On Nov. 7, The Times will award its annual Book Prizes in five categories--biography, history, fiction, poetry and current interest--along with the Robert Kirsch Award for a body of work by a writer living in or writing on the West. This week we publish excerpts from some of the books nominated in fiction. Not excerpted, but also nominated, are: "The Old Gringo" by Carlos Fuentes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); "Lake Wobegon Days" by Garrison Keillor (Viking), and "The Perfect Spy" by John Le Carre (Knopf). "The Handmaid's Tale" (Houghton Mifflin)by Margaret Atwood.
"The Handmaid's Tale" is a taut , cautionary novel about America in the near future, after the country has been taken over by right-wing religious fundamentalists in a violent revolution. Constitutional rights have been suspended; there is war; there is pollution. In this new utopia, women are "protected": They cannot hold jobs or be educated. If they are not the sheltered and often barren wives of the ruling elite, they may find themselves assigned to remote colonies as slaves, along with other undesirables, or become "handmaids"--vessels to produce that rarest commodity, babies, fewer and fewer born every year. In the excerpt that follows, Offred, a handmaid, remembers what it was like when the American government was overthrown and no one knew what to do, except watch television.
I guess that's how they were able to do it, and in a way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress, and the Army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed at home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.
Here what comes? I asked.
You wait, she said. They've been building up to this. It's you and me up against the wall, baby. . . .
. . . I've been fired, I told Moira. . . . . She said she would come over. . . .
. . . Tried getting anything on your Compucard today?
Yes, I said. I told her about that too.
They've frozen them, she said. Mine, too. The collective's too. Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do is push a few buttons. We're cut off.
But I've got over two thousand dollars in the bank, I said, as if my own account was the only one that mattered.
Women can't hold property anymore, she said. It's a new law. Turned on the TV today?
No, I said.
It's on there, she said. All over the place. . . . Luke can use your Compucount for you, she said. They'll transfer your number to him, or that's what they say. Husband or male next of kin.
But what about you? I said. She didn't have anyone.
I'll go underground, she said. Some of the gays can take over our numbers and buy us things we need.
But why? I said. Why did they?
Ours is not to reason why, said Moira. They had to do it that way, the Compucounts and the jobs both at once. Can you picture the airports, otherwise? They don't want us going anywhere, you can bet on that.
. . . By the time Luke got home, I was sitting at the kitchen table. . . .
Luke knelt beside me and put his arms around me. I heard, he said, on the car radio, driving home. Don't worry. I'm sure, it's temporary. . . .
Hush, he said. He was still kneeling on the floor. You know I'll always take care of you.
I thought, Already he's starting to patronize me.
"The Golden Gate" (Random House) by Vikram Seth.
How many poets have tried their hand at this sort of thing since Byron published his Don Juan cantos? We're not sure, but Vikram Seth's novel-in-verse, "The Golden Gate," feels comfortably close in spirit to "Don Juan," and it, too, features a hero called John for whom "Love, constant love, has been my constant quest." Seth's seamless verse utilizes satire and pathos to capture the particular culture of Yuppies in the Silicon Valley-San Francisco corridor. The following is a sequence close to the opening of the novel.
A linkless node, no spouse or sibling
No children--John wanders alone
Into an ice cream parlor. Nibbling
The edges of a sugar cone
By turns, a pair of high school lovers
Stand giggling. John, uncharmed, discovers
His favorite flavors, Pumpkin Pie
And Bubble Gum, decides to buy
A double scoop; sits down; but whether
His eyes fall on a knot of three
Schoolgirls, a clamorous family,
Or, munching cheerfully together,
A hippie and a Castro clone,
It hurts that only he's alone. 1.8
He goes home, seeking consolation