William Kennedy Reading

Kim took last week to talk about attending the Stephen King reading in Omaha recently and I thought I should take this week to do something similar. Although, I don’t think I really have a comparable reading to talk about. I’ve been to more than I can count over the years, but though I’ve heard some great writers read (Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins, Etgar Keret, and so on), I don’t think I’ve ever had one that was as personally significant to me as Stephen King’s reading was to Kim, for whatever reason. So, I thought I’d reminisce about the first reading I ever went to: William Kennedy.

By now, I’ve read a few books by Kennedy (Legs, Roscoe, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, and Ironweed), but at the time I’d only read Ironweed. I still haven’t read everything by him. The reading was for Roscoe, in 2002 or so, which didn’t end up being one of my more favorite Kennedy books. I was actually there, and had read Ironweed, due to my obsession with Hunter Thompson at that time period. Thomson knew Kennedy, thought very highly of his prose, and had mentioned him in some pieces I’d read. So, I picked up Ironweed, and went to the Roscoe reading.

It was in the basement of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, back when they used to be in Pioneer Square. It was a good reading, I liked Kennedy even more after attending (though Ironweed had cemented that enough even if I wasn’t as big on Roscoe). Mainly I was struck by how mild and calm Kennedy seemed with respect to Thompson. I know writers don’t necessarily get into writers who are like them personally, but this was night and day compared to what I imagined of Thompson (who I never did get to see in person). That’s one of the big things I remember.

After all, this was fourteen years ago now.

The other thing I remember is some hipster-looking guy in a beret asking what was clearly a question meant to show off and give the guy a chance to talk rather than actually engage with the author. I hear these from time to time, and they irritate me. If it’s about trying to show off to the group and the importance of having a chance to talk rather than engaging the author/their work/literature/life in some way, as I saw this person’s question dealing with Aristotle and the better angels of our being and such, then my view is that it’s better you don’t ask it because you don’t really have a question, Kennedy seemed to feel similarly, because he didn’t seem sure what the hipster had asked and seemed to suddenly feel that the guy might be dangerous in some way, though he tried to answer. He seemed as put off by the guy’s grandstanding as I did, though maybe that was just me.

Anyway, this wasn’t an experience as significant as Kim’s with Stephen King, but I wanted to share a reading experience of my own. Though I may not have had one that was quite as important to me, I put big stock in these kind of events and go as often as possible. I simply view it as part of reading and writing.

 

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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Those of you who are paying attention may notice that I, Dave, am going two weeks in a row. Kim is still working on Steinbeck’s East of Eden and in the interests of giving her sufficient time to really give a good look at that one (because I think it really deserves full attention), I offered to go again this week. No worries, though, Kim will be on for the next two weeks.

Anyway, I’d heard good things about The Handmaid’s Tale, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it. To be honest, I tend to prefer Atwood’s more realistic work. I loved Cat’s Eye, but was a little colder on The Year of the Flood. Still, The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood, right? You can’t really go wrong. I knew I’d hit it eventually.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Chitra Divakaruni and 10th for Jennifer Weiner.)

Of course, the book is good. Dystopianists everywhere surely have this book on their master lists. Just think about it, the United States has been violently taken over by a theocracy that has stripped women of most rights (property, work, even reading) and instituted a bizarre system when fertile but politically unconnected women are forced (by one means or another and by varying degrees of one kind of force or another) to bear children for the childless elite:

            Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.

            My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being. What it really means is that she is in control, of the process and thus of the product. If any. The rings of her left hand cut into my fingers. It may or may not be revenge.

            My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

Even worse for the narrator, Offred (not her real name, the name assigned to her as a handmaiden when her identity and everything else about her as a person was removed), she remembers when it wasn’t always this way. She once had a career, an independent life, even a husband and child. However, all that is gone. Stolen. She lives a hollow, bare existence. She either produces a child, if the Commander can even sire one, or she dies. Even if she has a child, it won’t be hers. If you are looking for dystopian literature, this is certainly it.

Granted, this world Atwood paints is far worse for women than men. However, that doesn’t mean that it didn’t disturb me. If you are a human being, this book should bother you. If it doesn’t bother you, then I might ask you not to stand too close to me.

This Republic of Gilead (the setting of this story) is dark and inconceivable, but like the best of dystopian literature…one can unfortunately see modern tendrils suggesting how we might end up there from here. I wouldn’t malign anyone existing now by saying that they would want a Gilead type world, but things rarely end up where they are aimed.

Dystopian literature needs this. It needs to frighten us and seem an impossible world, but it needs to contain that germ of a threat that our world could lead there if people aren’t careful. For me, The Handmaid’s Tale definitely contains that germ.

In the end, The Handmaid’s Tale still isn’t my favorite Atwood. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though. Atwood has simply written such marvelous things that, as good as this book is, it still isn’t my favorite.

After all, The Handmaid’s Tale is a captivating story. It is dark and threatening and I was definitely on the edge of my chair with worry for Offred. The world is horribly unpleasant, but I still had a good time reading. It may not be what I consider the best of Atwood, but I don’t think it is one that should be overlooked. The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely a book that needs to be read.