Albert Robida, Le vingtième siècle, ca. 1880.
A curious feature of most dystopian fiction is that it begins in medias res. It’s a stylistic convention of the genre, and it applies to most dystopian lit that comes to mind, from Nineteen Eighty-Four to Brave New World to Never Let Me Go. As pure narrative strategy, it makes sense. After all, novels in general must hook a reader quickly, and there are few things hookier than unfolding disaster. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, for example, begins with twenty utterly gripping pages of the first hours of a superplague wiping out Toronto (and the world). There is something compelling about this type of introduction—it carves narrative down to a brutal logic in which the only two options are survival and death.
The TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which will wrap up its second season in July, is the most recent popular example of this phenomenon. The viewer is dropped, from the first episode, into the fresh hell of Gilead, alongside Elisabeth’s Moss’s Offred. We are given the broad strokes of how Gilead came to power (ecological disaster, plummeting birth rates, a coup in Congress) but only the occasional flashback to normal life before the coup, when the show’s world much resembled ours. The first season was released in April 2017, and Offred’s disoriented struggle felt topical, consonant with an American body politic waking up to the reality of the Trump era. My wife and I watched it, as I know so many people did, with rapt, grim fascination. It showed our worst fears about the new government dramatized.
As time—and the show—has gone on, however, I find myself increasingly drawn to the scanty scenes of America before Gilead, the tender, doomed moments of Offred’s previous life. The glimpses of that hazy, vanishing world are the most painful and perhaps the most resonant with our own unfolding dystopia. This is what all dystopias—fictional and real—specialize in: erasure of what came before. Read More