I’m choosy about books. I’m not so particular about genre, but I’m a terrible snob where the quality of writing is concerned. I want some depth to a story. A satisfaction of the spirit.
I’m less concerned with a story’s action than I am with the action of the language. The words I’m looking for should be overachievers; not content to merely tell a tale, they should also evoke a feeling, provoke an unexpected thought, drill a subtext. I want to read phrases that sing, sentences that paint pictures, paragraphs that resonate like a tympani roll.
Not surprisingly, I don’t often find what I’m looking for. A few weeks ago, however, I discovered the speculative classic (1985) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Based on what I see in this novel, Ms. Atwood knows how to use words.
I especially appreciated the opening paragraphs of the chapters. They set the mood, wrapping me in a blanket of delight as they urged me to keep reading. For an example, take a look at the first paragraph of Chapter 2:
A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.
The opening of chapter 4 is is pregnant with meaning you won’t understand apart from knowing the story, but even at face value, it’s wonderful imagery:
I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either side is damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips.
This is seriously good writing, and I enjoyed every second I spent reading it. But you know what? I didn’t particularly like the story. I can see where Ms. Atwood was coming from, but the scenario the book portrays seems a little unlikely.
Perhaps it would have been easier to swallow at the time she wrote it, which was, I suppose, the heyday of the “Christian Right.” But in retrospect, it’s hard to see how this story world could ever be taken seriously. Ultraconservative pseudo-Christians running the country according to a warped version of biblical law? Are you kidding?
In case you’re not familiar with it, here’s the gist of the situation: environmental toxins have caused humankind’s fertility to falter. Women who can conceive and bear children—whole, unblemished children—are a rare commodity. In the midst of this crisis, a Fundamentalist group (I guess that’s what it’s supposed to be) takes over the US and reorganizes society according to their own warped ideas.
I would say their policies are based on the scriptures, but they’re not; perhaps inspired by the scriptures would be a better description, because they take verses and concepts from the Bible and twist them to mean things God never intended.
Under this new order, fertile women serve as “handmaids” to men in the higher echelon. The sole function of this class of females is to procreate, and they have been trained in the proper (supposedly biblical) way to be a vessel for this purpose. The story, as you can guess from the title, is the biography of one such handmaid.
Apart from the basic incongruity of fundamentalist Christians taking power in the US (especially with the initial support of the majority of the citizens), I had a quibble with a couple other aspects of the tale. The first thing I stumbled over was the protagonist’s recollection of when the takeover began: after they shot the president and gunned down the Congress, the army declared a state of emergency and told everyone to be calm, everything’s under control. Then they suspended the Constitution. And there was no reaction from the people. In the protagonist’s words, “People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”
I’m willing to suspend a good bit of disbelief when reading fiction, but I had a hard time getting past that one.
Another thing I had trouble with was the final chapter, where another narrator comes on the scene and explains that all of what we just read was a diary found in a trunk somewhere, and nobody knows if it’s an actual account or a fictional story. In my opinion, the book would have been much stronger without that last chapter, called “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Otherwise, Ms. Atwood’s story world was carefully thought out and believable. The multi-dimensional world was faultlessly consistent with itself and full of realistic details, all portrayed with delightful artistry. But I can’t help wondering if the author truly believed the aberrations she described are logical extensions of biblical faith.
Any reader can see the wrongness of the belief systems of this fictional government. But nowhere do we see any attempt to counter the lies with truth. It seems to give the impression that the scriptures, if taken literally, are a danger to civilization, and they should be shunned by all thinking people.
It saddens me to see such a misconception so skillfully portrayed. What literature of similar quality shows the other side of the coin? Are there similarly well-written stories that reveal an accurate understanding of scriptural truth?
I’m not saying these stories don’t exist; only that I don’t know of them.
I freely admit that my literary knowledge, particularly in the world of Christian speculative fiction, is limited. But in my fumbling explorations, I’d love to stumble across a book with language that makes me grin, as this one does, but tells a story that makes me want to shout, “Amen!”
I’m not talking about allegory, either. I mean a realistic tale with believable characters who love God’s truth and live like they believes it. A book written by a person who loves words and knows how to get the most from each one. The unbelieving world doesn’t have an exclusive claim on dynamic writers, does it?
For anyone reading this who’s written just such a novel, I apologize; my ignorance is glaring. You see, I’m a newcomer to the speculative world and I have a lot of catching up to do. (This is why I’m just now reading these classics for the first time). But I’m willing to investigate any suggestions.