“How Women Get Things Done”: Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments”

The Testaments coverThe Testaments is by some way the most traditional novel on this year’s Booker shortlist. It proceeds chronologically, for the most part, and it passes sedately between three more-or-less transparent narrative voices. It has a very clear plot – a lot happens in this novel – and its prose style has crystal clarity but nary a nod to experimental hi-jinx. Perhaps for these reasons, but also I think for others, it is also by a good distance the most readable of this year’s clutch. It is, in the lingo of the capsule review, a cracking read.

Indeed, it may well be the first proper science fiction thriller ever to make it onto the Booker shortlist. Two of its three narrators are young adults, and this gives the book a decidedly YA-ish verve – again, The Testaments is written to be read. It has a rehabilitated villain at its heart – who, if not entirely redeemed, is depicted in sufficient full, compromised technicolour to win our empathy – and its events have decidedly high stakes. The Testaments proceeds at the civilisational level.

All this makes it a very odd frontrunner for the gong this evening – but ahead of the pack it is, at least according to the bookmakers. At the same time, I am an unusual reader for it: here is where I confess to you, sotto voce, that I have never read The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), to which this book is a sequel, and have never watched the Hulu TV series of the same name, from the success of which this novel undoubtedly proceeds. I know the basics of the world of Gilead – the triumph of patriarchy, the subjugation of women, the terror of reproductive tyranny – but The Testaments is my first proper entry into this world. This no doubt makes me weird and even wrong; but it does at least mean I’m approaching this novel only on its own terms, as surely the Booker jury also must (if they can).

For my part, then, the other text I couldn’t stop thinking about as I read The Testaments was not The Handmaid’s Tale but Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman; that book, too, came a long time after a beloved original, a bona fide modern classic; that novel, too, had an extremely clear – even jejune – style, a bald approach perhaps; and that novel, too, cast new light on old characters (I know enough to realise that the newly rounded villain who powers The Testaments, Aunt Lydia, is a rather less complex figure in the original novel). Of course, Go Set A Watchman is also – undoubtedly – not a great novel. The Testaments feels similar to me in this respect, too.

I’m steering clear of spoilers – unusual for these Booker reviews of mine – because in some ways plot is all this novel has: the fate of Baby Nicole, the plots and stratagems of Aunt Lydia; the relationship between witness 369A and 369B, the novel’s other narrators; the ultimate fate of Gilead (in her Acknowledgements, Atwood says that she wrote the book to answer the most-asled question about The Handmaid’s Tale: “how did Gilead fall?” [p. 417]). Otherwise, there is world-building – beautifully, subtly done, although of course also reliant on the cultural penetration of that image of the Handmaid, meme-like in its ubiquity in the age of Trump. There isn’t a lot of character – other than Lydia, the characters all tend to speak in the same way (even the Canadian ones, whom one might assume are immune from the brainwashing of the Commanders). There isn’t a lot of atmosphere – we are told about a lot of terrible things (mass shootings, public dismemberments, forced executions), but most often in the style of reportage, our reactions doing the work for the economic prose:

“God will prevail,” concluded the speaker.

There was a chorus of baritone Amens. Then the men who’d escorted the blindfolded women raised their guns and shot them. Their aim was good: the women keeled over.

There was a collective groan from all of us who were seated in the bleachers. I heard screams and sobbing. Some of the women leapt to their feet, shouting – I could not make out the words – but were quickly silenced by being hit on the back of their heads with the butts of guns. There were no repeated blows: one sufficed. [p. 118]

The starkness of the prose tells us all we need to know; but it doesn’t conjure with the details. Atwood adopts this rather passive approach throughout (“Fists were raised, clutching clumps of bloodied hair torn out by the roots” [p. 279]), and it is certainly by design: first, it emphasises the powerless of the observers, who are always women; and second, I think, it allows the novel not to strain to tell us the obvious: this is wrong. It is so plainly, self-evidently wrong that why should the novel waste words persuading us of this? The problem, I think, is that the reader becomes an observer themselves in this process, rather than an intimate actor; it keeps us at one remove.

This is a shame, because the novel’s primary argument is for community, and specifically solidarity between women. Time and again, gossip acts as a lever of not just the plot but of the weakening of patriarchal authority: “The Aunts, the Marthas, the Wives: despite the fact that they were frequently envious and resentful, and might even hate one another, news flowed among them as if along invisible spiderweb threads” [p. 232]. When one character protests that, “I can’t destroy Gilead […] I’m just a person,” the retort comes: “Not alone, of course not” [p. 198]. Those who escape Gilead do so through “densely interconnected … networks of marriages” in the “liminal patches of Maine and Vermont” [p. 112]. In other words, fellow-feeling gets us through: “Is your mother the one who gives birth to you or the one who loves you the most?” one character asks of another [p. 89], and the truth is that there are many and multiple mothers in this text. Women nurture each other towards a better future.

There are compromises in all this, too: to fight the future, you have to get angry. One character is taught despite their protestations how to kill someone by gouging out their eyes; another proves her loyalty by murdering someone. Another reflects that women must be “prepared to wheedle, and lie, and go back on their word” to strike a blow against Gilead [p. 234]. The Testaments doesn’t think that craftivism will save the world; but it does believe in connecting the cracks in a system which appear in each individual – that woman who doesn’t want to get married, that one who can’t see why she should become pregnant – in order to create a fatal flaw in the broader façade. Many characters and plotlines come together in the course of the novel to achieve exactly this.

Any novel so tightly plotted can be accused of making complex events seem too easy, and the YA overtones of the piece do occasionally tell. Some of the novel’s best lines – “Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut” [p. 158] – are also among its most aphoristic, its most schematic. One character berates themselves for believing the checks and balances of the US constitution, that document that was so easily pulled apart by the forefathers of Gilead; The Testaments sees itself as a guide for the lost: how to avoid the mistakes of this world … and how to survive those of our own. This is a novel the last lines of which are, “Love is as strong as death” [p. 415].

Each reader’s mileage will vary as to how well they react to this. For my part, I found The Testaments moving and compelling – I read it at a clip, and was entirely captured by its events. On the other hand, I also experienced it as a teensy bit pat, perhaps a little lacking in layers. It’s remarkable that Atwood has set out to stamp her mark on a world she created and which has now become common property – presumably, The Testaments is canonical, and that means the TV series must reckon with it. It would be equally remarkable, I think, if the Booker rewarded such a novel tonight; not a bad thing at all on many levels – at last, a blow struck for genre! –  but it would be a decided departure for the prize.

Ursula Le Guin’s “Lavinia”

"Lavinia"

When you come to a widely-praised novel a year late, your expectations risk being unmatchable. The most exciting thing about Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, which I finished this week, is therefore that it not only met mine, but confounded them. I hadn’t read about the novel in detail, which perhaps helped; but largely Lavinia is simply a very special book. Until you have read it, I’m not sure your expectations could be quite right.

A few years ago, Margaret Atwood helped inaugurate the Canongate Myths series with The Penelopiad. A retelling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, left behind on Ithaca during his years of siege and sea-voyage. It was a bold if intermittently brittle feminist reclamation of its subject. “If you see someone you’d rather not speak to,” Penelope observes early in the book, “you can always pretend you haven’t recognised them.” [pg. 15] The implication is clear: this is what Homer did, and his readers, in following him, have also done. Penelope is merely in the way of the greater story of her fabulous husband. So we affect not to see her.

This is what you might expect from Le Guin, too: Lavinia, if anything, is even more elaborately over-looked by Virgil than Penelope by Homer. At least Odysseus’s missus (say it twelve-times fast) shows agency, putting off remarriage, and exhibiting much of her husband’s guile in setting a high bar for any suitor who wishes to win her. Lavinia, on the other hand, is practically a marginal note in Virgil, existing largely to provoke the Latin war between Aeneas and Turnus. One of the joys of Lavinia, though, is that Le Guin resists the obvious way to rectify this under-writing. “I am not the feminine voice you may have expected,” Lavinia warns us. “Resentment is not what drives me to write my story.” [pg. 65]

Le Guin’s Lavinia wants to do all she is expected to do – she wants to marry Aeneas, and wants to fulfil the role alotted to her by society and by fate. But none of this, crucially, is due to a lack of thought: Lavinia is an intensely reflective narrator, who considers and analyses all around her. Her voice is calm and even cool, flowing through the story serenely and confidently; it is the voice of a woman at home with herself, and committed to the benefit of those around her. This isn’t the feminine voice we may have expected, but it is gorgeously done – and thoroughly proper. Atwood’s Penelopiad, with its forced modernity and precocious narrator, felt at times like a game; Lavinia is never confected, and never rings false. It is, like Lavinia, fully itself, and fully realised.

In the first part of a discussion about the book, Nic Clarke, Jo Coleman, Niall Harrison, Abigail Nussbaum, and Adam Roberts spent some time going over what a familiarity with the Aeneid adds to a reading of Lavinia. In part, I’d argue, nothing: the novel is its own story, delivered with an immediacy of narrative which Virgil lacks (on which more shortly). On the other hand, knowledge of the world of the Aeneid might underline more than anything the extent to which Lavinia is part of it. A familiarity with this world, in which feminism as we understand is impossible, can help the reader become more alive to the book’s central project. The danger of the Atwoodian approach is to suppose that, if Penelope did not think and behave like Germaine Greer, then womanhood in distant periods of history was somehow incomplete. Le Guin does not accept this.

What Lavinia is, then, is a novel of co-existence. In the second part of that noble quintet’s colloquy, Adam Roberts memorably and perceptively separates Le Guin’s chosen mode, the narrative, from Virgil’s, the lyric. This distinction is a key to the novel, but I think it should not be taken too far – there are in Lavinia moments of intense lyricism, and passages deeply Virgilian in style. Lavinia is, as noted, reflective, constantly settling in the moment and finding in it a modest epiphany. Her exhortation to “go, go on” is certainly a statement of her storytelling style; but it is not, as it were, the full story. Lyric and narrative cohabit in Lavinia as womanhood and patriarchy do.

(Incidentally, there is, as Cheryl Morgan has noted, a vague discomfort in the novel with homosexuality, or perhaps more properly homoeroticism; but this, I think, as well as emphasising Lavinia’s deeply pre-modern conceptions of the world, is a condemnation not of Ascanius’s sexual preferences but his pursuit of the masculine to the exclusion of the feminine. Problems with this treatment remain, but it is in this sense thematically justified.)

The one choice of Le Guin’s I might properly dispute – and here I side with Nic Clarke in the, yes, third installment of that discussion – is her exclusion of the gods. In Lavinia, the gods are constantly evoked, indeed are a part of the fabric of the day-to-day, but do not appear as active participants as they do in the Aeneid. I find this curious – particularly as Le Guin inserts the time-travelling spirit of a dying Virgil into the narrative, and gives him the god-like abilities of foresight and the control of fate – and yet, if we accept co-existence as the novel’s key theme, then had Le Guin included the personified, active, fixed gods of Troy and Greece, she would necessarily have rejected the dispersed, passive, unlocated gods of the Latin peoples. Her novel takes place when one polytheistic tradition meets another, and holds the two in beautiful tension throughout. Had she followed Virgil this would have been impossible.

The Penelopiad begins by emphasising Penelope’s fictionality: “they [are] turning me into a story, or into several stories.” [pg. 3] Lavinia ends with Aeneas’s wife accepting her own immortality: “he [Virgil, of course] did not sing me enough life to die.” [pg. 249] The similarities between the two novels, and their awareness of the power of story, are clear, but Le Guin’s approach is immeasurably more sophisticated. Some have felt the final third of the novel sags, limping on as it does past the bounds of its great canonical forebear; I found it in its own way more compelling than the middle section, which owes most to Virgil. The poet’s story is greater than itself; once set in motion, it continues – though never ends – without him. As he recognises when perceiving Lavinia as a greater woman than the one he wrote, the poem has a life, a reality, beyond itself. Virgil is a god who cannot fully control the human drama laid before him. In other words, fate and agency possess a simultaneity with each other. The tripartite structure of the book – pre-poem, poem, post-poem – is in itself in a sort of balance.

Lavinia is a pastoral with the nostalgic, elegiac tone that term implies. Its nostalgia, however, is not for a rural, close-to-nature never never land, or even for a world in which empires and male power have flown out of control. It is nostalgic for the balance which inhabits its very structure. Aeneas’s heroism in Lavinia is in his even-handedness: his willigness to act, but his openness to reflection; his respect for women, but his necessary masculinity; his generosity to the Latins, but his championing of the Trojans. The novel’s is a nostalgia for that wisdom – for co-existence and co-habitation, for a world in which women and men are different but not opposed, in which religious differences are tolerated, and we each fulfil the duties we have to each other. That, too, may be a never never land, like all nostalgia a yearning more than a memory; but the Aeneid has only ever been a story.