Margaret Atwood’s work has long represented a gaping hole in my literary education. The Handmaid’s Tale, like Moby Dick, is a book I know I ought to read, yet have always feared I may not be able to stand. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic books (and, it should go without saying, books with gratuitous amounts of whaling) don’t generally compel me as much as do quieter works in unassuming, contemporary-ish settings. But because I’ve been so absorbed in somewhat dry research lately, I decided it was time to settle into a solid piece of fiction. I’m sorry to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is still on the shelf, but I’m finally closing the Margaret Atwood-shaped hole in my reading with Oryx and Crake.
I have yet to make my way through the entire novel, but I’m already hooked. I’m not necessarily so keen on the dsytopian aspect of the book, but in hands as capable as Atwood’s, I’d sit through a 100-page description of a colony of ants. It’s her characterization that has me. Not only am I impressed by her believable and rendering of a male protagonist (is it my imagination, or do very few successful women authors write from the perspective of men?), but I’m also fascinated with her narration from the camera-angle of a child.
When Atwood gives us backstory on Snowman’s childhood (when Snowman was known as Jimmy), she demonstrates that she understands something key. Kids may be cute, and even naive, but children aren’t fools. Disingenuous renderings of children and teens are are what I often find off-putting about a lot of kid lit, and even about adult lit involving kids. I’ve run across a few books that act as though all young children do is try to solve mysteries around the neighborhood while aided by beneficent companions, or worry about how to make their grumpy teacher nicer. It seems to me that kid characters are often around to act as a foil to their surlier adult counterparts, and to act as an innocent, purifying force. But I don’t think kids are necessarily any less self-centered or unkind than adults are, or that they’re any more capable of love. They’re just inexperienced in the ways in which culture channels the good and the bad sides of human nature. Kids have their own manipulative, sometimes sadistic agendas. They are full of rage and envy. They can be selfish, nasty, and cruel. What makes them different from adults is that they haven’t learned the cultural contexts in which to exercise, sublimate, or hide these aspect of themselves. The happy world and internal lives of play we think occupy children’s attentions are momentary distractions, not something fundamentally different about a child’s and adult’s nature. And Atwood tells it to us straight: Jimmy, with purposeful manipulation, works his mother up into a rage by asking for pets or a baby sibling because
“he loved her so much when he made her unhappy, or else when she made him unhappy: at these moments he scarcely knew which was which. He would pat her, standing well back as with strange dogs…(a)nd he was sorry, but there was more to it: he was also gloating, congratulating himself, because he’d managed to create such an effect.”
This may very well sound cold, or as though I–or even Margaret Atwood– think kids are terrible. But that’s not it at all. Kids are–no world-shaking revelation here–human, with all that comes with the human condition. Discovering what it’s like to be human is a process; we don’t begin our exercise of human life in adulthood, and we don’t leave behind all that is good when we leave childhood. And the darkness we ultimately learn to hide? It never crept up on us when we weren’t looking. It was always there.