In Praise of Margaret Atwood

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My friends Miles and Alan ran the Key West Literary Festival for years, and in their time there they got to know many of my favorite authors. I mentioned that I was reading a great book by Margaret Atwood and they remarked that she was one of the smartest people they had ever met. I believe it. Her work can be summed up in one word: prescient.

Most readers know her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was made into a television series. In that book written years ago (1986) she foresees what happens when women of means wait too long to conceive or just don’t want the bother of carrying their own children. Powerless women are forced to become handmaids, bearing children for the wives of powerful men. The abuse of women’s bodies has been going on forever, but recently the “Me Too” movement has revealed how prevalent it is.

Another of her novels I read recently was The Heart Goes Last (2015), a dark prognosis of a dystopic future. When the country runs out of jobs for average people because of out-sourcing and mechanization and homelessness is rampant, for-profit prison/ residential communities are created and sex-bots are designed to feed men’s most prurient desires.

A young friend of mine, Jonathan Ross, had a grant a few years ago to train displaced factory and mill workers in computer coding. He reported that the people in the test group were frustrated  and angry because they couldn’t master the work they were trying to learn. Most had very little education and no keyboarding proficiency and preferred more physical labor. They dropped out of the program and remain jobless. What happens to the many people who can’t find a place in the new world we have created? My former students in the juvie prison have no educational expertise and no job training, so they go back to dealing drugs and breaking and entering. Then they go back to the prisons that are quickly becoming privatized.

Right now I am reading another compelling novel by Atwood, The Year of the Flood (2010). The country is ruled by the Corpsy-Corp, a blending of big business and government. The most powerful branch of this ruling class is Big Pharma who do not hesitate to use their supplements as a vehicle for introducing illness into their customers as guinea pigs. Those who are part of the Corpsy-Corp live in gated communities where women spend their time getting physical tuning up and cosmetic improvements. The rest of society has disintegrated into disparate bands of rebels with differing philosophies living in abandoned buildings and fearing the Corpsy-Corp. Most animals have become extinct and the main ingredient of the remaining meat source, Secret Burgers, is thought to be human remains. One group, The Gardeners believes in a blend of science and religion and has garden plots on the roofs of empty buildings in the “plebes” or slums. They are strict vegetarians and raise their own food on their rooftops.

Atwood has again drawn a bleak (and accurate) picture of a world where the vast majority of people survive on the leftovers of the 1%. A President who seems to be a work of fiction comes out of the world of big business and appoints his cronies to join him in Washington. The line between government and big business is blurry at the very least, and decisions are made to benefit the very rich at the expense of the rest of us. The country is deeply divided along lives of belief, race, and political party. And jobs as we used to know them are disappearing as computers replace humans in the check-out lines of supermarkets, the gas pump, and even the classroom.

Now that I am wallowing in negativity, I believe I should probably make lighter choices in the books I read. At least in the murder mysteries I enjoy reading, the murder is always solved and the ending is tidy.