Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

On second thought: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road”

Skulls everywhere ...

Skulls everywhere …

Had the opportunity to catch Mad Max: Fury Road for the second time in theaters. It’s not something I do often. In fact, it’s probably been since Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty in the late 1990s that I’ve seen a movie a second time on the big screen. Two takeaways from George Miller’s latest Mad Max frenzy:

1. The amount of detail is incredible. Skulls everywhere, on steering wheels, on grills, on shifters, on the girls’ chastity belts, on Immortan Joe’s get-up and so on. The variety and variance among the vehicles – from the drum-and-guitar deathmobile to the unique war rig of Imperator Furiosa – isn’t new to the Mad Max franchise, but taken to a new level here. Hill even uses that to remind us what’s been lost in all this war and terror. There’s a moment between attacks where one of the girls is looking at the ceiling of Furiosa’s truck, and there’s this simple, beautiful pattern covering it. In the days before, that pattern would have likely included birds or cats, but here, more skulls. I can’t wait to watch it on DVD so I can pause to get a better look at those little but visually and stylistically important things that are hard to catch in a movie that moves at the pace Fury Road does.

I live, I die, I live again.

I live, I die, I live again.

2. A new creation story. Miller toyed with that some in Beyond Thunderdome with the story told by the kids who lived isolated from the terror of the world in their own little oasis. Here, the merging of pseudo-Viking religion as well as the worship of good, ol’ Detroit steel and chrome create a blind, unquestioning, suicidal warrior culture not unlike the Islamic extremism seen in pockets of the world we live in today. Immortan Joe is both a priest who preaches about the rewards of virtue and faith as well as god on Earth, controlling the most vital of resources: water. His cult insulates him from the rabble and wholeheartedly seeks to do whatever will most redeem them in Joe’s eyes. Joe promises them that their loyalty will be rewarded when they have left this hard, wretched place and live again in the afterlife. It’s a bit … Margaret Atwood-esque. In the Oryx & Crake/Year of the Flood/MaddAddam trilogy, Atwood shows that a creation story and the religion that develop from it are part truth, part fantasy shaped by necessity and part off-the-cuff bullshit, a mix that helps believers buy in. Miller’s Immortan cult has that feel to it. Brilliantly done.

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Revisting ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

I like reading books. I love re-reading books.

The first time through a book, I’m just getting into the story. I’m not looking for clues or symbols, not trying to think ahead. I try hard to be in the moment and let the author guide me through. It’s just me enjoying the journey.

The second time through, that’s when I found out just how legit the story is. I start paying more attention in sections that I think probably dropped clues or at least tipped the hand of the author, where he or she was going with the story. That’s when the details really shine through, or should, and I get a better grasp of the set-up.

After that second reading, any further readings are because I love the tale and I want to revisit it. As years pass, as I change and the world changes, I start to find different things to appreciate. As my collective knowledge base grows, I find connections in stories that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out before. Those further readings are just as much about learning something about myself as it is the text.

I just recently completed my third time through The Handmaid’s Tale. The set-up is this: A terror attack and subsequent war have cause an entire overhaul of the United States’ – now Gilead – political, economic and social structure. Martial law is declared. Those who do not adhere to the new Christian theocracy’s religious strictures – such as Catholics, Quakers, doctors, feminists, etc. – are publicly executed or used as slave labor. Women no longer have the right to read, possess money. work, get an education and more. Because of severe nationwide fertility issues, those woman who can reproduce are forced to become Handmaids, women who attempt to breed with the male heads of powerful households in an attempt to extend the family line. The story is told from the perspective of one of the Handmaids, Offred (or Of Fred, as Handmaids take the names of their new masters) a woman who had been a mother, wife and worker whose life and family are stripped from her as she is shoved into sexual subservience.

This time through, two things really struck me about the story. First is Offred’s hope. She understands what she has lost, the man she loved, the daughter who is now growing up in another master’s home. She has no freedom, not even to kill herself, as great pains have been taken to make sure that can’t happen. And Offred knows that life is bound to get even worse if she can’t produce offspring. She could end up in the dead, polluted lands as a slave laborer or as a whore in one of the few secret brothels that survived the purge. Yet she still finds reasons to continue. Sometimes its simple things, like her walks to and from the market with the Handmaid Offglen, the smells from the garden kept by her master’s wife. Sometimes it’s much more complicated, like when she starts to fall for Nick, the master’s driver. Their secret lovemaking sessions provide her a chance to feel like the woman she was, or as close as she’ll ever get. Even when reality encroaches, when Offred can’t hide from the world she is part of and the situation she’s in, when she admits how awful everything is, she still is able to push that aside and hope for more. It’s both delusional and inspiring, and it makes the story that much more soul crushing.

The second thing that struck me was the prescience of Margaret Atwood’s vision from her 1985 novel. Sexual control is taken completely from women. Abortion is a capital crime. Women are forced to dressed modestly. They are always under the strict supervision of men, be they their masters or the soldiers/cops who roam the streets. All of this reeks of the Christian, conservative agenda. The Duggars and the Quiverfull movement are the template here, and a lot of what’s being shown in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that much different from what’s advocated by political leaders such as Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and others from the right with regards to women’s rights and reproductive freedom. The slow erosion of abortion rights, particularly in states run by Republican governors and lawmakers, is another example. I also thought the idea of enacting martial law in the wake of a supposed terror attack just stunk of the George W. Bush administration. Every time an election approached, the terror alerts rose. Every time the Bush administration start to face lower approval ratings, the threat of an “imminent terror attack” was raised in the media. Fear is used frequently and with enthusiasm, because when there is no hope to offer, fear of sexuality, foreigners, some nasty other is the only way to cling to power.

My third reading of The Handmaid’s Tale was just as rewarding as the first two. I now get to look forward to my fourth reading, and what new insights it will bring me about the world. And myself.

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‘Bees’ captures hive mentality

Flora is big, ugly, fearful ... and the savior of her hive.

Flora is big, ugly, fearful … and the savior of her hive.

“[A] gripping Cinderella/Arthurian tale with lush Keatsian adjectives.”
– Margaret Atwood, via Twitter

I thought a lot about Margaret Atwood while reading Laline Paull’s The Bees, and not just because Atwood’s quoted on the book cover.

Paull’s story of Flora, a freak who stands out in her hive both for her abilities to transcend the rigid hive caste system (sanitation, nurses, sages, queen, etc.) and her unique size and physical characteristics, has strong touches of The Handmaid’s Tale, at least thematically. The demands of rigid conformity don’t work for Flora, and the more hardships this bee and her hive face, the more willing she becomes to crash through boundaries. Much like Offred, Flora pays for her transgressions. Unlike Offred, Flora has a chance for a happy ending.

I also contemplated Toby’s and Pilar’s relationships with the bees in The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. It seems like such a small part of the Oryx & Crake trilogy, yet it speaks again to man’s resistance against harmony with nature. Toby and Pilar are intimate with the bees, respectful, loving and even conversational, yet the rest of their world tends to view animals as easily ignored mutants (pigoons and the like) or laboratory-grown meat. Here, an unnamed man has a very direct relationship with the bees, but it seems very minor for the bulk of the novel. The negative impact of humans – when Flora’s kin encounter pesticides during their attempts to forage for pollen or the metallic “trees” that emit signals that confuse the bees natural radar – is a much greater part of the story. Man is destroyer at worst, an enormous obstacle to the natural order at best.

However, while Paull touches many of the same themes as Atwood – the treatment of women by men, conformity, religious fanaticism – the author has created a singularly unique work in The Bees. The Sages, the equivalent of the Queen’s presidential cabinet, rule through fear, doctrine and chemical manipulation. The drones are useless braggarts beyond their breeding potential, consuming the bulk of the resources and contributing little. The nurses are snobs, viewing all but the queen as inferior to them. Security bees enforce the strict demands of the caste system through fear and violence. The foragers are the adventurers, not happy unless they are on the wing in search of new food sources. Sanitation workers are slaves, their development process interfered with in an effort to make sure they can’t talk, only work.

Flora is born into this at a time of great upheaval in the hive. Urbanization, pesticides, non-native species, wasps, spiders and more keep the hive on the precarious edge between survival and desolation. Flora herself keeps finding that she, unlike most bees, has multiple talents, including the ability to reproduce. That singular ability is, by divine right, that only of the queen, and should the Sages unveil Flora’s egg-laying talents, she will be killed. However, in the end, Flora’s fertility may be the only thing that can save the hive, if it’s not too late.

I don’t, by any means, think my little screed here has done Paull’s work justice. I can’t recommend it enough, and judging from the buzz, I’m not the only one.

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In the beginning …

What always draws me into Margaret Atwood’s work is her sense of humor. Yes, there’s no denying her abilities as a storyteller. From the speculative fiction of the Maddadam trilogy to the epic historical fic of The Blind Assassin, the Canadian has proven to be a masterful craftswoman when it comes to plot and is about as insightful a judge of character as you’re going to find.

But for me, what really keeps me reading Atwood, is her sense of humor. The Blind Assassin is a dark tale: Child sexual assault, possible incest, abortion, political and economic malfeasance, families broken and alienated, etc. It’s a long book and not an easy read. However, when Atwood shifts the perspective to that of elderly Iris, the narrator who is looking back on her life, the book finds its funny. Iris’s recognition of her own aging process and how it’s affecting her life is both stark and hilarious, sometimes at the same time. What really tickled my funny bone was Iris’s “hobby” of using public restrooms, in part to read what the kids have carved or marked into the stalls. It’s oddball in an endearing way, it works for the character and it really helps break up a hard story with an occasional chuckle.

In Maddadam, Atwood creates her own theology and mythology. By design, the Crakers were bred and raised apart from the corrupt world Crake eventually destroys. However, Crake misjudged what the post-floodless flood world would be. Yes, genetically, the Crakers are designed for the post-civilization landscape: No need for protien means eating pretty much anything that grows from the ground keeps you alive, no jealousy to drive wedges into the group dynamic, a rapid reproduction cycle, etc. But because some hard people fought through the global pandemic, the Crakers can at best be taken advantage of, at worst used, raped, tortured and killed.

So what do the Crakers need? Guns? Training? Nope, good, old new-fashioned religion, courtesy of Jimmy/Snowman and Toby, an ad man and an abused woman turned post-apocalyptic leader. Both to answer the questions about what has happened and how the Crakers now need to behave to live safely, Jimmy and Toby create their a mythology origin story casting Oryx and Crake as the all-knowing deities.

And while it sounds ludicrous – and in many ways, it is – it is precisely how religion began: An attempt by humans to explain the world around them without scientific knowledge or the necessary tools to examine the universe. In some cases, it worked. We see in the Bible in Numbers that Moses orders the soldiers who have conqured the Midianites to stay out of the camp for seven days to cleanse themselves. Think of battle then: Face to face, nose to nose, slicing off limbs, crushing skulls, breaking bones, all very personal and up close. After that sort of fighting, many of these soldiers were at least borderline PTSD. They need the silence, the prayer, the time to heal mentally before returning to society. It wasn’t called that, it wasn’t interpreted as that by the people of the time, it was framed as spiritual purification, but that’s what was really being observed and “treated.” On the other hand, belief in the power of the devil led lunatics to order the murder of girls in colonial Massachusetts.

Writer’s note: This was an unfinished post that I thought I had scheduled for a few weeks down the road. But apparently that was not the case. I’ll re-visit Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy at some point.

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Margaret Atwood, heartbreaker

I just finished The Year of the Flood and am eagerly awaiting third book in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake-verse, MaddAdam.

Or sort of eagerly awaiting it. I found myself, the closer I crept to the end of The Year of the Flood, reading slower and slower. Not because the material was in some way significantly getting more dense or that I was cringing at how it might wrap up, but simply because I didn’t want it to end. As I closed in on the final pages, I increasingly realized that once I finished The Year of the Flood, I only had one more book left before that world would be wrapped up in a tidy bow and completed. Just one more book in this wild-yet-possible future of Atwood’s creation.

As a fan, that’s the double-edged sword. You want more Star Wars, but then you get Phantom Menace and cringe. You love OutKast and think they’ll never do better than Stankonia, but if OutKast hadn’t evolved, then years later they wouldn’t have blown your mind with Speakerboxxx/Love Below. You read about Oryx, Crake, Snowman, Ren, Amanda, Adam One and all of the others, and you just want to read more about the world of the Waterless Flood.

That other sharp, gleaming edge … if you bind a mind and imagination like Atwood’s solely to that fictional existence, what is the opportunity cost? As much as I love Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, and as much as I expect to love MaddAdam, my favorites from Atwood’s catalogue are still The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin. The world of the Waterless Flood is not enough. I need to see where else Atwood’s mind will roam. I want to know what else Atwood can do, what new characters she will create, what unique ways she will develop to attack and undermine a global politico-corporate system that oppresses so many. Atwood unbound is the Atwood I want to read.

So I will cherish MaddAdam, and drag out those last hundred or so pages, as long as I can. And then I’ll eagerly await whatever other offerings Atwood chooses to bestow upon her readers.

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Just do it … right

“To put it country simple …” – William S. Burroughs

When my brother, a musician, introduced me to the above Gary Clark Jr. performance, we talked a bit about the blues. Clark’s Bright Lights, Big City is nice, but the performance is what really elevates it. Or, as my brother put it, “The blues isn’t about re-inventing the wheel. It’s just about doing it right.”

I thought of my brother’s comment when I read a recent blog post by Margaret Atwood. The post itself is about dreams, but at one point Atwood mulls whether or not you should allow your characters dream. She notes it’s somewhat forbidden, or at least frowned upon, and that you can’t necessarily control the interpretations of the readers. But her final line in that brief section of the post is what nails it for me: “As in so many things, it’s not whether, but how well.”

I’m a fan of the CW’s Nikita. It’s something of a guilty pleasure. Lots of gorgeous women – Maggie Q., Lindsay Fonseca, Lyndie Greenwood, Melinda Clarke – as well as more than its fair share of explosions and fights. It’s a guilty pleasure because the relationship stuff is incredibly soapy, so much so, in fact, that I’ll be disappointed if Susan Lucci doesn’t make a guest appearance at some point. And Nikita definitely isn’t re-inventing the wheel. It’s pretty similar to what you’d find in the Mission Impossible and James Bond movies, as well as Alias.

But I’m not looking for the same depth of engagement I get from critically acclaimed shows such as The Walking Dead, Fringe or The Wire when I watch Nikita. I’m looking for pure escapism, where a tiny, beautiful women in shoes so ridiculous you wonder if they might actually be instruments of torture takes a piece of pipe and beats the living snot out of half a dozen, roided-out giants whose lunch weighs more than Maggie Q does, probably while she’s holding a 10-pound bar bell. I’m looking for a race against the clock, a hero to save the day, over-the-top villainy, subterfuge, seduction, laughs, bullets flying, cars exploding and, if I’m lucky, the occasional surprise.

What I guess I’m saying is, they’re “getting right.” Nikita has figured out “how well” to do what they do, and they do it. Fulfillment of potential. As writers and as fans, can we really ask for anything more?

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Worshiping at the altar of Atwood

As fans of any artist – musicians, writers, composers and so on – know, when you are a fan of a particular artist, that artist is going to consistently revisit certain themes, motifs, settings, etc. It’s part of the artistic territory. The creative class are inspired by events, conversations and art that pertain to topics that in some way engage them. Maya Angelou is always going to have something to say about race. Public Enemy consistently attacks systemic injustice inherent in American society. The Wachowskis, particularly in their original works (Bound, The Matrix franchise), dig into the nature of reality and perception.

The most interesting artists are the one to explore that same ground in different and exciting ways. The best example I know of an artist who succeeds at simultaneously revisiting similar touchstones while generating original work is Margaret Atwood.

In Atwood, you know you’re going to be presented something about the systemic oppression of women. Whether it’s The Blind Assassin, Oryx & Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale, the ritual, cultural denigration of females is important to what is happening.

In The Blind Assassin, this comes through in the fall of the Chase sisters. Iris is essentially married off to a wealthy industrialist without much choice on her part, a move her father hopes will save his own manufacturing empire and hopefully provide for his daughters’ future. The industrialist is a sadist who is sexually abusive to his wife, a predator who forces himself on Iris’s younger sister, Laura, when Iris is pregnant with their daughter. While the events in the lives of Iris and Laura are the focus, Atwood continues to spin the tales of downtrodden women in the secondary characters. Winifred Griffin, the sister of Iris’ husband Robert, longs to climb to the top of the Canadian social and political landscape. But she isn’t “old money” enough to marry into such power, so she feels she must support the aspirations of her brother, defend his sick predelictions and ride his coattails as high as he will take her. Reenie and her daughter, Myra, are the caretakers of the Chase family. Reenie is trapped in the servant class, by birth, gender and lack of education. Myra manages to rise to the merchant class, but still can’t separate herself from her familial duty to the Chases. Even Iris’ and Laura’s mother, mentioned briefly in flashbacks, is doomed to death by her gender. Her and her husband’s attempts to produce a male heir end up being what breaks Mrs. Chase physically, leading to her untimely death.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the fall of the democratic United States is staged to establish a totalitarian Christian theocracy that’s first priority is to turn women and racial and ethnic minorities into second class citizens. The U.S. – now the Republic of Gilead – becomes a Christian version of oppressive theocracies such as Saudi Arabia. Women’s rights are limited, as most are not even allowed to learn to read. Something has caused a decline in the birth rate, so the handmaid class – essentially fertile concubines – is created. Wives become merely a woman on an arm at social functions, while men use their sex slaves for reproduction and as escorts in underground gatherings out of the public eye.

In Oryx & Crake, the future is all genetic manipulation and advertising. Small, prosperous compounds house corporations, scientists and their families, keeping the general public in their ghettos and at a distance. Crake is the greatest of the scientific geniuses, even creating his own race of humans designed to stay simple and peaceful forever, without prejudice or superstition. His in-between with the neo-humans is Oryx, a one-time child sex slave that teen-aged Crake and the narrator, Snowman, watched perform online. Oryx represents desire in its best forms – Snowman’s obsession and desire to save the innocent, even after she no longer needs saving – and worst – Crake uses Oryx to manipulate Snowman and eventually hasten Crake’s man-made apocalypse, as well as Oryx’s life in child porn and as the live-in sex slave for an American businessman. Crake’s final act before his own death is to kill Oryx, a show of victory in a tug-of-war for her affections with Snowman and the ultimate tantrum of a child who is taking his toy and going home. So even in death, Oryx is dehumanized by a man.

The themes of oppression and abuse of women are prominent throughout these works. Yet the tales themselves have little in common. The Blind Assassin is epic historical fiction, running from just before the first World War until near the end of the 20th century. The Handmaid’s Tale is the dystopian future of blind religious fanaticism. Oryx & Crake is the ultimate post-apocalyptic tale, the story of man’s desire for knowledge run amok, destroying the world and taking us back to the not-so-paradise-like Garden of Eden, a book that would comfortable sitting on the bookshelf between copies of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Stand.

Is it possible to ask more of an artist than this, consistent inventiveness in story telling while simultaneously finding new ways to expose and attack cultural and societal bias?

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