Issue #22/103, November 9 - 23, 2000  smlogo.gif

Book Review

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#1: Canadian Women ou Les Hoes Canucqois

By John Dolan

Just as I was finishing this column naming Margaret Atwood the Queen of Dunces, I heard she’d won this year’s Booker Prize. Once again, the mainstream press tries to scoop the eXile! There must be a leak somewhere in our ranks. Luckily, we have a roof which specializes in closing leaks, no matter how many fingernails or bamboo slivers it takes. Besides, what a transparent ploy, giving the Booker to Atwood! Atwood IS the Booker; she incarnates it; how can you award it to her? It’s like giving the Nobel to Nobel. Atwood is the prototype of the vaguely leftist, mainstream-feminist Commonwealth novelist for whom the Booker is reserved. Her name is legion: Barbara Kingsolver, Keri Hulme, Nadine Gordimer—these are her handmaids. Kingsolver, nominally American; Hulme, Kiwi; and Gordimer, South African white; all these are drawn like honking geese toward Atwood’s Kanada, spiritual home of all moderate-progressive white folk.

Kanada is the destination of Offred, the heroine of The Handmaid’s Tale, when she flees the Fundamentalist-ruled US. The notion that the Canadian border constitutes sanctuary might seem somewhat risible, since Ontario had considerable trouble repelling an 1867 invasion by forty-odd drunken Fenians armed with broken bottles and sticks. But Atwood refers here, not to a mere traffic jam full of Torontans smuggling home cheap VCRs, but a border between spiritual realms. Hers is a higher Canada, which exists among virtuous, slightly dim middlebrows everywhere in the world. This Greater Canada stretches from the two-square-meter bedrooms of ESL teachers in Kyoto to the jacuzzis of billionaire “progressives” in Malibu.

The scare-stories with which Atwood frigs her readers are distinguished by their foolish irrelevance. Take this alleged masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale. A foolish book, it depicts Hell as imagined by an anglo-Canadian mandarin: America ruled by savage uncultured Christians who not only repress all intellectual freedoms but would probably cut funding for genteel novelists. Worst of all, women in this Republic of Gilead are valued solely for their ability to bear children, restricted to the house and excluded from economic activity.

No one who knows anything about the way America works would ever really think that its rulers would want to let silly gender prejudices keep them from creating new consumers, much less let religion get in the way of productivity. The Baptist loonies are suckers to be wooed in election years, no more. They are useful as janitors in peacetime, cannon-fodder in war. Making them into the rulers of a nightmare vision of America is, by a charitable estimation, very naive. If we were to consider it less charitably, it might seem downright suspect. Atwood, who shares about 99.9% of her DNA with America’s real rulers, cannot see them at all, and so fails to notice their hegemony. As she confessed in boasting about her achievement in Handmaid’s Tale, she borrowed horror-stories about the treatment of women in loser countries like Iraq and applied them to the US. Apparently she could not see the horror which really does suffuse American life—a horror which has absolutely nothing to do with that losers’ club, Islam.

Handmaid’s Tale is meant to reassure every wretched office-worker who goes home to a cat, a VCR, and Pizza-for-one that her life is noble and progressive. Handmaid’s Tale is fun horror-fiction for women who work in the American-style cubicle-world precisely because it’s so utterly unrelated to the miseries and terrors of their own lives. No one wants to force middle-class American women to have babies. In fact, it’s almost impossible for them to contemplate having kids, because they’re terrified that it might set them back in their careers, and their rivals in the adjacent cubicles would grab their parking spaces and health plans. Nobody wants to use their bodies. That’s precisely the horror with which they live: no one wants to mate with them because in their world, every single striver must fear every other, and the sort of joint action involved in mating and rearing one’s young is impossible—laughable, a thing which only those who have abandoned the hope of A Career can contemplate. So in their minds, mating and rearing children moves down in class, becoming a thing for rednecks and (though they’ll never say this part out loud) immigrants-of-color. The desire to have children gets bounced outside oneself, onto these lesser beings, and returns, courtesy of Atwood, in demonized form, as the tyranny of procreation, family values and the Patriarchy. It’s the horror they love to fear.

And in the meantime, what has Atwood’s Utopia done, in real political terms? It has managed to distract a whole generation of Americanized women from the real fear and awful loneliness of their office lives. In this way, Atwood’s Canada of the Spirit is, like its real-world counterpart, the good-cop tool, the quaking valet of its Vampire master, America. Atwood’s Canada offers no answer to the Americanized women whose only family is Allie MacBeal and her friends. After all, they’re not rednecks, they’re not Fundamentalists. In fact, the horrible lives of every woman who tries to live out Allie MacBeal is rendered noble by reading Handmaid’s Tale.

So the owners of the cubicles rejoice in the intra-cranial vacations their slaves take in Atwood’s astral Canada. Let them crusade against the Republic of Gilead. Let them invest their wretched slaves’ lives with nobility. The real Republic of Gilead is a matter of dividends, not religion. It would never let the religious obsessions of its cannon-fodder voters interrupt the real business of America—the business carried out in the cubicles. If Allie and Margaret can scatter a cheap glitter over the walls of the cubicles, all the better.

It seems horribly apt that Atwood should win the Booker on the day Bush assumes the presidency. Atwood’s pious, dimwitted, credulous female Canada is the perfect handmaid for Bush’s under-the-table America. Their union is blessed with new offspring every day, every hour. As the coral reefs crumble, the cubicles invade. And everywhere they breed, from Kuala Lumpur to Samara, volumes of Atwood appear like Gideon Bibles at the desks of the corporate handmaids, telling them their lives are blessed.

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