Margaret Atwood, The Prophet Of Dystopia

When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. “The townspeople didn’t like her, so they strung her up,” Atwood said recently. “But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.” Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary. The maiden name of Atwood’s grandmother was Webster, and the family tree can be traced back to John Webster, the fifth governor of Connecticut. “On Monday, my grandmother would say Mary was her ancestor, and on Wednesday she would say she wasn’t,” Atwood said. “So take your pick.”

Atwood made the artist’s pick: she chose the story. She once wrote a vivid narrative poem in the voice of Half-Hanged Mary—in Atwood’s telling, a sardonic, independent-minded crone who was targeted by neighbors “for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin . . . a weedy farm in my own name, / and a surefire cure for warts.” Webster’s grim endurance at the end of the rope (“Most will have only one death. / I will have two.”) grants her a perverse kind of freedom. She can now say anything: “The words boil out of me, / coil after coil of sinuous possibility. / The cosmos unravels from my mouth, / all fullness, all vacancy.” In 1986, Atwood made Webster one of two dedicatees of her best-known novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian vision of the near future, in which the United States has become a fundamentalist theocracy, and the few women whose fertility has not been compromised by environmental pollution are forced into childbearing. The other dedicatee of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was Perry Miller, the scholar of American intellectual history; Atwood studied under him at Harvard, in the early sixties, extending her knowledge of Puritanism well beyond fireside tales.

Having embraced the heritage of Half-Hanged Mary—and having, at seventy-seven, reached an age at which sardonic independent-mindedness is permissible, and even expected—Atwood is winningly game to play the role of the wise elder who might have a spell up her sleeve. In January, I visited her in her home town of Toronto, and within a few hours of our meeting, while having coffee at a crowded café, she performed what friends know as a familiar party trick. After explaining that she had picked up the precepts of medieval palmistry decades ago, from an art-historian neighbor whose specialty was Hieronymus Bosch, Atwood spent several disconcerting minutes poring over my hands. First, she noted my heart line and the line of my intellect, and what their relative positions revealed about my capacity for getting things done. She wiggled my thumbs, a test for stubbornness. She examined my life line—“You’re looking quite healthy at the moment,” she said, to my relief—then told me to shake my hands out and let them fall into a resting position, facing upward. She regarded them thoughtfully. “Well, the Virgin Mary you’re not,” she said, dryly. “But you knew that.”

Atwood has long been Canada’s most famous writer, and current events have polished the oracular sheen of her reputation. With the election of an American President whose campaign trafficked openly in the deprecation of women—and who, on his first working day in office, signed an executive order withdrawing federal funds from overseas women’s-health organizations that offer abortion services—the novel that Atwood dedicated to Mary Webster has reappeared on best-seller lists. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also about to be serialized on television, in an adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, that will stream on Hulu. The timing could not be more fortuitous, though many people may wish that it were less so. In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing a slogan that spoke to the moment: “make margaret atwood fiction again.”

If the election of Donald Trump were fiction, Atwood maintains, it would be too implausible to satisfy readers. “There are too many wild cards—you want me to believe that the F.B.I. stood up and said this, and that the guy over at WikiLeaks did that?” she said. “Fiction has to be something that people would actually believe. If you had published it last June, everybody would have said, ‘That is never going to happen.’ ” Atwood is a buoyant doomsayer. Like a skilled doctor, she takes evident satisfaction in providing an accurate diagnosis, even when the cultural prognosis is bleak. She attended the Toronto iteration of the Women’s March, wearing a wide-brimmed floppy hat the color of Pepto-Bismol: not so much a pussy hat as the chapeau of a lioness. Among the signs she saw that day, her favorite was one held by a woman close to her own age; it said, “i can’t believe i’m still holding this fucking sign.” Atwood remarked, “After sixty years, why are we doing this again? But, as you know, in any area of life, it’s push and pushback. We have had the pushback, and now we are going to have the push again.”

Unlike many writers, Atwood does not require a particular desk, arranged in a particular way, before she can work. “There’s a good and a bad side to that,” she told me. “If I did have those things, then I would be able to put myself in that fetishistic situation, and the writing would flow into me, because of the magical objects. But I don’t have those, so that doesn’t happen.” The good side is that she can write anywhere, and does so, prolifically. She is equally uninhibited about genre. Atwood’s bibliography runs to about sixty books—novels, poetry, short-story collections, works of criticism, children’s books, and, most recently, a comic-book series about a part-feline, part-avian, part-human superhero called Angel Catbird. She is offhanded about her versatility. “I always wrote more than one type of thing,” she said. “Nobody told me not to.” On one occasion, over tea, she showed me her left hand: it had writing on it. “When all else fails, you do have a surface you can write on,” she said.

Atwood travels frequently, and has often spent months at a time living in foreign countries, sometimes under conditions that a less flexible artist might find impossibly distracting. She started writing “The Handmaid’s Tale” on a clunky rented typewriter while on a fellowship in West Berlin, in 1984. (Orwell was on her mind.) She spent a winter in the remote English village of Blakeney, in Norfolk, where her only means of calling North America was a telephone kiosk that was usually used for storing potatoes, and where the stone-floored cottage in which she wrote was so cold that she developed chilblains on her toes. When her daughter, Jess, who was born in 1976, was eighteen months old, Atwood and her partner, the novelist Graeme Gibson, made a round-the-world trip. After winding through Europe, they visited Afghanistan—a keen student of military history, Atwood wanted to see the terrain where the British had been defeated—as well as India and Singapore. They proceeded to Australia, for the Adelaide Literary Festival, then returned to Canada, via Fiji and Hawaii. They made do with carry-on luggage the whole way.

Home is a mansion in the Annex neighborhood of Toronto, near the university. She and Gibson have lived there for more than thirty years, and a basement office serves as the headquarters of Atwood’s company, O. W. Toad, Ltd. (The whimsical name is an anagram of “Atwood,” but sometimes there are postal inquiries as to the existence of a Mr. Toad.) Atwood does not drive, and, for exercise as well as for efficiency, she likes to walk around her neighborhood; she often encounters en route some friend of a half-century’s standing, and they will stop and discuss the past and future surgeries of loved ones—the inevitable discourse of the septuagenarian. Sometimes she drags a heavy shopping cart, loaded with books, for donation to the local library.

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