The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Books 2019, 15)

It’s to my shame that I hadn’t read this classic of modern literature before now. And it turns out, now that I have, that it’s really good. Surprise, surprise. I don’t really care for dystopias, as I’ve said before. Interesting that the book I linked to there had just won the Clarke, and the one we’re discussing was the inaugural winner of that award.

For the first few chapters I was distracted by wondering how this situation, this state, could have come to be. Strangely what I found difficult to cope with was not the restrictions, the rolling back of rights — they are horrific, but I could and can easily imagine an America (or hell, maybe even a Britain) that could enact those laws.

No, what I found hardest to believe in was the dress codes. The way not just the Handmaids, but the marthas (domestic servants), econowives (lower-class, probably infertile women, assigned to lower-class men) and even Wives (the wives of the ruling-class men) all dress in the standard costume of their class.

Somehow I feel — or at least felt — that it would be harder to get everyone to dress the same way than to obey laws that restrict more important freedoms.

As the chapters went on, those concerns evaporated. The telling of the backstory through Offred’s reminiscences outlines a convincing route from 80s America to Gilead. Though a lot more could be told: it is only an outline. Still, it’s enough.

These days, with actual nazis poisoning our political discourse, and attempts to roll back reproductive rights even in France, it sometimes feels — as Atwood no doubt intended — that Gilead is not so much a fable as a warning.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Books 2019, 15)

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Books 2018, 25)

I didn’t really know what to expect with this. I knew it was about, or set around, a party — in part because I’ve seen The Hours.

But it’s about so much more; and not really about the party very much at all. It’s an intriguing look at the mental lives of a range of people in London on a day in the 1920s. Not a very wide range of people, in that they’re all very much upper-middle to upper class. There are a few people from what would have been called the lower classes, but they’re just passersby, background colour. There is, however, a sympathy towards all people — from at least some of the characters.

Given the limited range of types of people, we get a remarkably effective insight into their mental lives. And it’s all done with reported thought. There is some actual dialogue, but very little. And we jump around from head to head promiscuously, but incredibly smoothly. There’s usually some handoff: the current viewpoint character sees someone, and then we’re in that person’s head. Or they might just think about someone, and now we hear the other person’s thoughts.

I guess this, along with Joyce, is one of the originators of the stream of consciousness as a literary device. An interesting thing to me is how it reminded me of other, later, works; which of course shows its influence. Most noticeable: Illuminatus! Now Robert Anton Wilson was a Joyce scholar, so he was probably coming more from that direction, but there are definitely some similarities of style, or at least echoes.

And — also from this year’s rereading — Walking On Glass. Especially in the contrast between the thoughts of people who are or are not “sane.”

It can be surprisingly confusing at times, such as when someone suddenly thinks of a person or an idea that hasn’t been mentioned before. But that just simulates the way our minds work. Our thoughts jump from topic to topic without an introductory paragraph, after all.

So it’s psychology, feminism, and a critique of (parts of) the British class system. Oh, and it’s also partly a love-letter to London. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Books 2018, 25)