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Opinion Return to Gilead: Why The Handmaid’s Tale still endures

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: BRYAN GEE. SOURCE IMAGES: ISTOCK

Omar El Akkad is the author of American War. He lives in Portland, Ore.

There’s an argument to be made that no work of literary fiction has ever launched to the kind of simultaneous critical and commercial frenzy that Margaret Atwood’s new novel is generating.

The Testaments, the sequel to perhaps the most important speculative novel of the past half-century, arrives next week amid the sort of fanfare usually reserved for summer blockbusters. A midnight book-launch event in London will be shown live in more than a thousand cinemas around the world. The novel has already been nominated for the Booker and Giller prizes. So massive are sales expectations that an incident this week, when Amazon broke an embargo and shipped some copies of the novel early, sent the bookstore world into a furious – and justified – rage. For thousands of independent bookstore owners, something this big doesn’t come along very often.

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Book excerpt: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

So much of this has to do with the quality of the work – but also with its ancestry. The book that started all this, the book that birthed Offred and Gilead and created what is today, more than 30 years later, one of the most resonant fictional statements about the social and political moment in which we find ourselves, is itself experiencing a miraculous rebirth. A generation after its initial release, The Handmaid’s Tale is still as alive as it was when it was first published, still a novel dipped in blood.

It is a strange trick very few books ever pull – to suddenly become the centre of public attention again long after publication. Often it is dystopian or speculative novels that do this, and often the circumstances that prompt their revival are dismal. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, it was the election of a misogynist to the most powerful political office on Earth. This, coupled with the coincidental debut of a major television adaptation, suddenly catapulted the novel to a level of public awareness rarely enjoyed by any book that doesn’t feature a boy wizard.

A weaker novel – anything short of a masterwork – would have been buried by all this. To become not only the subject of a hit television show, but also a kind of cultural shorthand – to have people dress up as a character from your fictional world to make a point at political protests – is more than enough to overwhelm most source material. And yet, despite all this and as it has for decades, The Handmaid’s Tale outlasts its moment. It does what great novels do; it moves outside time.

Often the book is placed by both readers and critics alongside 1984 in the pantheon of great dystopian works. But in a sense to describe novels such as these in that somewhat amorphous term is to underplay the fundamental reality from which the writers draw. Take away the fictional new New England and the now-iconic red dresses from The Handmaid’s Tale and what you’re left with is a novel that rearranges more than it extrapolates. Almost every grotesque injustice perpetrated against the characters in this book has, in one form or another, happened to women in the real world – is happening now, and will happen again. As the novelist William Gibson once said, the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.

As such, the contemporary novel that has most reminded me of Ms. Atwood’s classic in recent years is a work of historical, rather than futuristic, fiction. The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka’s small, masterful story about Japanese picture brides who arrive in the United States around the turn of the century and must contend with the reality of their new home, is unlike The Handmaid’s Tale in so many superficial ways. And yet, both books share a fundamental quality – a reverence for the power of communal witness, the power of someone saying, “This is what was done to us, this is what is being done to us.” As much as Ms. Atwood’s central character, Offred, holds the narrative and emotional strings of the book together, The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about a communal injustice. The first word of the novel’s first sentence is “We.”

It is a difficult thing, this sort of fiction. There is a made-up world superimposed onto a real one, a society conceptually destroyed so as to be truthfully imagined. And so in The Handmaid’s Tale, the real America, puritanical and so often afflicted with that disease of viewing sex through the prism of violence and violence through the prism of righteousness, must co-exist with a made-up America that is its mirror. Making this work, from a narrative perspective but also simply as an exercise in the mechanics of storytelling, is supremely delicate work. Veer too far into the made-up world and the work can be dismissed as “genre,” a catch-all term frequently used in a kind of drive-by derisive way to mean not serious, not literary. Stick too closely to the real world, and its confines become suffocating. Every sentence in The Handmaid’s Tale is forced to do many things, to walk many tightropes.

To reread the book now, in the shadow of its big-budget television adaptation, is to be reminded of just how many tools the author utilized to make it all work. A book about power and privilege, sex and subjugation, is at the same time frequently a showcase for dry humour and small ironies, wit and wordplay. The grotesque violence both implied and inflicted – and on which the writers of the TV show have come to place more and more emphasis – belies the reality that so many of the novel’s most powerful moments are also its quietest. It’s what affords the novel’s characters their complexity, this interplay of kinetics and stillness.

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For most of the past year, The Testaments has been the subject of heist-movie legend in publishing circles – stories of mysterious hackers trying to break in to the publisher’s computer network to snag a copy, reviewers getting advance editions clad in fake covers to throw off potential thieves, bookstore owners having to sign contracts promising to keep their copies under lock and key until launch day. It is an understatement to say that most books don’t get this kind of treatment. Most movies don’t get this kind of treatment.

And yet, for all the cultural and commercial intensity surrounding the launch of The Testaments, it can still be said, as it can be said of the work of all great authors: None of this is what matters. Should the sequel follow in the footsteps of the original, then long after the lineups and costume parties and media interest fade, long after the TV show is done, the work itself will live on, reinterpreted and reassessed and in this way still vital, still dangerously alive.

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