Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Handmaid's Tale (cover)
I can't prove it, because after reading several interviews and descriptions, she hasn't told me, but I suspect Margaret Atwood followed a kind of intuitive approach in writing The Handmaid's Tale.

By intuitive, I mean that kind of writing in which you allow character, setting, dilemma, to lead the way, rather than a pre-arranged plot. You, the writer, don't know what's going to happen--or at least, not very clearly how you'll get there--when you sit down to write the first chapter. Some people call this the "pantser" (vs. "plotter") approach--writing by the seat of your pants. Bradbury put it like this: "Find out what your hero wants, then just follow him."

Here are my reasons for thinking Atwood tackled The Handmaid's Tale this way:

1. The scenery/environment is well developed, but the trajectory of the main character (Offred) is episodic for much of the book. It lacks a clearly defined "plot."

2. Offred is fully realized; her inner life is available to the reader--or at least as much as it is available to her. This is virtually impossible to achieve, as far as I can tell, in a highly plotted novel, for the simple reason that the characters become cogs in the machinery of plot. In such a novel, the complex, layered thoughts of a character tend to be more hindrance than help, since they'll often lead to unpredictable actions that derail the plot.

3. Atwood remarks that she knew where the story was going, so she didn't have to query herself about it; this suggests that she sometimes does have to query herself--meaning she doesn't plot out in advance. So did she this time? I doubt it. Knowing where the story is heading is a sign of a very realized sense of the character in relation to the situation in which she's been placed--her limitations, or parameters, within that situation, and within her particular personality.

This, in my view, would not mean there would be no persons, situations, or even characters arising in the unfolding of the story that the conscious mind has not planned in advance. For instance, when Atwood placed Offred in a relationship with a married man (in her past; "Luke"), did she foresee the tension this would create with Serena Joy, the wife of the Commander for whom she's a "handmaid"? Or did this rather come to her in the telling of the story, a "lucky happenstance," a chance encounter that presented another layer to the story? Because, to me at least, this element complicates a simple before=good/after=bad equation. And I find it convenient to suppose that Atwood's subconscious resisted that equation, more than (or as much as) her conscious mind.

But, of course, I'm only guessing. Call it intuition.

Well, I promised "thoughts" and really have only given you one. So let me add another, unrelated: Somehow it doesn't bother me that Atwood has distanced herself from sci-fi. In one article I found (in the Guardian), she admits to writing sci-fi, "or speculative fiction, if you prefer." A writer like her, working in "literary" fiction as well as speculative (or sci-fi), can be excused for wanting to distance herself from space octopi. Just saying.

If you've read the novel (or better yet, an interview or confession I couldn't find; or better still, you are Margaret Atwood) and you'd like to weigh in, I'm all ears.

Update: I overlooked an interview with Margaret Atwood in The Paris Review when I was writing this post. It turns out I was right. Here's what she says:

When I’m writing a novel, what comes first is an image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I’ve already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers. As for lines of descent—that is, poem leading to novel—I could point to a number of examples. In my second collection of poems, The Animals in That Country, there’s a poem called “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer.” That led into the whole collection called The Journals of Susanna Moodie and that in turn led into Surfacing. Or, another line of descent, the poems in parts of True Stories have obvious affiliations with the novel Bodily Harm. It’s almost as if the poems open something, like opening a room or a box or a pathway. And then the novel can go in and see what else is in there. I’m not sure this is unique. I expect that many other ambidextrous writers have had the same experience.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Saturday of Spring

You know it's been a rough spring when your baseball team is 10-4 and you haven't watched a single inning, haven't looked at a single box score, don't know who's new on the roster, couldn't name three players still on the team with any conviction at all.

Such has my spring been. The grass in the back yard--did I say grass? I meant clover--is mid-calf. The squash I planted in the greenhouse has grown to monstrous proportions, and yet I haven't started peppers. I haven't mended the garden fence, which I destroyed after seeing deer in the yard. I haven't even bought the supplies to do it.

Ironically, part of the blame falls to baseball. I have two boys now in the littlest leagues, one still hitting off a tee and daydreaming on the infield, and the other hitting real pitches hard (sometimes) and trying his darnedest to throw like a man. Fabulous quantities of practices so far, with the game schedule creeping inexorably toward us. If you've been there, you know. I won't see a clear Saturday until June.

Ah, Saturday. You my lost friend. Leisurely time to mow the lawn, mend the fence, hack at old tree stumps, light a pipe, whittle, toss a ball … Will I never know you again? The quiet Saturday of Spring, the dull chatter of baseball announcers, the hum of the crowd in the background, the exaggerated crack of the ball in the mitt or on the bat, the roar of the Fenway faithful as the ball soars out toward the Green Monster.

So that's what I'm missing. Time to kill. The leisure of a game that says, "Hey you! Slow down and watch this pitch. Nothing may happen. Or everything may happen. And there will be three hundred of these pitches today, over the next three hours. And you will watch every one of them. And feel not one ounce of guilt."

As I said, it's been a tough Spring.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Twice-Read Authors

I recently listed some “twice-read books” as a way to share my interests as a reader. But some of my favorite authors were left off, because though I’ve read more than one book of theirs, I haven’t necessarily read any of their books twice.

But if reading a book says something about you, I think reading more than one book by an author might, too. After all, these are folks I came back to because they offered me something—however lowbrow or highbrow that was. They represent only a small percentage of all the authors I’ve read. Life is full, and there are many books. If I’ve dipped back into the well of an author, that probably means something.

Not counting trilogies and series as more than one book, or authors that after reading a second one I knew it was mistake, here are the ones I remember, in roughly the order in which I read them (or came back to them):

Jack London
C. S. Lewis
Mark Twain
H. G. Wells
J.R.R. Tolkien
Stephen Lawhead
George MacDonald
Patricia McKillip
Ray Bradbury
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Shakespeare (not just for school!)
Franz Kafka
Ernest Hemingway
Isaac Asimov
Orson Scott Card
Ursula K. Le Guin
Jane Austin
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Dean Koontz
Daphne Du Maurier
Henry James
George Eliot
Stephen King
Jane Yolen
W. P. Kinsella
Paulo Cuelho
Neil Gaiman

I think that list shows a few things about me: I tend to gravitate toward (and enjoy!) classical authors. If I’m adventurous (and sometimes I am), it’s only for a short fling—so they don’t make the list. Paperback writers are almost unknown to me (this is quite true). For me reading is an event, a cultural experience. That might make me limited in some ways, particularly in knowing what may appeal to the masses. But we are what we are. I like an intensely well crafted story, careful language, depth of meaning—except when I don’t.

Who’s on your list?


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