Margaret Atwood says she spent three years trying to ignore the mental images she kept having of 21st-Century American life under a far right, evangelical banner. But the compelling pictures and ideas wouldn't go away. Finally, Atwood gathered her courage and wrote "The Handmaid's Tale" (Houghton Mifflin Co.: $16.95).
"I knew perfectly well that some people were going to say, 'Isn't this outrageous?' 'Didn't it all come out of your warped imagination?' and 'My, you must be a pretty kinky person!' I felt that it was a bit too crazy. I even tried to start another book, something upbeat and jolly. But the earlier book kept getting into it . . . I'm a cowardly person," she admitted with a wry grin.
The powerful ideas Atwood couldn't run away from snared readers as well. Within two weeks of its February publication date, "The Handmaid's Tale" had vaulted onto every major best-seller list in the country. "I'm thrilled that it's being taken seriously," said Atwood, a 46-year-old Canadian whose pale, heart-shaped face is framed by a profusion of brown curls.
Her new novel takes place in Gilead, a neo-Puritan dictatorship, after religious fundamentalists have executed a "holy" terrorist coup that liquidates the President and congressional leadership. The Caucasian birthrate has sunk far below replacement level, due to toxic pollutants, radiation accidents and an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. The society's paramount value is human reproduction, so every woman finds herself forced into a specific role that's determined by fertility or lack of it. Men, too, are separated into castes by their worth to the church and state, now joined.
In Gilead's ardent search for the Holy Grail of new life, birth control, abortion and homosexual acts are all hanging crimes. Most civil liberties have been suspended--subsumed to the state's higher evangelical mission. Evening TV news clips show raids that retrieve hidden sacred objects from the homes of Jews, 21st-Century Marranos who resist secretly, like their forbears in 15th-Century Spain.
Commanders of the Faithful, an older, quasi-military corps of leaders, rule this theocracy. Each commander has his own Handmaid, charged with producing a healthy child in a three-year time span. The "breeders" are restricted to their tiny rooms except for daily food-shopping trips with another woman and occasional state-sponsored group ceremonies. Atwood's narrator, Offred, is a highly intelligent 33-year-old "breeder," a transitional woman who remembers freer times and is determined to survive entrapment in this airless world. "The Handmaid's Tale" is her story.
Atwood, who visited here on a promotional tour, called her book "a cautionary tale," a preview of a world that could spring from seeds that exist today but aren't likely to flower until harder times. "People manipulate other people politically through fear and hard times. 'If we don't do this, look what's going to happen.' " She pointed to the declining Anglo birth-rate, rising sterility and birth defects, panic about AIDS' potentially rapid spread. These trends loom against a backdrop of evangelical religion's surging popularity and marriage to conservative politics, its leaders' astute use of TV to garner converts along with vast amounts of money, their willingness to blur the Constitutional boundaries between church and state.
"In hard times you can put in more repressive regimes because people will feel that stringent measures are called for to get us out of the hard times. If people become too frightened and appalled at how things are going, they begin to feel that certain limitations on individual freedom are called for. At that point, a group like the Commanders could seize power without the kind of opposition they'd have if they tried it tomorrow," Atwood said.
This political fable is a new genre for the Harvard-educated Toronto writer, author of five novels and 19 volumes of nonfiction, short stories and poetry. "You never can predict what's going to happen when you venture into territory that's unknown. It's scary," she said. "But once I got going, I found it was tremendously exhilarating. There weren't very many slow moments, and I didn't find myself walking up too many blind alleys. It went at a great clip."
'The Proper Atmosphere'
Atwood began the novel in West Berlin on a German typewriter with a keyboard as unfamiliar as the book's format. "Berlin does have a wall all the way around it, so it was the proper atmosphere to begin in. And there's a feeling of not knowing what's going to happen next while you're inside the wall. The Berliners seem to get used to it, but it feels surreal." She finished the book last spring during a visiting professor stint in Alabama.