The Talent and Relevance of Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale television series based on Margaret Atwood’s iconic 1985 novel is a smash hit — helped by the fact that this screen adaptation is very relevant during the time of a Trump administration that’s profoundly mean, sexist, macho, misogynist, anti-women, and patriarchal. Also, I just finished reading Atwood’s 2013 novel MaddAddam — the great third installment of the speculative-fiction trilogy whose first two books were Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

So I thought I’d write an Atwood appreciation — one that combines new material with some material from the first literature blog post I ever published, on June 2, 2011. That post was an Atwood appreciation, too.

MaddAddam is one of those novels that has it all: memorable characters, adventure, scares, intrigue, humor, satire, snappy dialogue, romance of a sort, non-preachy social commentary (ranging from the environment to gender relations), and more. The postapocalyptic story of a small group of people who survived the almost total eradication of Earth’s population shows that Atwood is still a terrific novelist in her 70s — and that she has a way of sounding so current and up-to-date that one could mistake her for a writer in her 20s or 30s.

The 1939-born Canadian author is well known for bestselling fiction set in a dismal near-future. Heck, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the 20th century’s great dystopian novels — up there with Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four — about a U.S. society in which women have lost their rights and the relatively small number of fertile ones are forced to become “handmaids” basically raped for reproductive purposes.

But there’s an astonishing variety to Atwood’s canon. She has also written gripping historical fiction (the well-researched Alias Grace about a 19th-century double murder), many contemporary novels (such as Cat’s Eye about a middle-aged Canadian artist and The Robber Bride about three longtime friends dealing with a nemesis), and even a book from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife Penelope as her legendary hubby is off adventuring (The Penelopiad). Other Atwood novels contain elements of mystery (Surfacing) and surrealism (The Edible Woman). And the ultra-prolific author has penned short stories, children’s books, nonfiction books, poetry, and more. In fact, Atwood was a widely published poet for several years before her first novel was released — a career arc like Sir Walter Scott’s.

Atwood’s fiction is also quite layered. She often shifts scenes from the present to the past to the present — MaddAddam does this quite a bit — while managing not to confuse her readers. The Blind Assassin even includes a novel within that Booker Prize-winning novel. And several of Atwood’s novels contain poems, letters, newspaper stories, and other devices. Plus her characters are complex, three-dimensional people — with the “good” ones usually having some negative traits and the “bad” ones usually having some positive attributes.

No appreciation of Atwood would be complete without an example of her wonderful prose. In the “Hairball” story that’s part of her 1991 short-story collection Wilderness Tips, Atwood describes a character’s name this way: “During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school she’d shed the frills and emerged as bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped-denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street feline, and pointed as a nail.”

Give this author a much-deserved Nobel Prize!

If you’ve read Atwood, what do you think of her work? And, in your opinion, what other living authors deserve a future Nobel for literature? A list of past winners can be seen here.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, with a silly focus on the date August 10 through the centuries, is here.