Margaret Atwood: The Testaments

The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in Gilead, a near-future theocratic dictatorship, in lands between Canada and Mexico.

Gilead is a classic dystopia, whose societal raison d’etre is baby production. Apparently there’s been some kind of infertility epidemic. Many wives are barren; their husbands assigned concubines who aren’t. Those are the handmaids. But all women are medievally subordinated to men. Their schooling limited to things like embroidery; no reading or writing. The system enforced with ruthless brutality. All, supposedly, to serve God.

The Handmaid’s Tale struck a chord at a time when America’s religious right was flexing its political muscles. The book enjoyed a second coming when it seemed they were gaining yet more ground in the Trump era. So the sequel is timely.

For all the fears about America becoming a Gilead, actually no Christian fundamentalists advocate anything like such extremism. And for all their seeming political mojo, they’re doomed. Religious belief correlates inversely with age. In past conformist times, faith was an unquestioned default, but now that people can see an alternative path, more are taking it. Fundamentalists are already only a small minority, though their power is outsized because they vote so assiduously. But their credibility is undermined by hitching themselves to the most morally corrupt gang in our political history. (In that sense, perhaps, today’s America foreshadows Gilead.)

So I don’t see a Gilead coming through conventional politics. The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t explain how it did come about. The Testaments fills in that story, though not in any detail. Gilead’s founders long plotted their coup, then just used guns, slaughtering Congress. No mention is made of, like, the U.S. Army. To impose their rule would have required really an awful lot of men with guns. Texas, California, and maybe some other states seem to have fought them off. I find the takeover rather implausible. But in a novel one must suspend disbelief.

The “testaments” of the title are first-person accounts, unearthed long after, written by three female participants in the book’s action. One had been a 53-year-old unmarried judge, minding her own business, when the coup brings gunmen to her office building to take all the women away. To a stadium, where they’re segregated by profession and held in sadistic humiliating conditions. Groups of blindfolded women are marched onto the field and shot. This is just the start of her ordeal. Which she surmounts — emerging as “Aunt Lydia,” the new regime’s head enforcer of all things female.

Another character is “Commander Judd,” a top leader with a penchant for barely pubescent wives. One after another. Somehow they keep dying. It’s very typical for men posturing as god’s mouthpieces to be doing it for sex, especially with younger females. (Like Joseph Smith.)

I wondered about Gilead’s economy. It seemed to have none, apart from vague references to “econopeople,” never actually shown in productive work. And it gradually emerges that even the big shots live in very straitened circumstances, with even mundane consumables in short supply. That’s what you get when everything’s about God. God does not provide.

The book has some nice writerly touches. Here’s Aunt Lydia talking about her statue: “At least I look sane. . . . . the elderly sculptress . . . had a tendency to confer bulging eyes on her subjects as a sign of pious fervor. Her bust of Aunt Helena looks rabid, that of Aunt Vidala is hyperthyroid, and that of Aunt Elizabeth appears ready to explode.”

But my enjoyment waned as Lydia’s plot to avenge her torture and bring down Gilead unfolded with tedious convolutions that didn’t make much sense to me. A cache of devastating documents (including about Commander Judd’s crimes) is smuggled into Canada on a “microdot” implanted into the arm of a girl likewise perilously smuggled into Canada (on the “Underground Femaleroad”).

I’d have just mailed the microdot to Canada inside an ordinary letter. But such prosaic thinking doesn’t make for a literary thriller.

The stadium scene too might have seemed ridiculously over the top. Atwood making Gilead’s regime an epitome of evil, with no nuances or shades of grey. But the stadium episode actually reprised quite faithfully what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban seized power. And while such horrors might seem implausible in America, we are too often reminded that human brutality can have no limits when the guardrails are removed.

I keep saying: America represents the culmination of long human efforts to build societal institutions protecting against such horrors. But their perpetuity is not decreed by God. We kick them down at our peril.

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