I didn’t pack a book for our flight out of Hurricane Irma’s grasp. What was the point? It wasn’t until the next day, before boarding a flight further away from the storm, that I ventured into a bookstore. There it was: Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I’d first heard about it via late night TV, one of the actresses from its Hulu version on display. Something about it must be current, I thought, and I needed that — a book to explain the world.
We left Miami on the only flight we could find three days before the storm hit. Sitting on the tarmac, waiting for the extended line of planes to flee, I listened to the row behind discuss lack of insurance. Before, at the airport bar, conversation dropped when images of Irma took the screens. I belonged to a group of people on the run, to an exodus.
I cannot decipher events when they are immediate. It is later, through reading and writing and mulling in the shower, that I comprehend. I knew I wasn’t dealing well with Irma, but it wasn’t until I finished reading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” just 36 hours after purchasing it, that I understood why.
What Irma represented for me was not so much fear, destruction, loss, homelessness, but lack of control, lack of choice and authority over the small actions that become a routine. Until further notice, and not by will, my routine was taken.
Meanwhile, Atwood’s book is also about the taking of a way of life. Told by one of many “handmaids,” sex slaves forced to fornicate with powerful men in order to produce offspring, the novel presents an over-the-top, near future in which an infertile society abides by literal observance of the Old Testament.
Somehow, “The Handmaid’s Tale” manages to sustain the delicate momentum of a storm. When devastation hits, it will no doubt be heart braking. The desire to witness this devastation drives the work forward with the speed of a mystery novel. Despite its scant dialogue, let alone action, I was skipping pages in search of where the book would lead me.
Then, its open ending takes you nowhere. The book resists the reader’s, and the narrator’s, compulsion to know: there is no resolution, no single truth. Not even the brutal state agency, “The Eye,” can see all that goes on. Such lack of certainty generated a deep void in my gut, the same kind I felt each time Irma’s track was updated.
But, “The Handmaid’s Tale” represents a more manageable loss of control, a void in book form. And when things are packaged into book form they can be read, understood, addressed. The Eye of the book became the eye of the storm, revealing our weakness to control, to own, to construct, to landscape, to adorn. Of course, control is an illusion. New trees break.
Buy water; be prepared.