Nolite te bastardes carborundorum could very well be the Latin phrase most familiar to a majority of Americans. Roughly translated as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” it has been emblazoned on tee shirts and coffee mugs, trotted out as bumper sticker and email signature, and—most prominently—has become an iconic feminist rallying cry for women. That this famous slogan is not really Latin or any language at all, but instead a kind of schoolkid’s “mock Latin,” speaks to the colossal cultural impact of the novel where it first made its appearance in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, as well as the media then spawned, including the 1990 film featuring Natasha Richardson, and the acclaimed series still streaming on Hulu. Consult any random critic’s list of the finest examples in the literary sub-genre “dystopian novels,” and you will likely find The Handmaid’s Tale in the top five, along with such other classic masterpieces as Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which is no small achievement for Atwood.
For anyone who has not been locked in a box for decades, The Handmaid’s Tale relates the chilling story of the not-too-distant-future nation of “Gilead,” a remnant of a fractured United States that has become a totalitarian theonomy that demands absolute obedience to divine law, especially the harsh strictures of the Old Testament. A crisis in fertility has led to elite couples relying on semi-enslaved “handmaids” who serve as surrogates to be impregnated and carry babies to term for them, which includes a bizarre ritual where the handmaid lies in the embrace of the barren wife while being penetrated by the “Commander.” The protagonist is known as “Offred”—or “Of Fred,” the name of this Commander—but once upon a time, before the overthrow of the U.S., she was an independent woman, a wife, a mother. It is Offred who one day happens upon Nolite te bastardes carborundorum scratched upon the wooden floor on her closet, presumably by the anonymous handmaid who preceded her.
Brilliantly structured as a kind of literary echo of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, employing Biblical imagery—the eponymous “handmaid” based upon the Old Testament account of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah—and magnificently imagining a horrific near-future of a male-dominated society where all women are garbed in color-coded clothing to reflect their strictly assigned subservient roles, Atwood’s narrative achieves the almost impossible feat of imbuing what might otherwise smack of the fantastic with the highly persuasive badge of the authentic.
The 1990 film adaptation—which also starred Robert Duvall as the Commander and Faye Dunaway as his infertile wife Serena Joy—was largely faithful to the novel, while further fleshing out the character of Offred. But it is has been the Hulu series, updated to reflect a near-contemporary pre-Gilead America replete with cell phones and technology—and soon to beget (pun fully intended!) a fourth season—which both embellished and enriched Atwood’s creation for a new generation and a far wider audience. And it has enjoyed broad resonance, at least partially due to its debut in early 2017, just months after the presidential election. The coalition of right-wing evangelicals, white supremacists, and neofascists that has come to coalesce around the Republican Party in the Age of Trump has not only brought new relevance to The Handmaid’s Tale, but has also seen its scarlet handmaid’s cloaks adopted by many women as the de rigueur uniform of protest in the era of “Me Too.” Meanwhile, the series—which is distinguished by an outstanding cast of fine ensemble actors, headlined by Elisabeth Moss as Offred—has proved enduringly terrifying for three full seasons, while largely maintaining its authenticity.
Re-enter Margaret Atwood with The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, released thirty-four years after the original novel. As a fan of both the book and the series, I looked forward to reading it, though my anticipation was tempered by a degree of trepidation based upon my time-honored conviction that sequels are ill-advised and should generally be avoided. (If Godfather II was the rare exception in film, Thomas Berger’s The Return of Little Big Man certainly proved the rule for literature!) Complicating matters, Atwood penned a sequel not to her own novel, but rather to the Hulu series, which brought back memories of Michael Crichton’s awkward The Lost World, written as a follow-up to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movie rather than his own book.
My fears were not misplaced.
The action in The Testaments takes place in both Gilead and in Atwood’s native Canada, which remains a bastion of freedom and democracy for those who can escape north. The timeframe is roughly fifteen years after the conclusion of Hulu’s Season Three. The narrative is told from the alternating perspectives of three separate protagonists, one of whom is Aunt Lydia, the outsize brown-clad villain of book and film known for both efficiency and brutality in her role as a “trainer” of handmaids. Aunt Lydia turns out to have both a surprising pre-Gilead backstory as well as a secret life as an “Aunt,” although there are no hints of these in any previous works. Still, I found the Lydia portion of the book most interesting, and perhaps the more plausible in a storyline that often flirts with the farfetched.
In order to sidestep spoilers, I cannot say much about the identities of the other two main characters, who are each subject to surprise “reveals” in the narrative—except that I personally was less surprised than was clearly intended. Oh yes, I get it: the butler did it … but I still have hundreds of pages ahead of me. But that was not the worst of it.
The beauty of the original novel and the series has remained a remarkably consistent authenticity, despite an extraordinary futuristic landscape. The test of all fiction—but most especially in science-fiction, fantasy, and the dystopian—is: can you successfully suspend disbelief? For me, The Testaments fails this test again and again, most prominently when one of our “unrevealed” characters—an otherwise ordinary teenage girl—is put through something like a “light” version of La Femme Nikita training, and then in short order trades high school for a dangerous undercover mission without missing a beat! Moreover, her character is not well-drawn, and the words put in her mouth ring counterfeit. It seems evident that the eighty-year-old Atwood does not know very many sixteen-year-old girls, and culturally this one acts and sounds like she was raised thirty years ago and then catapulted decades into the future. Overall, the plot is contrived, the action inauthentic, the characters artificial.
This is certainly not vintage Atwood, although some may try to spin it that way. The Handmaid’s Tale was not a one-hit wonder: Atwood is a prolific, accomplished author and I have read other works—including The Penelopiad and The Year of the Flood—that underscore her reputation as a literary master. But not this time. In my disappointment, I was reminded of my experience with Khaled Hosseini, whose The Kite Runner was a superlative novel that showcased a panoply of complex themes and nuanced characters that remained with me long after I closed the cover. That was followed by A Thousand Splendid Suns, which though a bestseller was dramatically substandard to his earlier work, peopled with nearly one-dimensional caricatures assigned to be “good” or “evil” navigating a plot that smacked more of soap-opera than subtlety.
The Testaments too has proved a runaway bestseller, but it is the critical acclaim that I find most astonishing, even scoring the highly prestigious 2019 Booker Award—though I can’t bear to think of it sitting on the same shelf alongside … say … Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which took the title in 2014. It is tough for me to review a novel so well-received that I find so weak and inconsequential, especially when juxtaposed with the rest of the author’s catalog. I keep holding out hope that someone else might take notice that the emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes, but the bottom line is that lots of people loved this book; I did not.
On the other hand, a close friend countered that fiction, like music, is highly subjective. But I take some issue with that. Perhaps you personally might not have enjoyed Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, for that matter, but you cannot make the case that these are bad books. I would argue that The Testaments is a pretty bad book, and I would not recommend it. But here, it seems, I remain a lone voice in the literary wilderness.