"review" · fiction · Lit · philosophy/criticism · recommend · wondermous

The Family Fang

“Caleb, we placed our child in a situation that turned her into an earthquake.” […] “She was terrified of Santa Claus. And we were the ones who put her in the fat man’s lap. That seems like the makings of a long-term psychological problem.”
“Do you know how resilient kids are?”
[…]
“She’s just a baby,” Camille said.
“She’s an artist, just like us; she just doesn’t know it yet.”
“She’s a baby, Caleb.”
“She’s a Fang,” he replied. “That supersedes everything else.”  (The Family Fang, 172-3)

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
ECCO (HarperCollins), 2011.
hardcover, 309 pages.

Raise your hand if you have not heard of The Family Fang or it’s author Kevin Wilson mentioned by at least 15 different Book venues in the past several weeks–all of them raving.  My contrary nature tends to kick in during this kind of hullabaloo, but the premise was just too hard to resist.

Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art.

Their children called it mischief.

Performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang dedicated themselves to making great art. But when an artist’s work likes in suberting normality, it can be difficult to raise well-adjusted children. Just aske Buster and Annie Fang. For as long as they can remember, they starred (unwillingly) in their parents’ madcap pieces. But not that they are grown up, the chaos of their childhood has made it difficult to cope with life outside the fishbowl of their parents’ strange world.

When the lives they’ve built come crashing down, brother and sister have nowhere to go but home, where they discover that Caleb and Camille are planning one last performance–their magnum opus–whether the kids agree to participate or not. Soon, ambition breeds conflict, bringing the Fangs to face the difficult decision about what’s ultimately more important: their family or their art.

Filled with Kevin Wilson’s endless creativity, vibrant prose, sharp humor, and keen sense of complex performances that unfold in the relationship of people who love one another, The Family Fang is a masterfully executed tale that is as bizarre as it is touching. ~inside cover

It was the “bizarre as it is touching” that cinched it for me. And it is true what they claim, “The Family Fangis a masterfully executed tale that is as bizarre as it is touching.”

One of the reasons, that Kevin Wilson’s novel is wild fire, especially in the Literary community, is due to its conversation on Art.  When I finished and basked and then started thinking about writing a Review I thought about to whom I would recommend this read. It was the crowd who like the bizarre, who like dangerous writing, but overwhelmingly I thought to tell anyone who likes to discuss Art to read this book–even the few I know who might be squeamish about some of the content. I think anyone would be effected by this literary work, but I think it is the creative who find the greatest pleasure.

“[Caleb] had learned the almost magical skills necessary to make the world reconfigure itself in order to fit your own desires. […] Art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.” (190)

Is it really? Is it really worth it? As we meet Child A aka Annie and Child B aka Buster as adults and witness how they have been affected, the question is paramount. As we are provided glimpses into a childhood where parents star their children in some of the most obscene situations for the sake of a performance, of an artistic statement, the question remains that ubiquitous specter.

[Annie] was amazed by these people, what kind of wiring they possessed that would cause a Fang event to occupy a pleasant place in their memories. And the she realized these people were probably talking about seeing a representation of the original Fang event in a museum, which was even more astonishing to Annie. Was this how trauma worked? she wondered. Those closest to it remained dumbfounded by the fact that those who weren’t present could derive meaning from it? (254)

Annie and Buster need to find a meaning for it, while at the same time suspecting that the meaning might not change anything. The reader, brought close, needs meaning–and definitions. The other pervasive interrogation of The Family Fang, is what constitutes Art?

“Their father, on several occasions throughout their childhood, had referred to painting and photography and drawing as dead forms of art, incapable of accurately reflecting the unwieldy nature of real life. “Art happens when things fucking move around,” he told them, “not when you freeze them in a goddamn block of ice.” (124)

“The act is not the art,” he told himself. “The reaction is the art.” (166)

“It almost strains the notion of what constitutes art. The Fangs simply thrown their own bodies into a space as if they were hand grenades and wait for the disruption to occur. They have no expectations other than to cause unrest. It is, if you are one of the few to witness it firsthand, deeply unsettling because of how little the Fangs seem to care about the psychic and sometimes physical pain that accompanies their performances.” (211)

Art and Family are inextricably linked in The Family Fang and in the Fang family. When the children return home again, their lives in pieces, Camille observes, “We’re a family again. This is what we do. This is what the Fangs do. We make strange and memorable things” (109). But we’ve no idea yet the extent to which Camille and Caleb believe this. It is a truly beautiful aspect of the novel in how Kevin Wilson creates this desperate hope in the Reader that for the sake of the children and social graces the parents really do love their children A and B. And yet, when such delusions are irrevocably dispelled, there is a glorious relief; Caleb and Camille Fang really are just incredibly selfish bastards.

Buster wanted to believe that his parents still loved them, that they had planned all of this as a way to save their children from falling apart, to make them strong. Annie, however, was certain that their parents had created something just for themselves, and that they did not care what pain they cause in service of this idea. (223)

”I used to tell all my students, not just Caleb and Camille, but any artist that showed some sliver of promise, that they had to devote themselves to their work. They had to remove all obstructions to making the fantastic thing that needed to exist. I would tell them that kids kill art.” (199) “I found it was impossible for me to see any Fang art without feeling this horrible sense of dread, that something irreparable was being done to the two of you. […] [Your parents] beat me by completely inverting my theory. Kids don’t kill art. Art kills kids.” (200)

But it isn’t that simple, of course. Buster swings from trusting his parents to the surprisingly vehement exclamation of “They can’t do whatever they want, just because they think it’s beautiful” (201) and back again, and then… Perceptive, Annie is just angry, all the time; her parents’ Performance Art in motion, all the time. [Could Wilson have cast any more beautiful stars in these roles? ] If the novel were some easy moral it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. Again, it returns to worth, to the place and necessity of Art, of perception. And let us not forget Family.

What constitutes Family? What is its worth, its place and necessity? It is a credit to Wilson, the ability to make Caleb and Camille to sound like every other parent on the planet. As one character says, “Think of your parents as directors; they control the circumstances and make all the independent pieces come together to create something beautiful that would otherwise not exist” (146). In an unusual parallel, parents are likened to these performance artists–a discomfiting and brilliant illustration. Buster felt “the inescapable claustrophobia of his parents’ desires” (63). “Is there anything you wouldn’t do if Mom and Dad asked you?” Buster asked his sister (65). At least Caleb and Camille are doing it for the noble purpose of Art, aren’t they? Captured in Art, what truth or meaning can be derived from an idea; however cruelly or humorously or touchingly manifested; such as “Kill all parents, so you can keep living.” Child A and B, Annie and Buster, Camille and Caleb, Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang, they cannot be so easily dismissed out of hand.

Kevin Wilson creates characters with vision and provocative opinion. He does so in a novel that in form would complicate illuminate its content. The Family Fang alternates between [Performances] and Chapters, moving back and forth in time, as does each [Performance] and Chapter shift along more contained time lines. Context is necessary. So is the initial effect/reaction. Wilson establishes then subverts, then subverts and establishes. His revelations are smooth. Really, the way the novel unfolds is something that kept sending me into little aftershocks of euphoria after I was even done with the novel; particularly it was how cleverly relevant and revelatory each piece had become to one another. You can guess and immediately see how the performance pieces came to mind in the context of present day events, but the extent of Wilson’s craftsmanship is more subtle. The Family Fang does not feel as spare as it actually is; which is something to get excited about.

As the end of the novel approached I was anxious about how it could possibly go. For all the torment the characters and Readers received, and likely the author himself, The Family Fang soothes without undermining itself. It continues as it always has. “They had done what they always did, made art out of confusion and strangeness” (178).

*********

I know I quoted the hell out of this book already in my ramble, but these are two more: (really, I had shown restraint) :

Conventional lives are the perfect refuge if you are a terrible artist. (~Waxman, 203)

[Bonnie] had tried for months now to think of her own performance, some unique revelation of the absurdity of life, but she had no capacity for new ideas. She could see an existing artwork and understand why it was or was not successful. But she could not take that knowledge and arrange it into something wholly original, or even a re-interpretation of that existing piece. She was, as Hobart had explained to her, as kindly as possible, simply a critic. (212)

*********

The Family Fang would make for a really good Book Club read.

Not the Ladies Tea kind of club, or just the Literary kind where you name drop and understand every single book and film reference in the novel (because there is that), but more the kind where you might hit someone with your Pint just to make a point. The kind of Book Club where Art and its Craft is something that everyone of you takes seriously. And where the bizarre is always touching.

**********

a note on the cover: the copy I borrowed from the Library had Ann Patchett stressing the word genius rather than simply saying ‘brilliant’ at the end of that quote. Which I was skeptical of the address of genius. But the more I think about it, genius wasn’t a bad word to use at all.

"review" · fiction · Lit · sci-fi/fantasy · wondermous

who dreams of electric sheep?

>I read this as a part of the Sci Fi Experience 2011 (see sidebar)<

I have every intention of (re)watching Ridley Scott’s  Blade Runner (1982) and do a comparative. Meanwhile, a read of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the novel that inspired the film. I need to say that Philip K. Dick’s writing impresses me to no end. His imagination and explorations are fantastically rendered. He writes paranoia so incredibly well. I hope to read UBIK again soon (a favorite).

7082Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

The version I read: Del Rey Books, 1996.

Trade paper, 244 pages.

(Originally published 1968)

Would it be too obvious to state that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is preoccupied with the question “What makes a human human?” What does separate the Human from everything else? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? interrogates a possible and popular answer: Empathy.

It is 2021 and most humans have emigrated off world to one of the colonies created after the world realized that the ecological system was irreparably damaged due to use of weapons of mass destruction during World War Terminus.

Androids were created as company, as an enticement to inhabit the foreign colonies. But some humans stayed behind: those who refused to leave the Earth; humans judged too far gone, permanently and uncomfortably damaged by the radioactive dust (chickenheads); and people like Rick Deckard whose work keeps them on Earth.

Deckard is a Bounty Hunter, contracted with the city of San Francisco, to hunt and “retire” Androids who are illegal on the planet Earth. Deckard’s job is becoming increasing difficult with every newer and better model of Android manufactured. “You and I, all the bounty hunters—we stand between the Nexus-6* and mankind, a barrier which keeps the two distinct”(141).

The androids, even the animals, have become extremely well-made; so well-made that differentiating them from a real human or animal is nearing impossible. In one sad, but humorous case, a real cat was mistaken for an electric one. But the realism of the electric animals aren’t as threatening as the androids, if anything not owning and caring for any animal is cause for ostracization.  “They’ll look down on you. Not all of them, but some. You know how people are about not taking care of an animal; they consider it immoral and anti-empathic. I mean, technically it’s not a crime like it was right after W.W.T., but the feeling’s still there” (13).

Apart from the status the ownership of a particular animal (insect, reptile, etc) might bring, fundamentally it is about proving your ability to care for something natural; (or is it to care for something vulnerable, dependent upon a human’s attentiveness).  In a world decreasingly natural or even Real (the two often seeming to equate), clinging to the vestiges of a time before (via animal-life) becomes vital—a life thread. The longing for nature is accentuated by its loss. It is something very human to long for a connection with the natural world. (What about their longings for the “unnatural” things?)

Deckard “thought, too, about his need for a real animal; within him an actual hatred once more manifested itself toward his electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about, as if it lived. The tyranny of an object, he thought. It doesn’t know I exist. Like the androids, it had no ability to appreciate the existence of another. He had never thought of this before, the similarity between an electric animal and an andy. The electric animal, he pondered, could be considered a subform of the other, a kind of vastly inferior robot. Or conversely, the android could be regarded as a highly developed, evolved version of the ersatz animal. Both viewpoints repelled him.” (42)

The lack of recognition from an ‘other’ creates revulsion in the human. In a sense, the lack of acknowledgment creates an aloneness that the human wants to reject. Conversations about Loneliness are primarily housed in the story of John R. Isidore, a chickenhead, who shares the narrative with Deckard.

Because of his lowly status as a deteriorating human, semi-functioning, Isidore is set aside by society. Grieving his own loss of who he was before and tormented by how people treat him, he does what most chickenheads do and retreats to abandoned apartment buildings in the outer fringes (the suburbs). He lives alone in a dying building, returning to dust, and being overrun by “kipple,” debris. His television has only one station. Fortunately, he has a job to go to, even though it more menial than he would desire. He also has Mercerism, a popular religion in which Wilbur Mercer is at the center epitomizing Suffering and facilitating Collective Empathy.

There is an object called an empathy box. One holds the handles and the screen not only focuses the cyclic journey of an old man climbing a hill in a brutal landscape, but connects the human with the old man (Mercer) and with anyone else holding their box. A fusion of empathic emotion ensues.  When a rock cuts Mercer, the human holding the box will have a cut as well.  Notably Androids cannot participate due to their lack of empathy.

The exclusion of the android is a sticking point for some androids (particularly the newest model manufactured by the Rosen Corporation, the Nexus-6). Roy Baty, one such android, would attempt his own fusion experiments using drugs. Finally, failing, he, his wife, and friends kill their owners and others who would prevent escape from the harsh fruitless Mars colony and come to Earth.

The desire to belong, to be recognized as worthwhile, has a tangible presence in the novel. A hierarchy has been established, and the androids find themselves at the bottom. Isidore isn’t too far above them.

With the hierarchy comes a commodity structure. There is a Sydney’s Guide that monitors the cash worth of every specie and such are valued accordingly, effect status accordingly. Where a human is career-wise, intelligence-wise, health-wise still effects value/status.  Humans are constantly being tested for fertility and intelligence.  For a chickenhead, their intelligence scores, dictates their job options. That which is considered an abomination occupy the lowest rung. We lock away the mentally ill. While electric animals are not really acceptable, society has made a place for them, the androids have no place.

With the hierarchy comes the seemingly inevitable demon of racism (from all sides). “I’m not going to live with a chickenhead.” [Pris’] nostrils flared.  Irmgard said rapidly, “I think you’re foolish to be a snob at a time like this.” (157) “The chickenhead,” Pris said, “likes me.” “Don’t call him that, Pris,” Irmgard said; she gave Isidore a look of compassion. “Think what he could call you.” (159)

What is least tolerated, however, seems to be the willingness to throw one’s own kind under the bus. Part of what feeds into the hatred of the andys is that they easily turn on one another.  Or is that even true any longer? Pris, Irmgard, Roy, the other of the new model seem to create a gray area where there was not one before. They are sticking together, fighting back, and in Irmgard’s case show instances of compassion.

Some of the humans create gray areas as well.

Deckard to Resch: “There is a defect in your empathic, role-taking ability. One which we don’t test for. Your feelings toward androids.” “Of course we don’t test for that.” “Maybe we should.” (140-1) Resch became very close to being mistaken for an android and thus nearly “retired.”

*****

The hatred for the android is strange (and yet not) and not fully articulated. Discussions of the Uncanny would enter here. An assumption is meant. From here, Dick can subvert the assumption and cast it out of the black and white.  Deckard starts his day quite certain in his job and his feelings toward the andys, by the end of the book, 24 hours later, conflicts have arisen. Deckard is forced to re-evaluate everything.

“Some female androids seemed to him pretty; he had found himself physically attracted by several, and it was an odd sensation, knowing intellectually that they were machines, but emotionally reacting anyhow.” (95)

The andys have become a greater threat, confusing a standardized test (to evaluate the empathic), fighting back, questioning, not running and hiding but taking the offensive, manipulating him…stimulating empathy. If he cannot call an andy an “it” than he has difficulty retiring them. They have to remain an object.

*****

“I’ll tell you what we trust that fouls us up, Roy; it’s our goddamn superior intelligence!” (166-7)**

A problem with the andys is not really that they have a far more superior intelligence. That is what gets them caught. What terrifies the human population of 2021 (and perhaps now) is their desire to become more Human. If they were to become Human, humans would easily become obsolete. Becoming obsolete is already a concern with the loss of planet and nature, the effects of the dust on fertility and intelligence. The andys do not have reproductive capabilities in the human sense, but they do not require a womb. If they elicit emotion and desire, if they were not programmed with a 4 year life span…

And the andys seem to want the human experience.  They aren’t dreaming of electric sheep any more than Deckard is. Why are Irmgard and Roy married? What about the fusion? What of Rachael’s remarks on pregnancy? [Did her remarks on abortion send up any red flags for you?] Is it that they are made that way? To want those things? Can they be manufactured that way?

What I find interesting is how the androids would work to expose the falsity/the manufactured of the human*** as diligently as the humans work to expose the andy’s.

Despite the efforts by the andys to expose Mercerism (the foundation of an empathy-driven religion) as a fraud, Empathy as a desirable trait remains—not so easily extinguished. Not only is empathy an important (superior) mark of being Human, it is also a necessity for survival. Otherwise, what separates the Human from the Machine?

*nexus: “the central and most important point or place” (Oxford English Dictionary); 6: man’s number.

** do only andy’s corner the market on this issue?

***what did you think of the mood organ?

cinema · philosophy/criticism · sci-fi/fantasy

Belton’s take

Yesterday I posted the most provocative of my Cinema textbook/guide reading (wherein I was looking for “science fiction” in film).  I was researching what attributes are assigned the genre of science fiction in film, as well as the history of the genre and any cultural perspectives attached. I have four books on my shelf:

Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 3rd Edition. Susan Hayward. Routledge, 2006;  American Cinema/ American Culture, 3rd Edition. John Belton. McGraw-Hill, 2009;  Dictionary of Film Terms: The Aesthetic Companion to Film Art. Frank Eugene Beaver.  Peter Lang, 2007; The Film Experience: An Introduction, 2nd Edition. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White. Bedford/St. Martin’s,  2009.

John Belton’s American Cinema/ American Culture was the most helpful towards what I was looking for. Belton dedicates Chapter 12 to Horror and Science Fiction (271-94), playing on their similarities and differences. Distinctions between the two can be difficult, but these cues seem to help: in looking at “the tone and mode of address” one would be “rational, speculative, and scientific” whereas the other is “suspenseful, shocking, irrational, and horrific” (271). This seems like a “no, duh!” sort of explanation, I know, but as I said, some distinctions between Horror and Science Fiction can be blurry.

Belton goes on to explain distinctions further. He uses the responses of “What if?” and “Oh No!” to differentiate. (yes, this is the whole paragraphed section):

The horror film is, like the melodrama, a modal genre; its chief purpose is to generate horror, terror, or dread in the audience primarily through the figure of the monster and the threat it poses to humanity. Though the science fiction film often features monsters from outer space, its narratives are less concerned with inducing terror than with creating a sense of wonder, best exemplified in the spectacular special-effects sequences found in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the Star Wars and Star Trek films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Blade Runner (1982), Independence Day (1996), and The Matrix (1999). If the science fiction film features an occasional creature from outer space, the horror film is dominated by the monster figure. By the same token, the horror film is obsessed with the supernatural, the occult, and the irrational. The science fiction film, on the other hand, is marked by its focus on science and reason. That which is fantastic in the horror film is attributed to the supernatural. The fantastic in the science fiction film is ultimately explained through natural laws—either those already known to be in existence or those that will be discovered over the course of the film’s narrative. Though fictional, the science fiction film is grounded in scientific facts, assumptions, and hypotheses on which it then builds speculations about the future or a futuristic past. The science fiction film looks forward to the future and, imagining a series of intriguing possibilities, asks the question “What if?” The horror film, on the other hand, frequently looks back to the past, to an earlier trauma, experience, or event that continues to haunt the present, frequently in the form of the return of that which had been previously repressed. If the mode of address of the science fiction film is “What if?”, that of the horror film is “Oh no!” If only what has been unleashed could be safely repressed. (272)

I rarely wonder off into the Horror section of Film…and if I do it is often by accident. However, there is an incredible overlap. I think knowledge of the differences help; it certainly provides a working summation of things to look for that makes a film narrative science fiction. Especially for those films who are quietly sci fi, like the dystopian science fiction Children of Men (2006).

[how applicable is this to the literary genre, do you think?]

While the above portion of the chapter was interesting and helpful. The next will follow me in my reviews of science fiction film and literature: “The chief concern of both genres is their focus on what it means to be human” (272).

Belton spends the chapter in further explanation, while studying the nuances and history of each genre. He concludes the chapter with this:

“The genres of horror and science fiction function to manage our anxiety about being human, the potentially porous borders between the human and the nonhuman, and the threat and attraction of the posthuman*. As human existence becomes increasingly tenuous in the twenty-first century world of global warming (and the attendant natural disasters of droughts, tsunamis, floods, and hurricanes), AIDS (and other pandemics), terrorism, ethnic cleansing, hunger, poverty, and financial insecurity, we rely more and more on these genres to affirm the centrality of the human, to warn us of the dangers to humanity’s survival, and to imagine the posthuman in its many utopian and dystopian guises.” (294)

In every explanation of the genre, science fiction is said to be a perfect genre in which we express and explore our fears. Belton is less arbitrary with what fears the genre is particularly preoccupied with.

Due to prior conversations: The 1950s space invaders films: I went to look at his commentary on the matter; Belton writes,”From the 1950s to the present, science fiction films function as barometers of cultural anxiety, addressing many of the Big Ideas facing post-war American society” (289).  He doesn’t criticize how the barometer reads, just that in reading it, we can gain understanding of the times, e.g. “concerns about a communist takeover […] with the advent of the atomic bomb […] anxieties of the nuclear age […] and radioactive fallout” (289). I am supposing Belton expects each will apply their perspective and consider the implications and ramifications of the genre. In the meantime he is looking for the underlying thread, and found a theme that pervades the genre, the “focus on what it means to be human.”

Needless to say, what a culture perceives to be Human can be found in the narrative; the “it” or “other” is designated accordingly.

oh, and Belton’s comments on Star Wars: “In short, what Lucas (and Spielberg**) brought to the genre was a mythic dimension that the immediacy and topicality of many earlier science fiction films lacked.” (290)

Belton continues with how Lucas and Spielberg were “less interested in the science than in magic and mysticism,” that their heroes “rely on intuition rather than reason and have no patience for the scientific method. What they achieve at the end of their journey is knowledge, but it is irrational, mystical, and romantic in nature and not scientific knowledge” (290).

SF can be complicated and its nuances worth considering; a genre not so cut and dry as it might at first appear.

*”The notion of the posthuman in science and literature concerns the changing nature of human identity in an environment increasingly dominated by intelligent machines and a world in which humans increasingly interact with one another through the agency of such machines” (291), e.g. Blade Runner.

** “Although Spielberg did not directly evoke Campbell and the monomyth, he nonetheless did, like Lucas, consciously rework the mythic aspects of the narrative of The Searchers by putting the central characters of Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] in pursuit of a child abducted by aliens”(290).

"review" · fiction · Lit · philosophy/criticism · recommend · Tales · wondermous · young adult lit

logical conclusions

“This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions.” –Margaret Atwood*

Handmaid’s Tale by Artist: Erin Mcuire**

I have always enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s short stories and the few essays of hers that I read. The Handmaid’s Tale has always been an intention based on recommendation. My desire to read it had little to do with its popularity as a banned/challenged book. Just the same, for Banned Books Week I determined that if the Library had a copy in, I would read it.

I nibbled on it.

311 pages are little effort really and yet in and around my activities I dragged the book out. It was lovely to indulge the read that way. I recommend everyone reading that way once and a while. The Handmaid’s Tale is compelling. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to keep turning pages, to know what was going on, what was going to happen. I just didn’t.

I also have a desire to take a small portion and apply proper Criticism, at least a focused response. Perhaps I will. There are so many perfectly rendered moments in this book. There are plenty of those deliciously provoking ideas. For here, some notes.

***

“If its only a story, it becomes less frightening” (144). …does it, really?

Tale: noun. 1. a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted; a lie. 2. archaic, a number or total: an exact tale of the dead bodies. –Oxford English Dictionary.

According to the “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” and Dr. James Pieixoto, Tale is also an intentional pun, “particularly having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word ‘tail’; that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, in that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats” (301)–yes, there was “(Laughter, applause)”—quaint.

Offred (Of*fred, as we know her to be called) is our protagonist and the first person narrator. Later in the story it becomes more and more evident that the narrative is being recorded for posterity. The “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” on 299+ is a transcript from a Symposium at a future date (2195) looking back on Offred’s narrative (the story the Reader just finished). This “recording” poses a difficulty for me (and not because they are on cassettes). The narrative is told in present tense. While I realize that even the memories are told in a present tense, the improbability that Offred could recall so clearly a present tense (as she would not have a recorder on her)—while I’m thinking here aloud: The present tense of the History, the Tale makes it not a problem occurring the in past, or future, but gives it a relevancy in the now. Clever. I wish, however, the Tale was not complicated by memory, by restructuring as Offred often calls it. But then, what History isn’t? And authenticity is a preoccupation in the Tale and “Notes”—believability, if never complete reliability.

I was irritated by the presence of “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale” as it seemed irrelevant. I do not need an epilogue that essentially tells me nothing new about Offred. After reading a personal account, the academic seemed distasteful. Then, in re-viewing, I re-read this:

She could have told us much about the workings of the Gileadean empire, had she the instincts of a reporter or a spy. What would we not give, now for even twenty pages or so of print-out from Waterford’s private computer! However, we must be grateful for any crumbs the Goddess of History has deigned to vouchsafe us (310).

The Human story was not granted much dignity, its cost is lost amidst procedures (however necessary). The machinations of women’s society are crumbs compared to that of a patriarchal empire—even as it is strongly suggested in the Tale that it is the machinations of the women who helped bring about the Gileadean empire. The “Notes” have a familiarity and sense that little has actually changed. That the future isn’t even unlike the present.

***

There is some linearity to the narrative. Yet the past, both near and far, are interspersed amid the chronological events in the current household. There is no obvious structuring, no careful outline to the reflections or restructuring of past events. The story has an organic sensibility to its way of telling. Just the same, it is crafted; early relations inform later occurrences, etc.

Offred is also a reluctant narrator. At times she reveals things as obliquely as they are often revealed to her. Like the reader, she would rather look away or is left to figure out what has happened, is happening, or is going to happen. The Handmaid’s Tale is a painful read. If one aspect escapes her audience, another page turn is well aimed for the gut (or lower). The Reader should be discomfited, whether male or female. Whether one finds sympathy with Offred or not, the dystopic glare is enough to find revulsion with Offred’s world.

As hopeless as Offred’s situation seems, with its probable trajectory of a terrible end, Atwood offers Hope at the very end. Depending on the Reader’s Disposition or Desperation, the Reader can imagine Offred’s outcome; not even the “Historical Notes” would rob the Reader of the narrative’s ending. The offering of Hope is a blessed relief after a long bout of depression.

***

Atwood’s gift with language is exquisite. Her images are lovely, even when the setting is ghastly. She can make any environment a death chamber.

The characters and their situations are persuasive—Atwood defines the unflinchingly honest we so often ascribe a successful characterization.

I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow. […] I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m story it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it. I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers for instance, because where would we be without them? […] I keep going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it. […] I am coming to a part you will not like at all, because in it I did not behave well, but I will try nonetheless to leave nothing out (267-8).

Offred captures herself accurately; her actions support her self-perceptions; she is not a lovely victim, but she is an innocent one—as she is completely undeserving; but then, who is?

There is little compassion for Serena Joy or the Commander or the Aunts. Perspective is offered, but grace is absent. The Handmaid’s Tale paints a compelling portrait of humans trapped by their own devices—their own dogma.

“[Serena Joy’s] speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.” (45) “She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. how furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word” (46).

Atwood’s Wives and Commanders (those who have made the rules by which all must live by) create subversions. They find cracks with which to fill their own human desires—the desires that do not otherwise fit. The doctrine handed down may be in a language familiar to Bible-readers and Religious-realms, but there isn’t much to credit an authentic reflection of its principles. It is a tool of oppression, and a profitable one (i.e., the prayer scrolls).

No one, however, is exempt from the play for Power. The Gileadean empire is oppressive, and repressive. And while there is no question in a Commander’s ultimate power over the rest, there are still footholds to be made. And there are things that Gileadean Will cannot take away or repress. For instance, Sensuality is felt in the contemplation of a shadow, of a flower, of a brief glimpse of skin…

***

Atwood creates in this novel the very thing that makes her short stories so successful, no word or image is superfluous. Her word play is fun and deadly serious. Language is nothing to take so casually as we do. Atwood will dismantle a word, take it along its course, and then place it as a mantle (whether cloak or role) across a character’s shoulders.

I wait, for the household to assemble. Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part.

The hold of a ship. Hollow” (81).

So. More waiting. Lady in waiting: that’s what they used to call those stores where you could buy maternity clothes. Woman in waiting sounds more like someone in a train station. Waiting is also a place: it is wherever you wait. For me it’s this room. I am blank, here, between parentheses. Between other people”(227-8).

It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children when they were being toilet trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.

The Book of Job (173).

Suspended amidst the hollow, the unreal, waiting, wondering why this is all happening… “I am in disgrace, which is the opposite of grace” (291).

***

I’ll take care of it [the cat], Luke said. And because he said it instead of her, I knew he meant kill. That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real. (193)

On a Wall, the government of Gilead hang the executed with their faces hid beneath bags and a placard with a representation (symbol or vocation) rather than a name. In the story, Characters are not given names, but titles–not merely/only to make them symbolic, but in the symbolizing de-humanize them.

“Offred” gives no clue, since, like “Ofglen” and “Ofwarren,” it was a patronymic, composed of the possessive preposition and the first name of the gentleman in question. such names were taken by these women upon their entry into a connection with the household of a specific Commander, and relinquished by them upon leaving it” (305-6).

As Offred, she is a vessel to be used in the name of Fred, and is dispensable. “You have to create an it, where none was before.” While the name may be representational, individuality cannot be wholly erased. Serena Joy is both an object of her cause, a model of the Wives, but she is driven by her own individualized inner workings. So much of the conflict (if not all of it) stems from the human incapability to conform. And the added complication?—the unease of the idea that humans are all too capable of conforming…

***

An important conversation in this novel is the role of women, not just as the oppressed, but as the oppressor. The plays for power, for control, and for validation are sometimes (if not every time) violently depicted.

***

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” – Oscar Wilde

Atwood is beautiful, so incredibly complex, but in a way that is absolutely accessible. Her Handmaid’s Tale meditates on so many ideas—some more dangerous than others.

“I was once a graduate student in Victorian literature and I believe as the Victorian novelists did, that a novel isn’t simply a vehicle for private expression, but that it also exists for social examination. I firmly believe this.”-Atwood*

***

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

First Anchor Books Edition (paperback), 1998.

Originally published in 1985.

311 pages.

*on The Handmaid’s Tale in an interview w/ Random House
**Art print found on this site.
juvenile lit · philosophy/criticism

mental health evaluation

I finished Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief last night. It has a prologue, 10 parts, and an epilogue. I cried pretty much straight through the 10th part and the epilogue. I would recommend that no one read this book in the late Autumn, Winter, Early Spring, and if one is ailing, or if they presently live in a basement apartment. That is not to say that the book would not make a body sad; it is set during the holocaust; one may just to avoid feeling absolute misery and deepening depression. Fortunately, tissues were on hand, as I have a head-cold (or some such nuisance)–and my husband is around so I am not left depressed and alone–and my sweet daughter is not her more usual melancholy state the past couple days.

Because I had no Chai to put my Bailey’s in, I opened up Looking Awry by Slavoj Zizek, and read the Preface. You know how I listed words from Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night the other day. Here are some words from the first page of the Preface:

subversive procedure, prosaic, sublime ideal, sublime theoretical motifs, exemplary, Kantian ethics, Sadian perversion, Lacanian “dogmatics,” Lacanian theoretical edifice, post-structuralist “deconstructionism.”

I’ll continue to the next page with the words where Zizek quotes “De Quincey’s famous propositions concerning the art of murder”: “psychoanalysis, dubious, perdition, phallocentric obscurantist.” And Zizek goes onto use “modalities.”

It is the combination of long complicated sentences with its academic word-combinations/jargon and the words themselves. I miss them as if I had never realized before how much I loved them. Usually I would be handed a lengthy assignment to read and decipher by ‘tomorrow’ and the migraine would begin to pulse. As it was, last night, I was seated on the couch reading, my husband chuckling over my pleasurable sighing, and I was practically shivering (yes, I chose the word ‘shivering’ deliberately Lit/word scholars).

I will endeavor to write more about The Book Thief soon, if not tomorrow. And I will have to dole Looking Awry out to myself and comment when conversation strikes…which should be often.