Commentary: The Testaments

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(Warning:  Here be high-level spoilers).

It’s 1987. I’m working rush at the Ohio State University bookstore–the old one, in Derby Hall, down a set of stairs and through rooms once intended for classes or offices to the bookroom in the back.  Here were stocked all of the books for all of the classes for the upcoming quarter, and people like me were hired as temporary help to assist with stocking, book buyback, and keeping order.  There is an ebb and flow to this work–moments of absolute chaos admixed with others of numbing boredom, where one must at least look busy.  To amuse myself, I pick up random books on the shelves that catch my eye and read snippets, here and there.  For one of the Women’s Studies classes, I spot something called The Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s a recent book, just two years old.

Over the next two weeks, I read it, abandoning all other books.  Luckily, the chapters are short enough to be able to easily stash the book and help customers when needed and not completely lose my place.

I’d never read another book like it.  The world depicted within was, to me, as if a secret strain of Puritanism had somehow survived and managed to take over the US.  In 1987, we were still a bit worried about being nuked by the Russkis, although perestroika was now a thing and Gorbachev was its prophet.  Things, as Stalin would have said, were getting better and better, except in 1987 I would have said that completely without irony. It was easy to miss the roots of the problems in a world where the Berlin Wall was on its way to falling just two years later, in a world where people of conscience were speaking out on injustices, led by musicians and authors and artists.  It was trendy to care back then, to support Amnesty International, to demonstrate against apartheid, to sneer at the Moral Majority types and their fire-and-brimstone Bible thumping as fringe elements.  Life was neon bright and big and full of promise that at last the world–well, the Western world, at least–would finally stop building weapons and walls and would work together for a better life.

Margaret Atwood, it seems, knew better.  She built the world of The Handmaid’s Tale from bricks of reality, that, when assembled in a different way, revealed what a world in the West given over to a totalitarian theocracy might look like.  Our examples at that time were places like Iran, where educated women had been forced behind veils and out of public life by the Islamic Revolution.  Atwood simply called up North America’s own native strain of fundamentalism–Puritanism–and speculated an alternate present where the US government had been toppled and replaced by a brutal dictatorship.

At the time, and throughout the 90s, the book was treated purely as speculative fiction, something unthinkable in the West.  We would never take away the hard-won rights of women like that.  Abortion?  It had been ruled as legal in both the US and Canada. Done deal. Closed book.  A (not very good) 1990 movie  passed without much notice;  one reviewer called it “paranoid poppycock–just like the book.”   A Danish composer wrote an opera on it in 2000.

And then, the world changed, and Atwood’s fiction began to read like prophecy.

It is in this new world–a world that slowly evolved from the old one, punctuated with defining events such as the 9/11 attacks, a world where a TV series based on the original book has vaulted the Handmaid’s costume to one now universally recognized as the garb of protest–that Atwood has finally written a sequel.  She was closely associated with the TV series, ensuring that it did not deviate from canon, but enhanced it, especially as we pass beyond the events of the first book into new territory.  She’s said in interviews that she had already been considering a sequel in 2016, when work began on the series, but the election changed things.  “The frame around the show changed, and we knew at that moment it would be viewed differently, which it was. So instead of fantasy — ha ha it will never happen — it got much closer to reality, because of the kinds of people backing Trump,” Atwood said in an interview with the National Post.  And it wasn’t just Trump. The world of the late teens has been marked first by GamerGate, and then by the backlash to MeToo and by the rise of the incel movement and other much more public forms of misogyny.   Especially in the United States, many states are now passing more and more restrictive rules on abortion and even proposing that women could be arrested for miscarrying if their behaviour was seen to be detrimental to the fetus.  Dominionist and other Christian extremist groups are now out from under rocks and gaining influence, pulling in what used to be considered mainline politicians.

So now we have The Testaments, which is mainly set about 16 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, but also flashes back to earlier times.  Atwood told the producers of the TV show it was vital not to kill off the fearsome Aunt Lydia–because, as it turns out, she is really at the core of The Testaments.  We also meet two girls–one who grew up in Canada, one who grew up in Gilead, and who, we learn, are half-sisters.  Neither have known the details of their true parentage or identities until the events of the book, although Agnes, the Gilead girl, knows that her mother was a Handmaid–and, as we learn, not just any Handmaid, but Offred, the Handmaid who is the focus of the first book.  We learn the details of their identities along with them, although we’ve probably figured it out ahead of time based on our knowledge of “history” (that is, of the first book.)

But back to Aunt Lydia, who has always been portrayed, in the first book and in the TV series, as a villain.  But the truth is more complex.  I had a dream a couple of weeks ago about a young woman who works for the government in communications and wakes up one day to find that there has been a coup and the government was now fascist.  What does she do?  Keep her head down and keep her job (and her head), working to subvert the government from within, or stand up to a brutal regime where she would surely perish?  This is, as it turns out, Lydia’s dilemma.  She had been a family court judge when the Gilead coup occurred, and women like her were rounded up and imprisoned in brutal conditions designed to humiliate them in a stadium.  She’s singled out for torture, but is given the option of collaborating with her captors.  Given the chance of survival, she takes it, which means she is required to kill other women–including a friend–in the process.  But she then manipulates the system to gain power of her own, and begins secretly documenting the abuses of the powerful.  She’s playing the long game, and countless individual women suffer and die as a result of her long quest for vengeance. But she also feeds the Gilead resistance (Mayday) materials and secretly subverts the government of which she is a pillar, playing off both the male leadership and the suspicious Aunts who she leads as she gathers damning evidence. And as we learn at the end of the novel, it’s this work that eventually leads to the fall of Gilead.

The novel is a fast-paced page-turner that picks up momentum all the way to its conclusion.  I think it works best not in the actual denouement of the main plot, but in relating the backstories of all three main characters.   Daisy/Jade/Nicole learns on the day the people who she believed were her parents are killed by a car bomb in Toronto that she is actually the child whose return Gilead has been clamoring for for years and who has become an icon to anti-Gilead protesters in Canada.  In Agnes, we learn how a privileged girl is raised and prepared for marriage in Gilead, and see the corruption of the men who lead its government. And we learn how Lydia became Aunt Lydia, building an empire right under the noses of Gilead’s government where some women retain agency of a sort, but at the cost of the lives of other women.

My primary criticism of the book is that in a way, it moves too fast and for the girls, too shallow.  The events at its centre seem to take place over just a few weeks and seem, in many ways, too easy, too much like something out of an espionage action movie (especially the scene where Daisy/Jade/Nicole learns to fight).   I would have liked to see more interaction between the two half-sisters, illuminating the differences between their worlds, but, as Aunt Lydia relates, what happens has been part of a larger plot for many years;  the girls are cogs in a larger machine and in fact lack agency of their own.  She has clearly been planning this all for many years, with her agents in place everywhere, ready to do their part.  We catch only glimpses of this empire, and so we’re left wondering where it all came from.

The book definitely raises questions about resistance.  Lydia has no qualms about the path she has chosen, no regrets about the lives lost along the way.  She doesn’t give them a second thought.  Vengeance is her path, and she is sure to have a plan to end her own life before her treachery is exposed.  Do those ends justify the means?  That’s the question the book ultimately raises, and it’s a timely and troubling one.   It’s clear in the concluding segment of the book–set, as in the Handmaid’s Tale, at a future conference on Gileadan Studies (including, apparently, a “dress in period clothing” day)–that Aunt Lydia had been completely forgotten by history; her role in bringing down Gilead’s government was unknown to scholars until the chance discovery of her secret diaries brought it to life.  Unlike the two girls, she is no hero, but neither is she a pure villain.  It also illuminates her own lack of agency; her initial is collaboration or an anonymous death.  By the time she realizes the gravity of the situation, there is no realistic way to resist, and through imprisonment and torture her will is broken and then recast.  The message here is clear:  One cannot just wait until they come for you.

And in aside, those who are familiar with present-day Toronto will find it in The Testaments, adding an extra layer of reality to the narrative.  If that Toronto is real, so then, it follows,  is Gilead.

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