The premise of a novel within a novel interested me even though neither story attracted me right off. I feel like Ms. Atwood is trolling the literary establishment with this book who want to classify her as genre fiction instead of a literary writer. She’s giving them a lengthy and powerful ‘I can do both, muthafuckers.’
The first line should’ve clued me in to what comes later:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off the bridge.
I’ve read ad nauseam about that annoying rule that a writer should never start her book or a chapter writing about the weather. Ms. Atwood is, once again, giving those arbitrary rule makers the finger as many of her chapters start with lovely perfectly illustrated weather prose. Bravo.
For me, Ms. Atwood’s similes and metaphors are rarely random with no poetic or visual harmonies where I feel like I’m wandering through a dull unadorned room with no windows. Occasionally there are a few, but mostly she paints something colorful and arresting and throws it on the wall that makes my imagination come alive. See what I did there? I’ll leave you to guess which ones I loved:
At the very least we want a witness. We can’t stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down.
A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water.
Lugubrious. I know it; and sentimental as well. But please bear with me. The dying are allowed a certain latitude, like children on their birthdays.
I’ve failed to convey Richard, in any rounded sense. He remains a cardboard cutout. I know that. I can’t truly describe him, I can’t get a precise focus: he’s blurred, like the face in some wet, discarded newspaper. Even at the time he appeared to me smaller than life, although larger than life as well.
I loved The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace. I didn’t care for Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood and didn’t bother with the third book Maddaddam. The Heart Goes Last didn’t do it for me either.
There were more than a few lines in this book that latched onto me:
But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.
He smoothes her forehead, runs a finger along her cheek. You shouldn’t worship me, he says. I don’t have the only cock in the world. Some day you’ll find that out.
Yes, I wanna read when that happens.
Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for, when they scrawl their names in the snow.
(What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves – our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies. Now that I’ve been one myself, I know.)
Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It’s all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get?
It wasn’t until the last 100 pages that the story began to paw at me like a hungry cat. Did I miss something? I’m nothing if not clueless on many occasions, so perhaps I did miss some nuances that Ms. Atwood used covertly. I’m left wondering if that is the point of the intriguing narrative exposition in those last pages that seems all too familiar in the thousand year #metoo revolution—when women overlook those violations done to other women. Or perhaps I simply missed it in my inattentive zeal to get to the end. This would not surprise me and I feel shame for not paying attention to Iris and Laura’s story more closely.
Women owe Ms. Atwood a great deal if only for The Handmaid’s Tale alone. We connect with her on so many levels through her unequivocal feminist narratives. So, when I cannot accompany her in one of her many stories, I somehow feel left out of the feminist clique, like my girlfriends have run off and left me and I’m standing there looking around lost and alone. That’s kinda disconcerting, which is more my issue than hers. Still…I keep wondering if I missed something…and the shame…
But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge.
Oh look, James Wood, more “melodramatic accelerations.” *insert another dramatic eye roll emoji*
Everything was known, but nothing could be proven.