Monday, 19 May 2008

The Handmaid's Tale

By Margaret Atwood

I met a sound guy recently who had done sound for just about every major Australian rock band in the past 20 years or so. He was giving us all the backstage gossip and stuff, but generally, he wasn't one for back-stabbing or sneering. He enjoyed the company of rockstars and didn't really have anything too bad to say about any of 'em. The nearest he got was regarding silverchair. He had done a tour with them a few years ago and I asked what they were like to work with and he said, "Oh. Man, I'm just not on their trip."

I like that. He's not saying silverchair are bad people, or that they're wrong (something I would willingly say about silverchair), he just wasn't on their trip.

Likewise, I'm not on Margaret Atwood's trip. This is my second of hers (the other was Oryx and Crake) and in my dedication to the 'give each author three chances' rule I have one to go.

She's, umm, too wordy for me. Too descriptive. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I just don't like it. Unless an author I like does it, in which case I love wordy and descriptive.

In The Handmaid's Tale, about nine things 'happen', seven of which aren't that interesting. But the book is 300 pages long which means that on average every 'happening' took 33 pages to describe.

Let's have a quick look at her writing style:

Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloudcover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it's heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.

Now personally, I think the paragraph would be better like this:

Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon. I wish I could see in the dark.

There, I halved the paragraph but the essence and the poetry remain. In that wise, the book could have been 150 pages instead of 300, and maybe I would have liked it more.

Atwood seems to have the ability to write 20 pages straight in the manner of that paragraph above where nothing actually happens.

(Speaking of 'nothing happens', my favourite ever war poem is this one by Wilfred Owen. Take your time reading it. Read it out loud, if you can. It's a ripper.)

The thing about the nine things that 'happen' in The Handmaid's Tale is that the two most exciting things happen in the last two chapters (not including the completely unnecessary epilogue which lost her some marks). In fact, nothing at all happened until about page 160! Reminds me of Conrad's Lord Jim which was 400 pages of absolute garbage where nothing happens and 20 pages tacked on to the end as an afterthought (he was under pressure from his publisher), with some of the most exciting stuff you'll ever read - if you can make it that far. Which nobody can. If anyone says they've read all of Lord Jim they're a lying fucking bastard.

So anyway, what is The Handmaid's Tale about? It's set in a totally implausible future where extreme right Christians control America with a Taliban-like fundamentalism. The narrator is a handmaid, and her job is to have babies for her 'commander'. That's about it. The storyline is implausible, the narrator is long-winded and Atwood saved all the good bits until the end. I dunno, maybe there's some post-actual meaning to it all, or it's some comment on the (imagined)influence of the Christian Right in the USA, or it's some discursive feminist tome about 'women's bodies'. Or something. I dunno. I probably missed the point.

I'm not going to be too harsh with my marks though, because, just in case the point was obvious and I missed it, I don't want to appear dumb.

I give it a C Minus.


squib said...

"In The Handmaid's Tale, about nine things 'happen', seven of which aren't that interesting."

Wow you know how to put people off! Hey talking of which, did you know the ABR Reviewing comp is on? You should give it a go

I'm trying to think which Conrad book it was that I tried to read a couple of times and gave up. I know I liked The Secret Agent and Victory. Lettme think

squib said...

No hang on, Under Western Eyes was really good

It was Victory I didn't finish. I've also got one here called Nostromo and I don't think I ever started it

Melba said...

i read this about 20 years ago. i remember quite liking it, but looking at the excerpt you have there, yes, very wordy. which i also find annoying. but like you, if it's an author i like, then it's ok.

speaking of books where nothing really happens, either most of or part of the way through, i just stopped reading a child in time by ian mcewan for that very reason. so many words, so little connection. disappointing because i've liked his other books.

Perseus said...

Squib: I reckon Heart Of Darkness is brilliant, but his other stuff doesn't quite stack up. He had that one piece of brilliance in him though, and thank god for that. Do you recomment Under Western Skies?

I don't think I'll enter the ABR thing. I'll trry too hard to win and the review will end up being shithouse and then I'll get all nervous and sook when I don't win. Better to just have my quiet little blog in the quiet little corner of the internet.

Melba: McEwan... yeah, I read that one with the hot air balloon and my review was: "whatever". Great opening chapter, then 30 chapters of words piled up on one another that ripped all the story out of the meaning. Who wants meaning alone? Not me. GIVE ME A FUCKING YARN!

I blame Gertrude Stein.

squib said...

I wouldn't want to be responsible for recommending it. I read it over a decade ago at probably the most boring point in my life - back then I probably would've nominated the Yellow Pages for a Booker prize

Perseus said...

The Yellow Pages is a better read than most of the crap that has won a Booker.

squib said...

That's a bit harsh

Andy Pants said...

A lot of Atwoods problems prose-wise stem from her being a post-modernist poet, which is characteristically disjointed overlong or just filled with un-necessary details which are only really for the sake of seeming experimental. Hence the clumsy insertion of 'wool blanket' at the end of that paragraph.