately intrigued. How in the world could anything like “The Handmaid’s Tale” be remotely possible in the United States? Turns out, it’s not, but according to Amazon:

One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.

While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women―all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in―have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?

Based on real events and told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide.

They can’t speak the language of the nation they’re living in? Clearly, I don’t know anything about Mennonite communities. But according to Wikipedia, there are 672,000 (people, not communities) of them in North America. The next largest population is in Asia and the Pacific, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean, and Europe. The largest group in the world is in Africa, where they number 735,000.

Their views on sexuality, marriage, and family mores are pretty predictable given a closed and highly conservative religious group.

While Toews’ book is based on real-life events (to what extent, I don’t know), it’s difficult for me to believe that the Mennonites or any other highly conservative religious group is going to gain control of the U.S. or any other nation, and make Atwood’s universe become a reality.

That said, it’s stunning that anything like that could happen anywhere, so in my view, having not read even a page of Toews novel, I’d have to give her props for bringing it to light.

It’s a short book, only 240 pages, and was published in April of this year. It’s number 108 in sales in Amish and Mennonite Fiction at Amazon (who knew categories were that specific), and not bad in both Women’s literature and Fiction as well as in Literary Fiction (Books).

Amazon records wildly varying reviews, with only 58% of them being four and five star. 13% are one star, which must be pretty disappointing. While “Testaments” can’t be reviewed by the public for a few more days, Atwood’s “Handmaid” book has a combination of four and five star reviews at 74%, with only 8% one star. My guess after scanning some of the reviews, is that Toews’ book was a good idea, but the execution was poor.

Of course, if someone makes a TV show out of it, that could change.

Okay, no, I’m not panning books, TV shows, and movies that talk about how women are exploited in the world. Only a fool would say they aren’t, although sometimes I think the way the United States defines exploitation occurring here is quite a bit different than what’s happening to women in African and Islamic nations.

Atwood had complex motivations for crafting “Handmaid” and I have no idea about Toews. That said, at least Toews was using factual events to inspire the writing of her novel. “Handmaid,” and possibly “Sacraments,” is/are wholly fiction and actually, in my opinion, is/are dystopian fantasy.

I hardly disdain Atwood her success. She has a career that is to be greatly admired. Having started her writing career in the 1950s in Canada, the roadblocks to success must have been astounding. The only thing I don’t want Atwood’s and Toews’ novels to turn into is a license to assume that all men are bad just because some of them are.

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12 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments” and Other Stories

  1. I think the only women who think all men are bad are women who’ve had very bad experiences. So… it hardly makes sense to be upset with them if you encounter one or some. Yet, it’s curious that you’re leveling “allegation” Atwood wants to write “an instant bestseller.” But you “don’t disdain Atwood her success” or admiration. Okay, good.

    Note that I haven’t read the book, but in the series there is a woman who is very involved in establishing the situation (probably more so than her husband). We can see how she should regret it, and at times does. But she largely becomes a complicit abuser. I think it’s more a warning to women against being stupid, naive, or ignorant.

    I don’t recommend at all that you watch it, though. There is NOTHING enjoyable about it. There are moments, however, that relate to any life where one is in a position of not being able to say or do much about what is happening — of course, this happens a lot to women and has over time even in this country. No inheritance, etc.

    Like

    • Terry Heaton, former executive producer, “The 700 Club”
      — in the above video says Robertson is brilliant in politics and marketing propaganda.

      Like

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