The Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month Club: March 2007

March 1, 2007 | 2 books mentioned 1 3 min read

covercoverI’m not ready this month.

Seriously. I’ve only had 28 days of reading, a good number of which I spent failing to write a short story and traveling to Minneapolis. I’ve only read two books. And one of them took me three weeks. I’m just not ready for February to be over.

I shouldn’t complain, though – both books I read were fantastic and both dealt with much stronger versions of my current problem: running out of time and being dropped into situations without the proper preparation.

Of course, in both What is the What (David Eggers) and The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) this lack of preparation was life altering. My problem is that my simple blog post isn’t being started until the eleventh hour. Big difference.

What’s intense about both of these books is the idea that there are authors who can so perfectly get inside the head of someone and spell out the anxieties involved in being relocated – in being thrown into a new situation with little, if any, warning, forced to live life under the gun, subservient because they don’t know any different and are afraid to do otherwise. Who knows what lies outside of their life? Who knows if they’d even live to find out.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood creates a dystopian masterpiece – a country so frightened of itself that it has no choice but to obey. It’s a breakdown of the social hierarchy, a primer into what could happen with information control and women’s rights in a future that doesn’t respect either ideal. It’s frightening in its own right – women forced to be subservient because that’s the only way they can figure out to keep lust on the backburner. The Handmaids are there to have their wombs occupied, but not to enjoy any second of it. It’s scary.

And, at times, it seems so real. But the brilliance of the story isn’t the science fiction aspect – it’s the loss that the protagonist feels. It’s a powerless struggle against an old life – a women’s lib upbringing filled with lesbian friends and understanding husbands. Imagine being stripped of all identity, separated from your spouse and child, forced to watch as people were sent away for not obeying, struggling to understand how to escape, how to continue living. How things got this bad.

That’s what Atwood really does in this book – she illustrates the internal struggle, between a physical life and a mental stability – the mind and the shell, the womb and the woman.

Of course, not all displacement is fiction. David Eggers’ What is the What chronicles the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who experiences his own type of sudden movement, from the gentle village he grew up in to the front lines of the war to the confusing spectacle of the United States.

This is real. The story has been fictionalized to a slight extent, but for the most part Valentino’s Sudan is real – a true to life picture of what can happen when the wrong people are in power. It’s vividly recounted but not flowingly so. It’s written in Valentino’s voice, using Valentino’s visions and painting Valentino’s picture.

What a picture it is. A young boy is forced to flee his village, his mother, his father, and join a walking group of other young boys – the Lost Boys of Sudanese lore. He’s brought in as a soon-to-be Army boy. He’s placed alongside the resistance forces. He’s forced to find his place in a refugee camp, living in temporary shelters for a permanent amount of time. He’s miserable. And he’s got no escape. After all, where could he go?

The story is interspersed with quips from his current American life. He eventually makes it to the United States, so you know the ending will be somewhat happy. But he finds the U.S. to be just as difficult, just as dangerous – just as utterly confusing as any war torn village outside of Kenya.

I’d call it a coming of age story, but Valentino never had a chance to come of age. He was forced to grow up at the age of eight.

So when I complain about not being prepared to write a simple book article, I can’t really be taken seriously. Especially when my month of reading was filled with the type of stories that create cold chills and boiling blood – words that piece together the horrors of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Sure, I had to jump head first to meet deadline. But my consequences were slight – an e-mail from Mr. Magee, a personal disappointment, a rushed article that’s a few days late.

I mean, my life wasn’t on the line. That’s pressure. That’s displacement.

Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood Pulp
CVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb.

is a writer based in South Dakota

One comment:

  1. It's nice to see The Handmaid's Tale mentioned. It's such a great book, and it holds, like 1984, so many truths about power and the ease of abuse that it is a book which deserves to be read and reread.

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