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December 03, 2008


Mary McCarthy would agree with you - in her NYT review of "The Handmaid's Tale," which I unearthed for reasons having to do with a different project, she compared it unfavorably to "A Clockwork Orange," and said that the language kept it from being truly futuristic.

I can't say I agree, though. I think that the language is pretty crucial to the book's project. It's supposed to sound not only flat, but contemporary. Offred is supposed to sound like someone you know. I think Atwood is trying to make us feel that this is not some far-distant or implausible future: it's just a few years ahead. Too much lyrical prose or "futuristic" detail would distance us and allow us to take it less seriously.

"Oryx & Crake," her other dystopian novel, is the same: there are many "futuristic" details, but she makes a point of including a lot of homely contemporary or near-contemporary stuff too, and of making the main character as boring and average as possible (yet still charming!) so that the novel constantly reminds the reader of her everyday experience. So much of it is familiar that the unfamiliar elements are especially ominous. It's the world we know, arranged slightly differently. Nothing too far-out.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sady. You make a good point about the juxtaposition of everyday language with an unexpected world, and how that works to keep readers from distancing themselves from that world. You're right, it does add to the immediacy of the futuristic world, making it feel not that far off, and that heightens the threat of it. I have no doubt that Atwood was very intentional about all that. And she was very clever about her use of names as well.

I don't think that the language of this or any dystopian novel should be entirely invented, or so hyped-up that if feels necessarily (though I'm sure it could, and could be done well ...), but I do feel that Atwood went too far in the other direction. There are plenty of ways to create consuming, interesting language that retains its "everydayness" ... much of the great fiction out there does just that. While Atwood might've intended the ordinary language to keep readers from feeling distanced from the story, I think I was MORE distanced--I felt bored during scenes that had all the elements of being interesting, except the language, and I felt like the flatness kept me from feeling the immediacy of emotion in Offred.

I admit, though, I'm still thinking about this. Maybe I should check out Oryx and Crake; maybe it'll help me articulate better what I'm thinking!

This confirms my relatively long-held suspicion that we like fairly different things for wildly different reasons. I've loved the shit out of this novel and its flat language since I read it in high school. Granted, my view of the dystopic mundane generally centers around "over-bland is far more terrifying than over-imagined", but we all have our tastes, right?

There's room for all of us!

I think what Atwood is illustrating or highlighting with the use of fairly ordinary language is that in Gilead words are a form of power which is restricted from women. Women aren't allowed to read or write. They've been silenced effectively, and they are bored, so the use of maybe bland language pushes the sense that Offred has been living in a time where she basically can't express herself. This is why she is so excited by the magazine's that the commander gives her and why the game of scrabble is kind of an erotic, rebellious act. But this also serves to make the prose which is really beautiful and elaborate stand out more, and reminds us that Offred and her peers are new to this kind of life and that they haven't forgotten how things were-unlike the future generations of women who won't know what they are missing.

I hear you, Sara. Your comment about how the repression of language influenced how Offred narrated the novel rings true (as does Joey's comment about the terror of the "over-bland" that the language conveys about Gilead).

I'm reminded of reading Heart of Darkness years ago. I *got* why the language of the short novel was dense and pained, and I admired how Conrad forced the reader to experience the consuming anxiety that the characters experienced.

But the fact remained that I'd throw the book across the room when I finally encountered the period of sentence that seemed to go on for pages.

I guess the question is: how do you write a novel that uses language to manifest the kind of worlds of Handmaid's Tale and Heart of Darkness, drawing the reader into the novel, without completely turning the reader off (effectively doing the opposite--pushing the reader OUT of the novel)?

Perhaps I should simply acknowledge that I'm simply one reader that found respect, but not love, for novel--and that many, many others felt differently.

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