Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

I have wanted to read Raymond Queneau’sExercises in Style‘ for many years. I finally got around to reading it today.

Raymond Queneau was one of the founders of the literary movement called Oulipo. Writers who were members of this movement, experimented with the structure of the novel and extended it into new territory. In ‘Exercises in Style‘, Raymond Queneau tells a story in the first page in two short paragraphs. Then, in the rest of the book, he tells this same story in 98 different ways. So there are 99 different versions of the same story here. While retelling these stories in those infinite different ways, Queneau plays with perspective, with prose, with language, with grammar, with literary form. In some versions of the story, the differences between the new version and the original version are so stark, that it is fascinating. There are, of course, some versions that I liked more than the others. You can read some of my favourites in the pictures below.

Matt Madden took inspiration from Queneau’s original idea, and created a one-page comic, and then retold the same story in 98 different ways and compiled them into a book called ‘99 Ways to Tell a Story : Exercises in Style‘. In principle, it is a book which is similar to Queneau’s, but because Madden adopts the comic form, it is also very different and fascinating in its own way. I have shared some of the stories in the pictures below so that you can experience them for yourself.

The third thing I wanted to write about was that Margaret Atwood did something similar many years back. She wrote a story in one paragraph. Then she wrote different versions of it and each version was very different and very fascinating. The whole thing was called ‘Happy Endings‘. I am sharing that too in the pictures.

Raymond Queneau’s book was pathbreaking because he was probably the first to do something like this. It is so hard to believe that it came out in 1947, because it feels so modern, and it is still quite fascinating to read. Matt Madden’s book will appeal to modern audiences because it employs the comic form. Margaret Atwood’s version is an education in the art of storytelling. I loved all three.

Have you read any of these books / stories? What do you think about them?

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I have wanted to read Margaret Atwood’sThe Handmaid’s Tale‘ for sometime now. I was in two minds on whether to watch the TV adaptation first or read the book first. Because I like surprises being revealed on TV, while I don’t mind reading a book even after I know the story. But, in general, I am a books-first person, and so this turned out to be an unresolved problem which dogged me everyday. Then finally one day, I buckled and watched the TV adaptation first. I loved it very much. Then I read the book. This post is about the book. I have shared some thoughts on the TV adaptation too at the end.


The Handmaid’s Tale‘ is set in a dystopian world, maybe sometime in the last decade of the twentieth century or early in the twenty-first century. In this world, in the recent past, some bad things have happened,  there is environmental pollution, there are wars, most people find it impossible to have children as something in the environment has affected their bodies. Many people are unemployed and have started hating the government. A group of influential people in America get together, fight against the government, overthrow it, call themselves the Republic of Gilead, and promise to fix all the problems. One of the first things the new government does is to ban women from any kind of employment. So, that is one problem solved – unemployment has been eliminated. Like the Nazis did. Then they round up women, who they don’t approve of – because they married a second time, because they tried running away from the country when the new regime came in, because they were in professions that the government has banned – pick the ones who can still have children, call them handmaids, puts them through a tough and cruel programme to break them and remove any kind of rebellious or independent thought from them, and they assign them to powerful leaders’ homes to play the role of surrogate mothers and have kids for them. This story is told by one of those handmaids called Offred.

For the rest of the story, you should read the book.

One of the scary things about the book is that most of the stuff described in it has happened in one way or another in some country in the past century or so. Women being forced to stay at home, women forced to wear a particular kind of dress, soldiers everywhere in the city, people’s movements being restricted around town, schools and colleges being closed, spies everywhere who can report anything to the authorities including spies among neighbours and in one’s family and household, women’s reproductive functions being controlled by the government which is mostly made up of men – all these and more have happened. Some of these are still continuing to happen. As Margaret Atwood says in her introduction to the new edition of this book, she didn’t write anything new. She took the things that were already there, put them all in one place and tried to imagine what happened. And what happens in the story is scary. It is hard to read.

I loved the way the characters in the book are depicted – well fleshed out, imperfect, flawed. Offred is a wonderful narrator and the other main characters – Moira, Cora, Rita, Offglen, Serena, the Commander, Aunt Lydia – they are all well depicted. I loved Moira and Cora.

Atwood’s prose is spare and she uses minimal punctuation, even in dialogues – it made me think of James Joyce, Nicole Brossard, Cormac McCarthy. Most of the book is dark and bleak, but when Atwood is in the mood, the contemplative passages flow smoothly like a serene river. After sometime, I looked forward to those beautiful passages and waited for them with anticipation.

Now about the TV adaptation. The TV adaptation takes a lot of liberties with the book, many of them small, some of them big. For example, in one case, it merges two characters, creating a composite character. Some of the characters in the adaptation are younger than in the novel. Some of them have stronger stories and get more screentime than in the novel. In the case of a couple of characters, their story arc extends well beyond the book. Many of the characters are more likeable in the TV adaptation. The TV adaptation also introduces some new characters who are not there in the book. One of them was one of my favourites. The TV adaptation also has some events rearranged when compared to the book. Sometimes there are new events which are not there in the book. Interestingly, many of these additions and modifications enhance the dramatic intensity of the story. In some ways, the TV adaptation improves upon the book. Which happens very rarely. It must have helped because Atwood has been closely involved in the TV adaptation. She also appears in a scene at the beginning as an Aunt, and gives a big slap to Offred. The TV adaptation has a wonderful cast too and is brilliant. Samira Wiley as Moira was so perfect.

Margaret Atwood as the Aunt slapping Offred


And lastly, about some of the famous lines in the book and the TV adaptation. Everytime I hear ‘Blessed be the fruit‘, ‘May the Lord open‘, ‘Praised be‘, and ‘Under his eye‘, I feel a shiver down my spine. And everytime I remember ‘Nolite te bastardes carborundum‘ (‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down‘), I get goosebumps. Words are powerful, especially in context.

I loved ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘. It took me a while to read it, but I am glad I finally read it. The edition I read was incredibly beautiful – red cover with a beautiful design, hardback, thick pages with big font, no introduction, no footnotes or any notes, just me and the book, with no distractions, as if it was saying that the proof of the pudding was in the eating it. I loved that. I must be the last person on earth to read it, but if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavours, in the air or on the tongue, half-colours, too many.”

“Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloudcover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.”

Have you read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘? What do you think about it?

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