Margaret Atwood is a pale-eyed Cassandra, a spinner of brooding stories and poetry of dislocation and loss. The high priestess of pain, as a critic once called her. Low on the list of literary live wires.
"I don't worry about that too much," she said calmly as she sat drinking coffee at the Canadian chancery on a recent morning. "Those are the people who don't get the joke."
In "The Handmaid's Tale," her sixth novel and the first not set in a worried corner of contemporary Canada, Atwood has outdone herself: life in America after Christian fundamentalists have assassinated the president and Congress and begun to play god. Women have been drop-kicked back to the Middle Ages, the national motto is "God is a Natural Resource," and Cambridge, Mass., resembles downtown Tehran. Fertile women, the handmaids of the title, have been conscripted to make babies for the brave new world.
The book is being compared to George Orwell's "1984," though not always favorably. Atwood describes her novel as speculative fiction. Others have described it as a testament to the power of feminist paranoia.
"It's not paranoia," she said, forbearance curling around her chair like a cat. "There is nothing in this book that hasn't already been done. I was very careful with that."
Still, she did wait three years before beginning the book, worried it was too paranoid. But the idea kept cropping up in a novel already in progress, and she began clipping odd items from newspapers and magazines: a fundamentalist Catholic sect in New Jersey whose members refer to women as handmaidens, a law in Canada requiring a woman to have her husband's permission before obtaining an abortion.
"You know about Romania," she said. "No abortion, no birth control, and compulsory pregnancy testing, once a month. If you test positive one month and negative the next, you have to prove why it's so. Bad things happen to you." (According to the State Department, there are reports of such testing in Romania, but questions about how widespread it is.) "Did you see Time magazine?" she asked.
The cover story on Pat Robertson?
She nodded. "They're definitely thinking about whether or not they should go for the big brass ring. Now they may prefer to keep it behind the scenes, but it's a very diverse country, the U.S. It's somewhat volatile. You can't call it.
"The question they always ask in Canada is, 'Could it happen here?' " she continued in a soft, flat alto. "Whereas in the States they're saying, 'Boy, this could really happen here.' Maybe not my exact scenario, which has elements of satire in it, but some of the underpinnings are certainly in the air in this country."
* At 46, Atwood is a star in her native Canada, interrupted by autograph seekers as she dines in Toronto restaurants, pointed at as she sits on the subway. In the United States she is less well known, almost as well read and celebrated as much for her poetry as her fiction, which has tended to portraits of modern women searching for mooring or meaning or both.
She is small, with rounded shoulders, marble-white skin and chill blue eyes half-shrouded by thick lids, a face from her Puritan ancestors. A high brow gives an impression of openness, but that is misleading; her glance is cool, shrewd and guarded, and she likes to answer questions with questions. There is something priestly about her, warmed by a sly quiet humor and an appreciation for the absurd. She is sure enough of her opinions for two people and then some.
When she is not traveling (to Iran, Afghanistan and West Germany most recently), Atwood lives and works in Toronto, in a large Victorian house she shares with her long-time companion, novelist Graeme Gibson, their young daughter and two of his sons from a previous marriage.
She does not like labels, feminist or other. "Men's novels are about how to get power," she once wrote when she got tired of being asked if hers were "women's" novels. "Killing and so on, or winning and so on. So are women's novels, though the method is different. In men's novels, getting the woman or women goes along with getting the power. It's a perk, not a means. In women's novels you get power by getting the man. The man is the power. But sex won't do; he has to love you. What do you think all that kneeling's about, down among the crinolines, on the Persian carpet?"
Reviews of "The Handmaid's Tale" have been good, with a notable exception. Mary McCarthy praised Atwood's imagery, but found the tale failed to deliver the necessary shock of recognition. Implausible, she wrote. Not scary enough. American religious fundamentalism is a backlash, not a revolution.
*Atwood shrugged. "The book is about power and how power operates," she said. "The fundamentalist right is the most likely flag under which anybody wanting to do this kind of thing in this country would march because that's the most usable thing. I think a lot of people get rather secure, they say it can't happen here. That has two effects: one, eternal vigilance relaxes. And two, people tune it out when it happens to other people in the world.
"Part of the reason for writing such a book is to put it in a form that is imaginable. If that happens, vigilance reawakens."
In Atwood's brave new world America has been renamed the Republic of Gilead, after the biblical land where Jacob acquired a handmaid when his wife, Rachel, was unable to bear children. Fertile women are a valuable commodity in the new Gilead, too, where they are doled out like company cars to the regime's male elite. (The revolution has won popular support because people were worried about the birthrate, which had declined as a result of ecological disasters, the appearance of a mutant strain of syphilis, an AIDS epidemic and women who protested nuclear weapons by refusing to have children.)
Atwood thinks the declining birthrate is the kind of emergency any regime would need to get things rolling.
"To really make this sort of thing stick you'd have to have a good sounding reason, something that would really make people say, 'Yeah, I guess we're in pretty bad shape, I guess we have to do this.' "
Infertile women work, too, as house servants, or indoctrinating young girls. Nonconformists are sent west to tidy up vast toxic wastelands. Men outside the party elite are not much better off. Homosexuals and doctors who performed abortions in the old days are put to death and hung on hooks along the city walls.
The rest of the world watches the transformation of the United States in much the same way the West watched the transformation of Iran. Offred, the handmaid of the title (named after Fred, the master of her household), sees a group of Japanese women tourists while out on her daily walk:
"It's been a long time since I've seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant . . . Their heads are uncovered and their hair, too, is exposed . . . They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths.
" . . . I stop walking. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this. Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom. Westernized, they used to call it."
"I've traveled quite a lot in countries that are not liberal democracies, and I've met with people there," Atwood said. "I know the psychological state, the state of fear and unknowing where you take very great care in the conduct of your life, who you talk to, what you can say to who, what you have to keep to yourself, the regulation of your facial expression. All those are typical of repressive regimes. You can see it, to a minor extent, in any power structure. You know, 'Jones doesn't fit in here. Jones doesn't play golf with the guys on Saturday, he plays with his stamp collection instead. I think he's a weirdo, let's get rid of him. So-and-so is a closet pinko because I heard him say . . .' This stuff goes on everywhere there's some pressure to conform."
But a Hitler behind every televised hymnal?
"I'm certainly not saying that people of those religious beliefs are going to turn into dictators. I'm saying that those kinds of dictators, should they wish to really do it, are likely to do it under that banner, because that is the thing that they are able to manipulate the best. Every dictator with any pretensions has a set of slogans that he thinks are going to be appealing to a certain number of people in order to get enough support to run his dictatorship. And what you put on the labels depends very much on what you think is going to sell. You'd be very stupid in this country to try and sell yourself as a communist dictator, even though the actual practices you might engage in might be quite similar . . .
"In fact, in the book I have people who would now be considered fundamentalists fighting the regime, because the regime would of course bump off any other religious fundamentalists it could get its hands on. That's what happens in religious takeovers. You may enlist the support of certain affiliated groups in order to do the takeover, but then you get rid of them because they are your challengers. In my book the Baptists are fighting the regime out in the hills. The Quakers, who of course are not what I would consider fundamentalists, have gone underground. Catholics are persecuted, Jehovah's Witnesses are persecuted. And Jews are given the Crusader option: convert or leave."
Some have read in "The Handmaid's Tale" a warning about the repressive tendencies of radical feminism. Pornography has been outlawed in Gilead, and rape is punishable by death at the hands of a mob. The handmaiden of the title remembers her mother, an active feminist who had participated in book burnings back in the 1980s, and thinks to herself, "You wanted a woman's culture. Well, now there is one. It isn't what you wanted, but it exists."
Atwood shook her head. "People have asked if I'm saying feminism will cause this upheaval. Feminists are not a cause, they are a symptom. If there were no social disease there would be no feminism. What would be the use of it if all women were happy and free and leading wonderful lives? It's no good blaming the symptom. It's like poor people who are starving and have a riot, and saying the riot is the cause of their starvation."
She does, however, think there's something to the idea of being careful what you wish for. "The women's movement is right now, as you know, split on the issue of censorship. And I see any issue over which feelings run high likely to be a choice of two evils . . . Is it worse for us to allow pornography, which we know has an effect on how women are treated, or is it worse to allow censorship, which could close down any form of sexual debate?"
Optimists may note that by the end of "The Handmaid's Tale," Offred, the heroine, has joined the underground resistance. In the epilogue, although Offred's fate is unknown, the reader learns through the conversation of a group of British scholars that the Republic of Gilead fell some years ago.
Atwood, too, takes the long view, but she sees the freedoms of western women as an anomaly in the fitful history of women's emancipation.
"We're the untested, unprecedented form of female life. We don't have any models for us. The question is will society permit it?
"Innovations have stuck before," she said drily. "Once there was no wheel."