The Handmaid, and the Hurricane’s, Tale

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Atom World

There is a street in LA that has everything, at least, everything that my world needs. Juice, coffee, books, yoga, independent shopping, wine, cheese, parking. On this street, each of these are each well done, particularly the book store, where on the cashier’s counter I encountered Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man.”

I was on the market for short stories, I realized, particularly those of the semi-science fiction variety offered by Bradbury. His “Life on Mars” is often in my top ten modular list of all-time favorite books.

So far “The Illustrated Man” has kept the Bradbury promise: render human defects alien, gruesome by kicking them out of context. The childhood aggression, racism, panic, violence in his eerily futuristic tales are incongruous in their cruelty. No one would could ever possible do that, could they?  This can never possibly happen, can it? Or, has it, is it already happening?

The excerpt above is from a story titled “The Highway.” What drew me in was the use of the word “atom” vs. “atomic” in describing a war that could end the world. In many ways a war that could end the world is an atom war, a war of the minuscule, a war started by a few pissy men. Case in point: the past two world wars.

Who knows if the decision to use “atom” vs. “atomic” is due to language evolution or intention. It does not matter. The effect is there. It is harder to get around the meaning of the word in its noun form. An “atom” is the limit of a thing, just as a human is the limit of what can be called a “world.” An atom war that will end the world. A petty war that will end my perception.

Thus, the character in Bradbury’s story, who lives by a road in the middle of nowhere, suddenly overrun with folk escaping the “end of the world,” can only ask his donkey:

“What do they mean, ‘the world’?”

 

Suburbanization in Reverse

Last week’s Economist cover featured the death of the internal combustion engine via the electric car. The magazine contemplates a bright future where the air is clean, oil grabs become irrelevant, and people nap during their private commutes. Then, reverse suburbanisation as cities contract, converting now useless parking into homes, parks, offices. Efficient destinations everywhere.

The magazine does not mention the inventors of this great future, but that is whom the article left me thinking about: the few individuals who propelled electric cars forward. These incredible beings basically prevented planetary devastation by ending human dependence on dirty fuel.

Sadly, on the other side of the equation, you have the Zumas, Trumps, and Maduros of the world. Individuals who set entire nations back one year each time they open their traps. See the excerpt from the article below on Jacob Zuma’s reelection, which immediately followed the article on electric cars.

Thus, the equation keeps equal. Or as Fitzgerald might say, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Image/Identity

About a week ago I visited the Georgia O'Keefe retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum: Living Modern. The exhibit not only centered around her well-known paintings and photographs, but also around her self-made clothing, and how her choice in dress was part and parcel to her conscious artistic identity. Her clothes were black and white, androgynous and practical, refined and subtle. Céline-like.

Parallel to that, I've traversed the Jewish Orthodox neighborhood in South Williamsburg several times in the past month. You know the neighborhood's invisible borders are breached once everyone is suddenly dressed the same. There is a single group identity immediately transmitted by a communal way of dress. In this neighborhood, there is no risk of a Stranger in Our Midst; here, there are Strangers Dressed in Jeans.

Then, at dinner with a friend, a mutual acquaintance came up who'd become a serious body builder. My friend showed me images of a transformed person, whose life revolved around and was surrounded by heavy weight lifting. The dress, colors, angles of our acquaintance's identity had been wholly transformed; too me, he was unrecognizable.

While it may be said that all neighborhoods in all corners of the globe have a particular coda, New York is a city where way of dress almost determines what area a person will seek to inhabit: Upper East Side, North Williamsburg, SoHo, etc. Here, as is the case with Georgia, the body builder, Orthodox Jews, there is an intentionally visible commitment to dressing in a way that reflects who you are.

I feel no such commitment. I like a dress that makes me feel like myself as much as a dress that makes me feel unlike myself. Stuff is exciting when it is new. That is all.

Does this mean I am identity-free? Does identity exist without any conscious external markers? I fear it cannot.

The uniform, be it imposed or adopted, is eerie because there remains a knowing that beneath the cloaks or the wife beaters, lie the several selves. The comfort of the uniform denotes a sacrifice, a negotiation: buy to belong.

But, those who dare commit to the Self dress it forth as a demonstration of will.