OCTOBER 19, 2019
LOOK, IT MUST be said: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is a deeply strange text. A page-turning potboiler set 15 years after the events of the first novel and published over three decades later, and co-winner this week of the 2019 Booker Prize, it tells a story only barely connected to the original Handmaid’s Tale novel with respect to character, plot, mood, style, or tone. Where Offred’s story was unrelentingly grim, this one is triumphant, almost fan-fictional in its refusal to allow any of its characters to suffer (or even to be bad people). As literature, The Handmaid’s Tale condemned us — but, as franchise fiction, The Testaments is full of miracles, and capital-H Heroes, and daring Mission: Impossible gambits that pay off just in time at the last second. It’s already been optioned for television, and that’s really no surprise: it was written to be adapted for TV in a way The Handmaid’s Tale never could have been, sandblasting the bloody open wound of the first novel into something that that can end on a freeze frame and a hug and a jaunty pop song. As franchise fiction, with all the twists and retcons and callbacks of a good sequel, I really enjoyed it; but as literature, as a follow-up to one of the most influential and most important literary dystopias of all time, I’m afraid I’m much more skeptical.
Like the original novel, the book is divided between two styles of chapters that alternate across the book (before concluding with another far-future visit to the Society for Gileadean Studies that ended the first novel). The first set of chapters is improbably narrated by an aged Aunt Lydia from the first novel, who — in a plot twist perhaps derived from her unexpectedly sympathetic portrayal by Ann Dowd on the Hulu series — turns out to have been single-mindedly plotting not just her revenge on individual villains but the downfall of Gilead as a whole since her original arrest and recruitment decades ago. A consummate survivor and diabolical genius, the revised Aunt Lydia would be the first to admit she’s broken a few eggs along the way — but the woman who once violently tortured Handmaidens into obedience and taunted rape survivors by insisting it was her fault, her fault, her fault turns out to have been working on the side of the angels all along. Her skillful manipulation of the influential Commander Judd (the other Commander mentioned by Pieixoto in the “Historical Notes” alongside Waterford, Offred’s other possible rapist) has made her very powerful, and this has given her access to a wide range of resources that now allow her to act with effective impunity. There are token gestures toward some notion that the price was too high, but the book never really takes this possibility seriously; the new Aunt Lydia was always a basically good person doing the best she could in very bad times. As someone who stopped watching the Hulu series after the first season, this decision on Atwood’s part felt utterly inscrutable to me (with the feel of one of those late-stage Star Wars Expanded Universe novels that suggested Emperor Palpatine may have had a point after all), but The Handmaid’s Tale has officially been rewritten to make one of its most odious characters the secret hero of the story, a martyr working diligently behind the scenes to both save herself and save the day, and I guess we all just have to live with it. Aunt Lydia, welcome to #TheResistance, and thank you for your service.
This time, the alternating chapters are split into two, labeled “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A” and “Transcript of Witness Testimony 369B” — though given what transpires around these two remarkably world-historical figures over the course of the novel, one wonders who the 368 earlier witnesses interviewed earlier must have been. The novel initially treats their identities as something of a secret, but it will be immediately clear to nearly all readers that these are Offred’s daughters: her first daughter stolen from her and raised within Gilead, and her second daughter (the one she is pregnant with at the end of the original novel), the world-famous “Baby Nicole” (another plot line borrowed from the television series) adopted by anti-Gilead activists and raised anonymously under an assumed name in Canada. Eventually the three plot threads intersect in the culmination of Aunt Lydia’s lifelong machinations against Gilead, leading to a saccharine resolution for the story that sees every character (even Nick! even Luke! even Aunt Lydia!) given exactly what they wanted. “And so I step up, into the darkness within, or else the light,” Offred once mused. Well, the verdict’s come back, and we have good news: it was the light!
Those who have read Atwood’s weirdly cheery sequels to her grim Oryx and Crake (2003) will again discover a bizarre celebration of natality and reproduction as the magic boon that can lead us away from dystopia. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, mothers and sisters and fathers — precisely as in MaddAddam, the restoration and celebration of (biological) family becomes our unlikely happy ending, as (we are told) “love is as strong as death.” That the author of The Handmaid’s Tale has now come around so completely to the idea that the form of the family trumps all else is a little bit unsettling, to say the least.
This bizarre, overawing optimism, so discordant with the pessimism the original novel took as given, extends even to more minor set pieces within the book. The scene in which a powerless Offred is molested by a male doctor is replayed in The Testaments, this time with a dentist who is revealed to be molesting his own children — but this time Aunt Lydia successfully turns the violence of Gilead against him in revenge, seeing him executed at a Particicution. Agnes’s adopted mother is kind, and loves her, and her childhood is generally good; it’s only once her adopted mother dies and her wicked stepmother takes over that things get a little hairy. Daisy/Nicole loses her adoptive parents at 16 in a terrorist bombing, but she gets over it remarkably fast and never really thinks about it or them again afterward. The worst cruelties of Gilead are all either moved offscreen — there are very few Handmaids in this book, and barely any reference to the wars or to Unwomen or to the Colonies — or they turn out to be avoidable with sufficient cleverness (as when two of our underage main characters avoid forced marriages to older men by volunteering to be Aunts instead).
The book is still violent, with lots of horrors and abuses diffused across its background — but little that happens in the foreground matches what was inflicted upon Offred or the other Handmaids in the first book, and Aunt Lydia’s power and authority remains mysteriously sacrosanct no matter how flagrantly she acts in defiance of the system. Major betrayals are teased, but never happen; a strong lesbian subtext is fluidly redirected into a vague notion of “being sisters” instead; the worst pain and hardest experiences always happen to characters who don’t narrate chapters, and the stars align so no one important winds up too sad in the end. The only way that the book might ultimately disappoint the reader of the original novel or the watcher of the television show is its decision to remain mute on the ultimate fate of Moira, who I kept expecting to turn up somewhere; she, alas, seems to be a true victim of Gilead, without the unlikely lucky breaks that save everyone else in Offred’s life.
Even Professor Pieixoto, the grossly sexist professor who provided the “Historical Notes” that closed the first novel, gets a redemption arc in the second. At the Thirteenth Symposium on Gilead Studies, two years after the Twelfth Symposium from the first novel, he apologizes for all the dirty jokes he made the first time, and promises to be on his best behavior from now on. The weird academics who populate Gileadean Studies are up to some of their old tricks — they still have a Period Costume Re-enactment Day, and still sing Gilead-era hymns together — but Professor Maryann Crescent Moon is now the president of her university, and women are now “usurping leadership positions to […] a terrifying extent,” at least to hear Pieixoto tell it. (He really hasn’t changed all that much, alas.)
The return to the Pieixoto frame raises many of the same questions the “Historical Notes” did at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, now intensified by the weird coincidences and contrivances and overall unbelievable narrative reversals of The Testaments. We knew from the first novel that Pieixoto has a financial interest in the Gilead nostalgia industry, including, apparently, the construction of a Colonial Williamsburg–style tourist attraction; this time we discover (in one of several cheeky references to the Hulu series) that he has produced a popular television series on Gilead. How incredibly lucky for him, then, to have been personally involved in the discovery of three separate lost documents from the Gilead era, all found in totally different circumstances hundreds of miles apart, all revolving around the lives of the same handful of anonymous women and mutually confirming each other’s veracity! It’s the sort of luck any historian would kill for, especially one who stands to profit so handsomely from the renewed global interest in Gilead Studies. While Pieixoto’s second keynote is devoted to somewhat desperately arguing for the authenticity of The Testaments, despite what even he must admit is the high likelihood of fictionality, forgery, or hoax (and despite how much we’d all like it to be true, for Offred and for all the others), I suspect most readers will come away with their gnawing feeling that there is just something off about The Testaments — something a bit wrong or false or fundamentally untrue about it — unhappily confirmed instead.