Monday, March 30, 2020

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Last fall, the Guardian embarked on a gargantuan project to catalogue the best culture produced in the twenty-first century so far. Categories ranged far and wide—architecture, dance, art exhibits—but of course they also included big ticket items like film, TV, and books. It's in the nature of such list-making that one always finds a great deal to disagree with and be surprised by, but of one thing I was absolutely sure. Long before the relevant list was published, I had no doubt that the title of best book of the twenty-first century would go to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I even found myself wondering whether the project's twenty-year span—as opposed to all the best-of-the-decade lists that were cropping up at the same time—was decided on purely because Wolf Hall, published in 2009, would not otherwise have been eligible.

I felt this certainty not because Wolf Hall is such a good book (though it is), but because it—and its sequel, 2012's Bring Up the Bodies, and now the concluding volume in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light—check so many boxes. They are cerebral, but also popular. Award-winners, but also runaway bestsellers. Literary, but also full of event. Deeply humanist, but also concerned with the doings of kings and princes. Historical, but also timeless. Fundamentally about England, but in ways that could appeal to people of almost any political stripe. They have been adapted into both a TV series and a play. The announcement, last year, of The Mirror and the Light's publication was greeted with the kind of fanfare that used to accompany a new Harry Potter novel, but also with predictions of a third Booker win. They have a breadth and wealth of incident one associates with fantasy doorstoppers of the Game of Thrones variety—one dramatic, violent event following closely after the one before. But they are also highbrow, peopled with endless ranks of similarly-named historical figures, whom one must constantly look up in the Dramatis Personae and on wikipedia in order to keep track of their history, family connections, and feuds, like a higher-stakes version of the Neapolitan Quartet. There's something here for everyone, without having to settle for the lowest common denominator. No wonder they've become so celebrated.

And yet at the same time, I've always found the success of Mantel's Cromwell trilogy a little baffling. They're good, yes, but why are they beloved? There's something so chilly about these books, something that defies our common understanding of what attracts an audience. The entire series is told in a tight third person on a man who claims to be an open book, and yet keeps secrets from everyone—-most importantly, his readers. A man who lets us into his inner thoughts, his past, and most of all his dreams for the future, only at the last possible minute. A man who lies to himself about what he wants, what he feels, and what he has become, even as he claims to be the picture of modern self-reflection. A man whose doom is obvious, not only because we know the facts of history, but because his project is so plainly self-defeating—to wring power and influence out of a ruler so narcissistic and self-absorbed, it is inevitable that he will come to resent and fear the councillor he had once praised and elevated. It's fascinating, of course, and extremely well-done. But there doesn't seem to be much there to love.

Thinking about this seeming contradiction, I've come to the conclusion that the best way to consider the Cromwell books is not through the lens of literature. Rather, they seem to me like a quintessential example of that beloved 00s cultural staple, the prestige anti-hero TV drama. Like Don Draper, Thomas Cromwell is a guttersnipe who has laboriously clambered his way into the upper reaches of society, the chip on his shoulder only barely concealed by expensive clothes and meticulously-acquired good manners. Like Walter White, he triumphs over more powerful, better-positioned adversaries through a combination of brains, natural ability, and sheer bloody-minded determination. Like Jimmy McGill, he sees himself as a champion of the little people, striking on their behalf at a calcified, self-satisfied establishment, even as the rewards of those triumphs end up going mostly to him. Like Tony Soprano, he moves through a system in which violence is always on the verge of bubbling up from under the surface, held at bay only by heavily-codified rituals, strictly-maintained norms of politeness and courtesy, and a hierarchy that is unassailable—until the moment that it isn't. Like Gus Fring, he recognizes and promotes talent in his underlings, who are fanatically devoted to him without ever really understanding him, or his ultimate goals. Like Lord Varys, he schemes and manipulates on behalf of one ruler or another in the hopes of achieving the sort of reign, the sort of society, that might be called benevolent and just—even as such an outcome seems less and less likely. And like every character on Game of Thrones, he keeps climbing well past the point of safety because he has no alternative, because to stop would be the same as surrendering.

If you place Cromwell among the ranks of these characters, it's easier to understand why Mantel has written him the way she has—open to us, and yet opaque, familiar in a way that feels almost anachronistic, and yet impossible to fully understand. This is how all of these characters have been written. We get to see them at their most private, most vulnerable moments, but we don't get to understand them, because they are too secret and too conniving to speak plainly and explain themselves. The pleasure of following along with their story is derived from the challenge of working them out, piecing together their lies and contradictions in order to come up with an image of one fascinatingly complex man. Like them, Cromwell is never entirely one thing. He is kind, but also cruel; smart, but also blind; self-effacing, but also vain. And he never tells us what he really wants, how he truly feels about the defining figures and events of his life. That tight third person narrative voice that creates the illusion of intimacy even as it conceals the character's deepest desires, which has been praised as a triumph of modernist, humanist writing, upending so many of the convention of historical fiction, feels more like a case of placing the series in an incorrect context. Why, for example, isn't it more of a problem that the Cromwell books don't end so much as stop? Because they are less books than seasons of a TV series, and having reached a climax—the death of Katherine of Aragon, the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn and her supposed lovers—they pause their story, to give us time to process it and reflect.

Once you correct that miscategorization, it's easier to comprehend the challenges Mantel faced in writing the final part of her story. When I finished Bring Up the Bodies, I rather peevishly concluded that Mantel had stopped her story before its final act because she liked and admired her protagonist too much to admit that all his scheming was only setting him up for a sticky end. Now I realize that she was facing a much thornier problem, one of craft and storytelling. Endings are a famously tricky issue for anti-hero stories. People assume that this is because writers don't know whether to give their morally compromised protagonists a happy or sad ending, whether to end on a note of triumph or comeuppance. But really, it's because the audience knows that these two things are one and the same. Tony Soprano may or may not have died the moment the screen smashed to black at the end of The Sopranos, but sooner or later, it will be his time. Don Draper may have achieved a moment of inner peace at the end of Mad Men, but the series's final image assures us that he will inevitably turn that enlightenment into a means of selling sugar water. The end of an anti-hero story comes well before the end. It's at the point where our protagonist finally becomes the person he was always trying—usually without admitting it—to be. Everything after that is just filling in the blanks. It's why the later seasons of Breaking Bad, or the current seasons of Better Call Saul, feel as if a lot of air has been let out of them. It's interesting to see how, exactly, the characters arrive where we have for some time known they'd end up, but there is no more scope for surprise, for revelation.

This is the challenge Mantel faced when sitting down to write The Mirror and the Light. Around the middle of the book, for example, Cromwell starts to panic—in his understated sort of way—about his predicament. Jane Seymour, the bride he procured for Henry VIII at great effort and cost to his soul, is dead. Her son is an infant. Henry's adult son, the bastard Henry Fitzroy, has died of an illness. The only other heirs are Mary and Elizabeth, both girls, made bastards by the most recent act of succession, the older of whom reviles Cromwell as a heretic and the architect of her mother's downfall. And Henry himself is in poor health. If he should die, Cromwell thinks, "I still have no plan, I have no route out. I have no affinity, I have no backers. I have no troops, no right, no claim." He urges the king—in his own mind, never speaking the potentially traitorous words out loud—to name him regent over the infant Edward. But a moment's thought would reveal that this sort of plan is hardly better than no plan—Cromwell the regent could be gotten rid of as easily as Cromwell the former king's advisor and secretary, because with Henry gone, he has no power of his own.

Ah, I thought to myself. He is just like the wives. Like them, his power derives only from Henry, from pleasing him and giving him what he wants. With Henry gone—or with his favor gone—his own power disappears as if it never existed. And in the system in which Henry is the source of all power—a system which Cromwell, in engineering England's break from Rome and the consolidation of power and wealth away from the nobility and priesthood and into Henry's hands, has worked hard to erect and fortify—there is no way for Cromwell to ever be entirely safe. I was rather pleased with myself, until I went and reread my review of Bring Up the Bodies, and realized I had already made this exact point there, eight years ago. There's nothing wrong with repetition, of course—it's how we reiterate and reinforce a point, especially one that is so central to the story Mantel is telling. But repetition is also all she has to draw on in The Mirror and the Light. There is nothing here that wasn't already present in the previous books—sometimes literally, as when she revisits scenes from Cromwell's past, or the events of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in order to expand and elaborate on them.

What she does, with no option to go deeper, is expand outward. In the previous books, the Wars of the Roses were a dim specter, a horror out of the past, never described in detail, but held up as the justification for Henry's desperate scrambling after a legitimate male heir, for a strong and indisputable dynastic succession. In The Mirror and the Light, they are brought to life. Figures such as Henry Tudor, Edward IV, Richard III (who is usually referred to only as "the usurper"), George of Clarence, and Margaret Beaufort are namechecked, their deeds and decisions brought up, their examples followed (or ignored), their outstanding debts fueling present-day discord. Their descendants, the Poles and the Courtenays, Henry's dynastic rivals, with a better claim to the throne than his but no power to take it, drive much of the book's events. But it is the history of the Wars themselves that comes to the fore in Mirror, in a way that it didn't in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, suddenly present, exerting power over characters who had previously never stopped to consider it.
One by one, those gentlemen depart, who served the king's father, whose memories stretch back to King Edward and the days of the scorpion; men bruised in the wars, hacked in the field, impoverished, starved out, driven into exile; men who stood on foreign quays and swore great oaths to God, their worldly goods in sacks at their feet. Men who sequestered themselves in musty libraries for twenty years and emerged possessed of inconvenient truths about England. Men who learned to walk again, after they had been stretched on the rack.

When the men that were then look at the men that are now, they see companies of pretty painted knights, ambling through the meadows of plenty, through the pastures of a forty-years peace.
Much of The Mirror and the Light is made up of this kind of quiltwork, adding segments to the structure erected in the previous books that give it greater context. Some of Mantel's embroidery is delightful. As she did in Bring Up the Bodies, she inserts sly present-day political commentary into her historical storifying. When a peasants' revolt erupts in the North and spreads nearly to London, we are told that the genesis of it comes from disaffected apprentices and farmers
proclaiming the ballad of Worse-was-it-Never. There was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and peddlers honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat and self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of Parliament. Reforming bishops. People who use English to talk to God.
But as the rebellion gains force, Cromwell muses that 
the rebels are writing lists of demands, and what they demand—along with the restoration of the Golden Age—are amendments of certain laws that bear on inheritance, how they can dispose of their goods in their wills. These are not the concerns of simple people. What has Hob or Hick to leave behind him, but some bad debts and broken shoes? No: these are the complaints of small landowners, and men who don't like to pay their taxes. Men who want to be petty kings in their shires, who want the women to curtsey as they pass through the marketplace. I know these paltry gods, he thinks. We had them in Putney. They have them everywhere.
One doesn't expect to find anti-Brexit point-scoring in a novel in which Europe is so undeniably the enemy, whose protagonist is consumed with establishing England as a world power, laying the groundwork for the empire to come. But there you have it, and the effectiveness of the barb is remarkable. Other times, Mantel strains one's patience. Did we need pages upon pages elaborating the rituals of Henry's levée and bedtime? Did we need to revisit Cromwell's past, his abusive father, his ne'er-do-well childhood, his slow rise from servant to mercenary to merchant to lawyer to courtier? None of this is bad, of course. All of it is expertly turned, beautifully written, absolutely fascinating. But it also has the feel of marking time. Quite a lot happens in The Mirror and the Light, for all that one might go into it expecting it to be a mere period on Cromwell's life. It's 450 pages before Jane Seymour dies. 600 before Anne of Cleves shows her face. In between there are crises galore—Henry's daughter Mary nearly talks herself onto the gallows through her refusal to acknowledge her father as the head of the church; the peasants' army nearly reaches London, baying for Cromwell's blood the entire time; the Poles and the Courtenays scheme while pretending loyalty to Henry and cooperation with Cromwell. But rather than come together into a crescendo, there's a certain episodic feeling to it all.

The simple fact is that Cromwell's life doesn't have a lesson. His fate isn't some neat dramatic comeuppance. He rose as far as he could, and then fell because there was nowhere left to go but up—to the kingship, which he is frequently accused of coveting but remains silent about, one question to which Mantel offers no definitive answer—or all the way down. Mantel, to her credit, resists the temptation to ascribe his fall to that perennial boogeyman of anti-hero stories, hubris. Or, conversely, to ironically reveal that it was his moments of kindness that doomed him. When the courtiers charged by Henry to engineer Cromwell's guilty verdict accuse him of crimes, they are invariably innocent behavior—some of it sanctioned by the king at the time—that has now been twisted to serve a new purpose. It's clear that if no crimes had existed, some would have been invented (as Cromwell himself has done at Henry's behalf). Cromwell has made mistakes—the disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, his inability to lay hands on Reginald Pole, who denounces Henry to the Pope and schemes to usurp him by marrying Mary—but as Mantel herself is at pains to acknowledge, none of them are the failure that leads to his fall. What it all comes down to—as it did in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies—is Henry, getting tired of people he had previously claimed to love, losing patience with minor setbacks and looking for someone to blame. Most of all, fearing that those he has elevated due to skill and competence will overpower him, the man who had power given to him, and who is growing less worthy of it by the day.
Rafe shrugs. 'He is frightened of you, sire. You have outgrown him. You have gone beyond what any servant or subject should be.'

It is the cardinal over again, he thinks. Wolsey was broken not for his failures, but for his successes; not for any error, but for grievances stored up, about how great he had become.
What's left, then, is Cromwell himself. What does he want? What is his endgame? Does he see the fall coming? Mantel is, as ever, full of conflicting ideas. At times Cromwell seems nonchalant, even naive. He lets enemies live when he should have crushed them. Brings up protégés whose loyalty he can't rely on. When an intemperate remark made in the aftermath of Jane's death is reported to Henry, he never stops to think who in his household might have repeated it. He hoards honors and preferment—the Order of the Garter, a barony, an earldom—as if they have power to protect him from the man who gave them to him. Other times, he behaves as if he sees the gallows looming—stashing money abroad, leaving orders to burn incriminating letters, desperately but silently pleading with Henry to name him regent. More importantly, on the question of what Cromwell wants to achieve, what he hopes to leave behind him, or how high he hopes to rise, Mantel never entirely pulls back the curtain. The closest she comes is through Cromwell's visions of the future, the better world he believes he is making by detaching England from Rome, and encouraging Henry to see himself as his people's guardian and protector.
It takes a generation, he says, to reconcile heads and hearts. Englishmen of every shire are wedded to what their nurses told them. They do not like to think too hard, or disturb the plan of the world that exists inside their heads, and they will not accept change unless it puts them in better ease. But new times are coming. Gregory's children—and, he adds quickly, your Majesty's children yet to be born—will never have known their country in thrall to an old fraud in Rome. They will not put their faith in the teeth and bones of the dead, or in holy water, ashes and wax. When they can read the Bible for themselves, they will be closer to God than to their own skin. They will speak His language, and He theirs. They will see that a prince exists not to sit on a horse in a plumed helmet, but—as your Majesty always says—to care for his subjects, and so we stick by our prince through thick and thin. We do not reject part of his polity. We take him as a whole, consider him God's anointed, and suppose God is keeping an eye on him.
What's missing from The Mirror and the Light—so noticeably missing that one can only assume this is a deliberate choice—is any conclusion to this belief, either disillusionment or affirmation. Mantel has written Cromwell as a humanist in a world where that belief has no scope. The best he can do is trust in the goodness of one particular prince, even as Henry falls short of his hopes, grows more querulous and intemperate as age and poor health have their way with him. And yet, as he sits in the Tower awaiting his fate, Cromwell has no conclusion to draw over the project of his lifetime. He declines the opportunity to reflect, to pass judgment on himself or anyone else. This is true to who his always been, to his strong streak of pragmatism—the decisions have all been made, most of them with the best of intentions; what use is second-guessing now? But it leaves The Mirror and the Light feeling uncentered, less like a novel and more like a series of events following one after the other.

None of this makes the book a bad one, of course. Especially at this present moment, with so many of us trapped at home with our thoughts and worries, there are worse things to be presented with than a brick-sized piece of finely-written fiction about interesting people and events, accompanied by a fascinating, good-hearted yet deeply-flawed protagonist. But for those of us who were hoping for some catharsis, some conclusion to be drawn from this gloss on the story of Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor dynasty, this is not the place for it. As Mantel observes in her author's note at the end of the novel, in which she breaks from the tight third person to reveal the fate of characters whose ending Cromwell never got to see, the whole exercise ended in nothing. Henry's desperate seeking for an heir resulted in four children, all of whom died without issue, and in his sister's great-grandson taking the throne. So perhaps it's better to focus on the man, climbing the steps to the gallows and thinking, not of his grand project of remaking the world, but of his own petty fears and insistent memories. The best Mantel can do, for a story that defies endings, is to end it as the tale of a single, human, person.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Why write a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale?  Why write one in 2019?  In the acknowledgements section of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood writes that, since the publication of Handmaid in 1985, she has received multiple queries about the fate of its characters and world.  Why choose to answer (some) of those questions now, thirty-five years after the original novel's publication?  A cynic would say that this is a cash-in, a reflection of how the original novel has dominated the zeitgeist since the premiere of the television series based on it in 2017.  An idealist would say that this is just the right moment, when far-right, fascist movements all over the world are gaining prominence, many of them with an essentialist, instrumentalized view of women's role in society at the very core of their ideology.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but that just brings us to the more important question: what does The Testaments accomplish?  What does it tell us that The Handmaid's Tale didn't?

I reread The Handmaid's Tale before starting The Testaments, my first time returning to it since I read it in my early 20s.  It remains a viscerally powerful work, and one that establishes a template for writing about totalitarianism and how people live under it.  There are things about it I hadn't remembered, such as the streak of dark humor that runs through it, delivered via Offred's catty mockery of everyone she meets, her cruel but accurate assessments of their physical imperfections, gross personal habits, and obvious unhappiness, even within a system that is supposedly perfect.  Or the fact that its horror is rooted less in the abuses that Offred experiences than it is in boredom, in Offred's yearning for even the slightest variety and stimulation in her proscribed life.  Or the centrality of the prohibition on women reading to its depiction of Gilead's repressiveness, how Offred has to stop herself from letting on that she can read, how the public sphere has been remade to eliminate "temptations" by, for example, removing the names from store signs, how the promise of illicit reading materials is what draws Offred to the Commander--and how, in the end, her choice to create a testimonial of her experiences in Gilead is the ultimate form of rebellion and resistance.

Since my main association with The Handmaid's Tale these days is the (increasingly frustrating) TV show, it was fascinating to observe how Atwood anticipated and avoided many of the adaptation's pitfalls.  The Handmaid's Tale, the show, frequently falls into the trap of making Gilead look glamorous--all those richly-decorated, tastefully-appointed interiors, the sumptuous costuming for every possible occasion, the heavy, and irresistibly affecting, ritualization of every aspect of life.  It's a show made by people with taste, who have seemingly never stopped to consider that this was the wrong approach to take to a place like Gilead, one that implicitly reinforces the "logic" of Gilead's segmented society by making it seem elegant.  The novel, on the other hand, is relentless about making Gilead look chintzy and cheap.  The color-coded costumes of the Handmaids, Wives, and Marthas are a shallow marketing gimmick, brought to us by the same person who has come up with awkward, faux-modern neologisms like Econowife, Computalk, and Particicution.  Where the TV version made Offred's immediate tormentors, Commander and Mrs. Waterford, young and sexy and interesting, in the novel, they are grotesques, exactly the sort of people you'd expect to be elevated by a system that rewards cruelty to those beneath you, and obsequiousness towards those above you.  Rather than feeling elevated by the victory of their supposedly godly way of life, Gilead's triumph has made them querulous, bitter, and petty--if they weren't so already.

Most importantly, The Handmaid's Tale understands just what a tightrope it walks, as a work of fiction about atrocity.  Whether invented out of whole cloth, or sewn together from existing horrors, or storifying a real history, fiction about genocide, totalitarianism, and oppression often struggles with its tone.  Too dark and hopeless, and you've written misery porn.  Too heroic and triumphant, and you've written The Hunger Games.  Neither feels true to reality, and more importantly, neither feels useful.  The failure mode of both is using horror as a gimmick, a way of drawing in an audience without actually getting them to engage morally with what you're writing about--as in the recent fracas over the Nazi-hunting show Hunters, whose writers for some reason felt compelled to dress up the horrors of the Holocaust with something out of a James Bond movie.

The Handmaid's Tale not only balances itself perfectly between horror and heroism--Offred is brave and smart, but only within the limits afforded to her by her constrained situation; she's complicit, but not to an extent that obscures the greater evil of almost everyone around her; and she's heroic, but only up to a point, past which she prioritizes her own happiness, which is part of the reason why she survives.  But it is also a novel that is deeply skeptical about the power of empathy, of narratives like Offred's that put us in the heads of people suffering oppression, to change the hearts and minds of the people consuming them.  The "Historical Notes" section at the end of the novel makes this clear, first by reminding us that Gilead and places like it, though a world-destroying calamity for those unlucky enough to be caught in them, are merely Over There for everyone on the outside--and that Gilead exists right now, in many places, while the rest of us go on with our lives.  And secondly, through the airy, condescending detachment exhibited by the discoverer of Offred's narrative, for whom The Handmaid's Tale is not a cri de coeur, but an exciting bit of historical trivia, whose objectivity he questions, and whose importance lies primarily in how it helps his career.

The best thing I can say about The Testaments is that, thirty-five years on, Atwood has lost sight of very little of this.  The Testaments is perhaps a little more optimistic about the power of empathy than its predecessor, a little more heroic in its storytelling.  But its moral clarity on the matter of what Gilead is and how it functions remains unassailable.  You can see this in its use of humor, as pitch-dark and lacerating as in the original novel--a child raised in Gilead describes being allowed to go on outings "to see people being hanged or married".  You see it also in the little jabs Atwood makes at some of the TV version's choices.  A passage at the very end of the book, for example, prods at the way that AMC's Handmaid's Tale has turned Gilead into an aesthetic, staking out a decidedly queasy stance against the phenomenon of Handmaid cosplay.  Earlier chapters reiterate the point made in the original novel--and elided in the series--that Gilead's fanaticism has its roots embedded just as deeply in white supremacy as it does in misogyny.  Most importantly, where the show continues to draw increasingly flimsy dividends from the "irony" of depicting Gilead as evil in the aggregate, but kind and loving on the level of individual homes and families, Atwood is more clear-sighted.  She recognizes that the kind of people drawn to an ideology that tells them god has made them superior, and given them inherent power over others, are not likely to be good husbands and fathers.  When she peeks behind Gilead's doors in The Testaments, she reveals what we've heard about in fundamentalist, Complementarian movements in the real world--neglect, abuse, rape, and even murder, all covered up by Gilead's establishment, to the greater glory of god.

And that, I'm afraid, is the extent of the praise I can offer for The Testaments.  It's not a bad novel, but it is a thoroughly inessential one, and the pleasures of reading it are the same ones you would get from reading a good piece of fanfic, one that expands the original story's world and follows up on some beloved characters, without really pushing the envelope on what the original work did and the ideas it offered up.  You should read The Testaments if you want to know (one possible version of) what happened to Offred's two daughters, or an answer to the question of what became of Offred's husband, Luke, after they were separated during their attempt to escape Gilead, or a (not entirely convincing) vision of how Gilead was ultimately defeated.  But there's nothing here that wasn't in the original novel, merely an expansion of its worldbuilding, a peek at corners that Offred couldn't show us.  By definition, however, these corners are afterthoughts, or at best deleted scenes.  Nothing in The Testaments has the gut-punching power of the birth scene from Handmaid.  Nothing makes you feel the nauseating combination of shock and dull unsurprise as Offred's visit to Jezebel's.

(For this and other reasons, it's nothing short of laughable that such a minor work should have landed Atwood the Booker--an award she has already won, so there wasn't even the excuse of wanting to recognize an unjustly overlooked author--and it's all the more aggravating that deciding to split last year's award ended up dulling the thunder of the first black woman ever to win it.)

The closest that The Testaments comes to justifying its existence is through the first of its three interwoven first-person narratives, that of Aunt Lydia, the director of the indoctrination center in which Offred is trained--through a combination of brainwashing, deprivation, and torture--to accept her lot as a Handmaid.  Seen through Offred's eyes in the original novel, Aunt Lydia is a true believer, alternately terrifying and pathetic as she, on the one hand, leads her charges in a chant of "her fault!  Her fault!  Her fault!" at the disclosure that one of their number was gang-raped as a teen, and on the other hand, rhapsodizes with watery-eyed sincerity about the beautiful gift they are giving to Gilead of their working uteruses.  In The Testaments, she is something completely different, a former judge who, having been arrested and presented with the laundry list of crimes now punishable by death in Gilead--divorce, abortion, political activism, being educated, holding a position of power and authority--as well as reminders of her uselessness to that society, as a woman past her childbearing years and unaccustomed to physical labor, is given a stark choice: become an instrument of horror, or be consumed by it.
I'd spent my earlier years doing things I'd been told would be impossible for me.  No one in my family had ever been to college, they'd despised me for going, I'd done it with scholarships and working nights at crappy jobs.  It toughens you.  You get stubborn.  I did not intend to be eliminated if I could help it.  But none of my college-acquired polish was of any use to me here.  I needed to revert to the mulish underclass child, the determined drudge, the brainy overachiever, the strategic ladder-climber who'd got me to the social perch from which I'd just been deposed.  I needed to work the angles, once I could find out what the angles were.
Atwood has never gone in for easy female solidarity, and relationships between women are never entirely nurturing in her writing.  In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred often feels stronger revulsion towards the women of Gilead--Aunt Lydia, Serena Joy, and even some of her fellow Handmaids--than she does towards the men who created and benefit from its system, like the Commander or her lover Nick.  It's entirely in keeping with that approach to have given us Lydia, who by certain twisted lights is a feminist hero, a self-made woman twice over, who has carved out an enclave of female power in the heart of Gilead's male supremacist nightmare, and who has even managed to use that power to help some of Gilead's women--recruiting girls who wouldn't survive Gilead's forced teen marriage into her army of Aunts; and delivering rough justice to at least some of Gilead's domestic abusers by trumping up other, more politically correct, charges against them.  But this is all accomplished, of course, on the backs of the majority of Gilead's women.  The Testaments gives us specific examples of Lydia's cruelty--she turns a blind eye to, and even enables, a senior commander's string of increasingly younger wives, each of whom eventually falls victim to a mysterious accident or illness; she plots against her fellow aunts and doesn't balk at denouncing them to Gilead's secret police.  But it's in the commission of her regular duties for Gilead that Lydia commits her worst atrocities--the schools she founds, whose sole purpose is to keep girls ignorant, and teach them to be ashamed of their bodies; the missionaries she sends out to recruit vulnerable girls, abuse victims and rough sleepers, and bring them to Gilead to swell its ranks of Handmaids and Econowives; the marriages she arranges between girls barely into puberty, and men two or three times their age.

What keeps this portrait from falling into the same trap as the TV show--a "complexity" that usually translates into a refusal to take a moral stand--is that Lydia herself is completely unapologetic.  She knows that she is a monster, and that history will judge her harshly, if it remembers her at all.  Though she is intent on an act of rebellion--releasing all the dirty secrets she's amassed about what happens behind Gilead's idyllic facade to the wider world--it's never clear whether she does this out of genuine hatred of what Gilead is and a desire to bring it down, or simple, selfish vengefulness, the culmination of a decades-long plot to get back at the people who tore down her old life and turned her into an unperson.  Nor do we need to know the answer to that question.  The Testaments's structure, and Lydia's own, unsentimental narrative voice, are such that we can root for Lydia's plan to work, without rooting for Lydia herself.

Less successful--or rather, less interesting--are the novel's other two narrative strands, following two girls raised inside and outside of Gilead.  Agnes is the dutiful daughter of a high-ranking Commander, whose life is one great process of disillusionment.  Her beloved mother turns out to have stolen her from her real mother.  Her pious stepmother abuses her and plots to marry her off as soon as possible.  She's molested by her dentist--something she'd been assured was impossible in Gilead, and certainly not to a well-behaved, modest girl like her--and realizes that she can say nothing.  Finally, she joins the Aunts, but the Bible she learns how to read doesn't end up saying the things she'd been taught it said.  Daisy, meanwhile, is a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, whose strangely overprotective parents are killed in a car bombing.  Whisked away by their mysterious associates, she learns that they were agents of Mayday, the anti-Gilead resistance, and that she is actually "Baby Nicole", the daughter of a Handmaid spirited out of Gilead as an infant, whose return has been loudly demanded since then.

Most readers will quickly realize that these are Offred's two daughters, the one Gilead stole away from her before The Handmaid's Tale began, and the one she stole away from Gilead after its end.  It's here that The Testaments most clearly surrenders to the demands of fanservice.  Aunt Lydia feels like something fresh and different to the original novel, but learning the fate of Offred's daughters--and, ultimately, of Offred herself--feels indulgent.  It doesn't help that there isn't much else to read for in either of the girls' narratives.  Both contain the occasional moment of raw emotion or disorienting worldbuilding--when Agnes is molested, and realizes that everyone around her knew the dentist's proclivities, and turned a blind eye because Gilead is no longer a place where such offenses are pursued; when Nicole realizes that Gilead, up until that point a vague and distant political cause, actually concerns her intimately--but for the most part they proceed exactly as you expect them to proceed, and with a great deal of greased plot rails and convenient coincidences to boot.  By the time Aunt Lydia's plan, to use the two girls to smuggle out a cache of documents indicting Gilead, starts moving in earnest, the novel feels entirely untethered.  It's so obvious that the girls will succeed--and they themselves have so little to do with that success, merely allowing themselves to be couriered from one point to another--that it's hard to feel much investment.

It doesn't help that The Testaments elides what should be the most important parts of both girls' arcs.  We never see the moment in which Agnes's disillusionment with Gilead solidifies into a determination to bring it down.  Up until the novel's final chapters, in fact, she allows Lydia to convince her that the purpose of releasing the documents is to reform Gilead, but when we meet her at the end of her adventures, she has already concluded that "Gilead ought to fade away".  The transition between the two views is missing.  And by the same token, when Nicole arrives in Gilead, posing as a foreign recruit, her reactions are opaque and shallow.  She deems Gilead "weird", and marvels at its bland food and strange customs.  But its horror never seems to touch her, even though her first introduction to it is to be forced to watch a Particicution, in which dozens of enraged Handmaids are goaded into tearing supposed criminals apart with their bare hands.  Nicole, in fact, manages to keep herself at a remove from Gilead even when she's placed at the very heart of it.  Brought to the Aunts' indoctrination center where she's meant to be trained in "proper" behavior, she nevertheless goes around peppering her speech with profanity, describing god as an "imaginary friend", and performing calisthenics in her room.  This is completely antithetical to the point The Handmaid's Tale was trying to make--that it is impossible to hold yourself apart from a world like Gilead.  That once swallowed by it, you can't help but participate in it, in one way or another, and become marked by its horrors.  Both Agnes and Nicole's stories thus end up feeling too easy, a way of giving fans a happy ending, rather than facing up to the reality of growing up under, or being seduced by, totalitarianism.

"Too easy", in fact, feels like The Testaments's watchword, especially when it comes to its ending, in which Lydia's document cache starts the clock on Gilead's downfall.  It's hard to know how to take such a conclusion.  As Deborah Friedell writes in her review of the novel at the LRB: "The commanders proudly keep sex slaves, and execute the women who resist: what secret thing could the supplicant aunts find out about the commanders that's more shameful than what they've been doing openly?"  The document cache, full of revelations of the type of abuse, rape, and murder that Gilead doesn't openly sanction, reveals that Gilead has betrayed its complementarian promise--that if women accept confining and belittling roles in society, they will be kept safe.  But pinning so much hope on the revelation of "hypocrisy" to destabilize Gilead from within, and galvanize opposition to it from without, is a weirdly naive turn of plot in 2019, several years into the era of Fake News and the constant churn of consequence-free scandal.  Worse, it seems to ignore the fact that The Handmaid's Tale already anticipated this attack, in the chapter in which Offred visits Jezebel's, and discovers that the pious, doctrine-spouting Commanders are all (not-so-) secretly cavorting with prostitutes.

The Handmaid's Tale understood that hypocrisy is baked into a system like Gilead, in which, as the saying goes, there are people whom the law protects but does not bind, and people whom the law binds but doesn't protect.  Though I've praised The Testaments for holding on to its prequel's moral clarity about what Gilead truly is, in this rather crucial instance, it loses its nerve.  For its ending to work, we have to forget that Jezebel's exists, and that escaped Handmaids and prostitutes would probably have told people about it (as Gerry Canavan observes in his review, it's strange that a book that is otherwise so meticulous about letting us know the fate of almost every character in Handmaid is completely silent on the subject of Moira).

Whatever argument you could have made for the necessity of a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale in 2019, the fact that this sequel buys into the very canard that the last few years have disabused us of--that sunlight is the best disinfectant, that exposing perfidy is a means to ending it--seems to render its existence pointless.  If there's anything that an expansion of the original novel should have addressed, it's the way that totalitarian regimes create their own reality.  How the first prerequisite to being allowed to participate in them is surrendering your own judgment and substituting it with the state-mandated reality.  Instead, Atwood gives us platitudes--even The Testaments's equivalent of the Historical Notes segment ends with treacle, not the sharp stiletto of the original novel's ending.  It's hard to begrudge these characters their happy ending--after thirty-five years, finding out that Gilead fell and that Offred was reunited with her daughters can't help but feel good.  But it's also the very definition of inessential.  I'm not sure what kind of fiction we need to get us through, or at least learn to understand, our terrible present moment.  I just know that The Testaments isn't it.