Book sales are an imprecise indicator of social anxiety, but 30-year-old novels don’t come back from the dead for no reason. “The Handmaid’s Tale” has sold about a million copies since the ascension of Donald Trump, making it one of the most popular novels of the unpopular president’s first year. Surely, Hulu’s Emmy-winning adaptation jacked up even more interest, but it didn’t hurt that Republicans kept releasing photos from Gilead of white guys congratulating each other for curtailing women’s rights. Only the Nobel committee, so characteristically out of touch, failed to recognize that this is the year of Margaret Atwood.
And her influence is not limited to her own work. Atwood mentored Naomi Alderman and has been actively promoting her feminist dystopia, “The Power,” which won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s not difficult to see why Alderman’s smart, chilling novel would appeal to Atwood. “The Power” flips the social structure of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and imagines a world in which women can electrocute with their hands. Complementary to Atwood’s story but in no way derivative, “The Power” is just the kind of novel we need to reflect on the forces surging through our society.
But do we need another novel that reenacts the grim obstetrical control of “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
This is the awkward question inspired by Louise Erdrich’s new novel, “Future Home of the Living God.” Long recognized as one of America’s finest writers — winner of a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award — Erdrich has published an extraordinary cycle of novels largely about the Ojibwe people of North Dakota. But “Future Home” marks a striking departure — an experiment of sorts, inspired 15 years ago and then reignited by the incendiary election of Donald Trump.
In an author’s note, Erdrich explains that she wrote the first draft back in 2002 when President George W. Bush reinstated the “global gag rule,” which barred the United States from funding any health-care organization that provided abortions or abortion counseling. When Trump was elected, she read her old manuscript again. “I felt I’d circled back to 2002,” she writes, “only worse.” After some quick work with her editor and publisher, “Future Home of the Living God” is now being released just as emboldened theocrats in Congress are plotting to outlaw abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. “The timing is right,” Erdrich says.
But timing isn’t enough.
“Future Home” comes to us as a diary kept by Cedar Hawk Songmaker, a 26-year-old woman four months pregnant. For reasons that probably have something to do with environmental degradation, evolution is suddenly running backward — at an absurdly high speed. Prehistoric animals and insects have already appeared. More troubling, human genetics has been rewound, rendering most fetuses inviable and most pregnancies fatal. The United States government has been replaced by the Church of the New Constitution, which imprisons all pregnant women to harvest their babies, hoping to sift the rare “normals” from the atavist stillbirths.
Everybody except Rep. Steve King of Iowa is likely to find this vision pretty terrifying, but the political and environmental context is only vaguely and rarely hinted at in “Future Home.” Erdrich is not so much tantalizing as miserly with the details of her fantastical conceit. “Nobody knows exactly what is happening,” Cedar says, and neither do we. Throughout the novel, we’re kept largely in the dark with her as she hides or flees from people out to capture her and steal her unborn baby.
Her plight is intermittently exciting. Whom can she trust? Who might betray her next? But the novel remains weirdly depth-resistant. For one thing, Cedar Hawk Songmaker is nowhere near as fine a writer as Louise Erdrich, and the choice to keep us trapped in Cedar’s diary constrains the narrative considerably. The plot material is here for an interesting exploration of Anglo and Native American attitudes about women, reproductive freedom and environmental protection, but those issues remain overshadowed by Cedar’s far less interesting rumination on her parents. (The whole world is dying, but — wait — Cedar’s mother has hurt her feelings.) And when Cedar does reflect on biology, the Incarnation and the more profound concerns of the day, we get passages that sound like an undergraduate cramming on a term paper. “Evolution has never been a very controversial part of Catholic discourse even though the Archbishop of Vienna has made some retro noises on the subject,” she writes. “We have seemingly reached the end of what Teilhard de Chardin hoped would be our apotheosis. Maybe T.S. Eliot had it right. Our world is ending not with a bang but a puzzled whimper.”
(Mental note: Do not try to improve on T.S. Eliot by tossing in an extra adjective.)
Perhaps the problem stems from this novel’s abnormally long and then rushed gestation period. Maybe it suffers from the conflicting motives of wanting to make a point but knowing that polemical novels are a drag. Or maybe if “Future Home” weren’t sitting next to Erdrich’s masterpieces, such as “The Plague of Doves” and “The Round House,” along with Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale,” it wouldn’t seem so slack and minor.
Strangely, the novel’s final paragraphs, when Cedar falls into reverie about how snow used to look before the earth heated up, demonstrate what a gorgeous writer Erdrich can be. But, as we might say about our own climate, by then it’s too late.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Louise Erdrich
Harper. 267 pp. $28.99