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kottke.org posts about Margaret Atwood

Trailer for Season Four of The Handmaid’s Tale

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2020

Season four of The Handmaid’s Tale is coming to Hulu in 2021. I found season 3 to be increasingly outlandish — not in terms of the depicted fascist policies and behaviors of Gilead (Atwood has stated that in her books & the TV series, all events have a precedent) but just in terms of “How the hell is June still alive and working in Gilead?!” Also, the use of closeups of Elisabeth Moss’s facial expressions to convey emotion was overused to the point of cliche. But I will definitely give season four a shot, especially now that we know where the series is ultimately headed.

The Implausible Covid-19 Movie

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2020

A few weeks ago, the Washington Post interviewed Scott Z. Burns, who wrote the screenplay for Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s film about a bat-borne illness that starts a global pandemic. What’s most striking about the interview is how outlandish Burns finds certain aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, so ridiculous in fact that people would find them implausible if this were a fictional story.

I would have never imagined that the movie needed a “bad guy” beyond the virus itself. It seems pretty basic that the plot should be humans united against the virus. If you were writing it now, you would have to take into account the blunders of a dishonest president and the political party that supports him. But any good studio executive would have probably told us that such a character was unbelievable and made the script more of a dark comedy than a thriller.

On Twitter, director Sarah Polley recently had a similar take.

This is the worst movie I have ever seen.

Unsurprising that this movie doesn’t work — the screenplay was a dog’s breakfast.

So much heavy handed foreshadowing. The apocalyptic footage from Wuhan, the super villain American president, the whistleblower dying, the Russia/China border closed while people still claimed it was just a flu, the warnings unheeded. Insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

And then — that most annoying of horror/disaster movie tropes — the hapless idiots walking into disaster after disaster, all of which the audience can see coming from a mile away.

The over the top details of world leaders and their wives falling ill, the far fetched idea that industrialized countries wouldn’t have proper protective gear for front line workers and ventilators. Pleeeeaaase. This movie needed a script doctor.

It’s interesting that there are certain boundaries in fiction related to the audience’s suspension of disbelief that are are routinely ignored by reality. I’m also reminded of how Margaret Atwood approached The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, using only elements that have historical precedent:

The television series has respected one of the axioms of the novel: no event is allowed into it that does not have a precedent in human history.

And yet some critics consider the events from the novels and TV show to be too much, over-the-top.

Update: Ted Chiang from a recent interview:

While there has been plenty of fiction written about pandemics, I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and our reality is how poorly our government has handled it. If your goal is to dramatize the threat posed by an unknown virus, there’s no advantage in depicting the officials responding as incompetent, because that minimizes the threat; it leads the reader to conclude that the virus wouldn’t be dangerous if competent people were on the job. A pandemic story like that would be similar to what’s known as an “idiot plot,” a plot that would be resolved very quickly if your protagonist weren’t an idiot. What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also — and perhaps mostly — a grotesque political satire.

I am currently blazing through Exhalation (Kindle), Chiang’s collection of science & technology fables. (via @jasondh)

Highlights from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2019

A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale published 30 years later, piggybacking on a successful TV adaptation? It could have been a disaster. The Testaments is anything but — it’s seen rave reviews (to which I will add my own) and won the Booker Prize. I read it over the course of the last month or so and wanted to share with you some passages I highlighted on my Kindle.

Having done this exercise with three books now (Normal People & In the Garden of Beasts were the others), I noticed that I highlight mostly ideas, passages that resonate with me personally, and beautiful writing. Spoilers are minimal…I weed those out.

In the case of The Testaments, obviously a lot of the book is about totalitarianism & fascism — see for instance how many of Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism you can spot in the excerpts below. #12 figures heavily.

Page 3 (great opening passage):

Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.

Page 9 (You see this most obviously in contemporary religious countries & cultures — women’s bodies are dangerous and must be kept out of sight — but also e.g. in American offices and schools.):

Arms covered, hair covered, skirts down to the knee before you were five and no more than two inches above the ankle after that, because the urges of men were terrible things and those urges needed to be curbed. The man eyes that were always roaming here and there like the eyes of tigers, those searchlight eyes, needed to be shielded from the alluring and indeed blinding power of us — of our shapely or skinny or fat legs, of our graceful or knobbly or sausage arms, of our peachy or blotchy skins, of our entwining curls of shining hair or our coarse unruly pelts or our straw-like wispy braids, it did not matter. Whatever our shapes and features, we were snares and enticements despite ourselves, we were the innocent and blameless causes that through our very nature could make men drunk with lust, so that they’d stagger and lurch and topple over the verge — The verge of what? we wondered. Was it like a cliff? — and go plunging down in flames, like snowballs made of burning sulphur hurled by the angry hand of God. We were custodians of an invaluable treasure that existed, unseen, inside us; we were precious flowers that had to be kept safely inside glass houses, or else we would be ambushed and our petals would be torn off and our treasure would be stolen and we would be ripped apart and trampled by the ravenous men who might lurk around any corner, out there in the wide sharp-edged sin-ridden world.

Page 14:

What a lot of lies she had to tell for my sake! To keep me safe! But she was up to it. She had a very inventive mind.

Page 24:

Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.

Page 31:

I regarded my reflection. The inventor of the mirror did few of us any favours: we must have been happier before we knew what we looked like.

Page 44:

I was the age at which parents suddenly transform from people who know everything into people who know nothing.

Page 46:

We’d had three modules in school on Gilead: it was a terrible, terrible place, where women couldn’t have jobs or drive cars, and where the Handmaids were forced to get pregnant like cows, except that cows had a better deal. What sort of people could be on the side of Gilead and not be some kind of monsters? Especially female people.

Page 57:

By this time I was feeling glum, which is one of the effects a birthday can have: you’re expecting a magic transformation but then it doesn’t happen.

Page 63:

“Dear Aunt Lydia,” he said, beaming from behind his enormous desk. “Thank you for gracing my humble office. You are well, I hope?”

He did not hope that, but I let it pass. “Praise be,” I said. “And you? And your Wife?” This Wife has lasted longer than usual. His Wives have a habit of dying: Commander Judd is a great believer in the restorative powers of young women, as were King David and assorted Central American drug lords. After each respectable period of mourning, he has let it be known that he is in the market for another child bride. To be clear: he has let it be known to me.

Page 66:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.

Page 73:

They didn’t make a big fuss over the funerals of women in Gilead, even high-ranking ones.

Page 82:

More alarmingly, my breasts were swelling, and I had begun to sprout hair on areas of my body that we were not supposed to dwell on: legs, armpits, and the shameful part of many elusive names. Once that happened to a girl, she was no longer a precious flower but a much more dangerous creature.

Page 83:

The adult female body was one big booby trap as far as I could tell. If there was a hole, something was bound to be shoved into it and something else was bound to come out, and that went for any kind of hole: a hole in a wall, a hole in a mountain, a hole in the ground. There were so many things that could be done to it or go wrong with it, this adult female body, that I was left feeling I would be better off without it.

Page 87:

Cleaning up things such as blood and other substances that came out of bodies was part of women’s duty of caring for other people, especially little children and the elderly, said Aunt Estée, who always put things in a positive light. That was a talent women had because of their special brains, which were not hard and focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping, like…like what? She didn’t finish the sentence.

Like mud in the sun, I thought. That’s what was inside my head: warmed-up mud.

Page 106 (This reminded me of the disturbing games invented by children in Nazi concentration camps.):

The most popular singing game among the younger girls was called “Hanging.” It went like this:

Who’s that hanging on the Wall? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

It’s a Handmaid, what’s she called? Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

She was (here we would put in the name of one of us), now she’s not. Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

She had a baby in the pot (here we would slap our little flat stomachs). Fee Fie Fiddle-Oh!

The girls would file under the uplifted hands of two other girls while everyone chanted: One for murder, Two for kissing, Three for a baby, Four gone missing, Five for alive and Six for dead, And Seven we caught you, Red Red Red!

And the seventh girl would be caught by the two counters, and paraded around in a circle before being given a slap on the head. Now she was “dead,” and was allowed to choose the next two executioners. I realize this sounds both sinister and frivolous, but children will make games out of whatever is available to them.

The Aunts probably thought this game contained a beneficial amount of warning and threat. Why was it “One for murder,” though? Why did murder have to come before kissing? Why not after, which would seem more natural? I have often thought about that since, but I have never found any answer.

Page 124:

They said calm things like You need to be strong. They were trying to make things better. But it can put a lot of pressure on a person to be told they need to be strong.

Page 143 (another form of the banality of evil):

Hour by hour we watched vans arrive, discharge their quota of women, depart empty. The same wailings from the new arrivals, the same barking and shouts from the guards. How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment. It’s always the same plot.

Page 144:

All that was necessary was a law degree and a uterus: a lethal combination.

Page 148:

You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person.

Page 148:

Every once in a while there would be a scream or a series of shrieks from nearby: brutalization on parade. Sometimes there would be a prolonged moaning; sometimes a series of grunts and breathy gasps that sounded sexual, and probably were. The powerless are so tempting.

Page 158:

You must understand that I was not anybody in my own right — although of the privileged class, I was just a young girl about to be confined to wedlock. Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut.

Page 212 (this made me laugh out loud):

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, as used to be said; though in the present day the idea of God laughing is next door to blasphemy. An ultra-serious fellow, God is now.

Page 215:

“Yes, the thought-experiment penises can get out of control,” I said. “They take on a life of their own.”

Page 226:

The Commander advanced, arranged his face into a jowly smile, and stuck his mouth onto my forehead in a chaste kiss. His lips were unpleasantly warm; they made a sucking sound as they pulled away. I pictured a tiny morsel of my brain being sucked through the skin of my forehead into his mouth. A thousand such kisses later and my skull would be emptied of brain.

Page 236:

This was comforting to me as far as it went, but I was on the verge of crying again. Kindness sometimes has that effect. “How?” I said. “How can it ever be well?” “I don’t know,” said Aunt Estée. “But it will be. I have faith.” She sighed. “Having faith is hard work sometimes.”

Page 272:

Standing on the tarmac there was a double line of men in black uniforms, and we walked between the lines, arm in arm. “Don’t look at their faces,” she whispered.

So I focused on their uniforms, but I could sense eyes, eyes, eyes, all over me like hands. I’d never felt so much at risk in that way — not even under the bridge with Garth, and with strangers all around.

Page 272 (a character’s initial impression of Gilead):

What am I doing here? I thought. This place is weird as fuck.

Page 279:

Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I am sure you have noticed, my reader. Listeners are inclined to believe neither.

Page 316:

He has another kind of book, less respectable: vintage pornography, as I knew from having examined it. It is a genre that is tedious in bulk. The mistreatment of the human body has a limited repertoire.

Page 317:

And how easily a hand becomes a fist.

Page 343 (I thought “gang aft agley” might have been some sort of weird Kindle typo, but it’s a reference to a Robert Burns poem.):

I’d thought I had everything in order, but the best-laid plans gang aft agley, and trouble comes in threes.

Page 388:

I was buying time. One is always buying something.

And finally, a short passage from Atwood’s acknowledgements, in which she reminds the reader that all of the events in this book and in The Handmaid’s Tale have actually happened somewhere in the world before:

The television series has respected one of the axioms of the novel: no event is allowed into it that does not have a precedent in human history.

That’s what makes these books truly chilling and essential.

The BBC’s Abridged Reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2019

BBC Radio 4 has done an abridged audio reading of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her followup to The Handmaid’s Tale. The series is composed of 15 episodes that run 14 minutes each — a total of 3.5 hours compared to the full 13+ hour audiobook. The episodes are only going to be available online for a short time though — the first one expires Oct 15 — so get in there if you’re going to listen. I’m reading the book right now, otherwise I’d be right there with you. (via open culture)

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s Upcoming Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2018

Testaments Book

On Twitter this morning, Margaret Atwood revealed that she’s writing a sequel to her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, inspired in part by “the world we’ve been living in”. According to the pre-order page on Amazon, The Testaments takes place 15 years after the events of the first book and is narrated by three women from Gilead. We’ll have to wait a bit though…the book is due out in early September 2019.

In the meantime, season 3 of the the TV series has started production and will likely debut next spring.

The Future Library

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2017

A few years ago, in a forest just outside of Oslo, 1000 trees were planted. In 2114, after a century of growth, the trees will be cut down and made into paper for an anthology of books. Meet the Future Library, an artwork by Katie Paterson.

Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until the year 2114. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the one hundred year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

The first three writers to contribute texts are Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and Icelandic novelist Sjón. Atwood said of her participation:

How strange it is to think of my own voice — silent by then for a long time — suddenly being awakened, after a hundred years. What is the first thing that voice will say, as a not-yet-embodied hand draws it out of its container and opens it to the first page?

See also the John Malkovich movie that no one will see for 100 years. The Future Library also has something in common with the (possibly apocryphal) story of the grove of oak trees specifically planted to replace the massive ceiling beams in the dining hall at Oxford hundreds of years in the future. Stewart Brand told the story in the TV adaptation of How Buildings Learn.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

Update: Karl Ove Knausgaard has become the 6th contributor to the library. (via @tedgioia)

Margaret Atwood on Twitter

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2010

She joined up last year and now she has some thoughts on the service.

Oh yes. A long time ago, back in June of 2009, when we were planning the launch of The Year of the Flood and I was building a Web site for it. Why was I doing this building, rather than the publishers? Well, they had their own sites, and I wanted to do some non-publishing things on mine, such as raise awareness of rare-bird vulnerability and heighten Virtuous Coffee Consumption (Arabica, shade-grown, doesn’t kill birds) and blog the seven-country dramatic-and-musical book tour we were about to do. Anyway, the publishers were at that time hiding under rocks, as it was still the Great Financial Meltdown, not to mention the Horrid Tsunami of Electronic Book Transmission. “That sounds wonderful, Margaret,” they said, with the queasy encouragement shown by those on the shore waving goodbye to someone who’s about to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Oops! I shouldn’t have said that. Which is typical of “social media”: you’re always saying things you shouldn’t have said.

This is probably the first article someone has written about Twitter that references Wordsworth, Hammurabi, and Greek mythology. (via mr)