I am not alone in having sought comfort in the pages of a book in recent months. But rather than using literature as a means of escape, I have found myself reaching for dystopian novels time and time again. Dystopian novels magnify social issues we have grown complacent about. They deliver powerful warnings about what happens when poison seeds are planted and allowed to grow: be it the suppression of women’s reproductive rights, disregard for the future of our planet or the flourishing of totalitarian violence. These books show that the transition from belief to action, from rhetoric to destruction, can be an all too easy one.
The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road fall within the genre of ‘speculative fiction’: Atwood’s dystopian America is oppressed by a totalitarian theocracy, McCarthy’s is a post-apocalyptic landscape of human barbarity. However, there is a sense in both works that the authors’ bleak prognoses are not so far removed from reality. The idea that the Road is symbolic of the course already taken by humanity resonates with Atwood’s statement that, “there is nothing in [The Handmaid’s Tale] that hasn’t already happened.”
Of course, this has taken on a whole new meaning in recent months. McCarthy’s survivors hoarding “tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers from the commissaries of hell” makes for eerily familiar reading. As the pandemic has compelled migrant workers around the world to embark upon the long Road home, we need not look far to see images of “creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways”. This may well be the “frailty of everything revealed at last”, but these dystopian novels show that crisis has long been brewing.
The unforgiving landscape of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic America is reflected in his stark prose, as though the narrative too represents a “cauterized terrain”, stripped back to its most basic elements. It is a new style born out of the devastation of Armageddon: a “formless music for the age to come”.
McCarthy’s Road is punctuated by ruptures in the connection between words and meaning, as though the prose cannot hold together the horror of what humanity has been reduced to. A language is yet to be birthed to accommodate the devastation. McCarthy’s notion of dissonance within dystopian realms leads me to question whether our new understanding of the world will change the face of literature forever. For instance, what significance do we attach to romance novels in a world where human contact is two metres out of reach? We are forced to question the relevance of storytelling itself in a world where words are incompatible with reality.
By contrast, Atwood’s totalitarian state does create a new language to implement patriarchal control. Offred’s outspoken narrative is an act of rebellion against it. In her own rendition of Cixous’s revolutionary feminist text, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Offred regains control of her body through subversive meditation: “I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing.” Storytelling becomes a gesture against the silence of death and of his-story.
In this way, Atwood and McCarthy’s tributes to the power of narration are a reminder of why turning to literature is more important now than ever before. McCarthy’s man dreams of “the charred ruins of a library”, in which extinction has befallen books and the spirit to which they correspond. The hope represented by books is inconsistent with the protagonist’s reality: for him, they are “lies arranged in their thousands row on row”. This serves as a warning to the reader that a fundamental part of the greying out of the world as we know it is the greying out of language itself.
But where is the comfort to be found in reading about societies that bear no resemblance to normality? It is natural to seek affinity with dystopian characters as we too struggle to navigate this Brave New World. The anonymity of McCarthy’s protagonists creates the impression that it is not just ‘man’ and ‘boy’ that must struggle to survive the Road: it is all of humanity. The emptiness of the characters’ existence triggers the understanding that their struggle for survival is not merely a physical one. In this time of crisis, the protagonists’ reliance upon human contact, exchange and memory resonates deeply. Ultimately, it is our connections to other people, both real and fictional, that will carry us along our own bleak Road.
Both novels convey the complex ways in which memory bears upon and influences emotional survival. As “refugees from the past”, memories are a means of validating “things no longer known in the world”. This sentiment is more pertinent now than ever. At a time when human intimacy and freedom of exchange have been grossly distorted, the pervasion of memories can strike a painful contrast to our sobering reality, yet they also provide the freedom to indulge in visions of hope.
The Handmaid’s Tale is testament to the fact that human connection will prevail even in the most oppressive of circumstances. Valued solely for her fertility as a Handmaid – a “two-legged womb” – Offred’s interactions are fiercely controlled. Nonetheless, she enters into a secret sexual relationship, exposing herself to the vitality of true emotion: “love, it’s been so long, I’m alive in my skin.” Whilst I would advise careful deliberation over whom we admit into our new support bubbles, Atwood certainly compels us to make the best of these bleak circumstances. As Offred subverts the very genre of dystopia with her romantic narrative, can we too distort the dystopian reality in which we find ourselves?
The interconnected nature of man and boy’s survival on the Road – “each the other’s world entire” – is equally compelling as we redefine our relationships towards one another and our obligations to those most in need. Whichever form it may take in our new normality, there is always beauty to be found in human interaction and solidarity.
Should we find solace in the knowledge that human suffering is an integral part of existence, that destruction has always been our fate? McCarthy’s Road certainly appears to lead to the end of civilization; the destruction of the world is “a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again”. Yet points of destruction and points of origin often coincide, and we may well have been offered a glimpse of the world in its new beginning: “perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made.” As we too embark upon our new normality, we must think carefully about the post-pandemic world we wish to live in. COVID-19 has aggravated inequalities so deeply embedded in our society that we have grown comfortable with their presence. As we reconstruct reality and the old world faces annihilation, so too must its failures. When McCarthy’s man and boy are on the verge of starvation, the man weeps about beauty and hope: “things he’d no longer any way to think about.” Dystopian narratives may be bleak, but they do not contribute to the barbarity of our times: they are, instead, a powerful reminder that in the midst of crisis, beauty and hope do remain. We ought to preserve them now more than ever.
 Margaret Atwood, interview with Kathryn Govier, “Margaret Atwood: There’s Nothing in the Book that Hasn’t Already Happened,” Quill & Quire 59, no.1 (1985) 66