Woven through The Testaments—the new novel by the eminent Canadian author Margaret Atwood and a sequel to her 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale—are harrowing flashbacks in which women deemed undesirable by the new men in charge are herded into a football stadium, held in brutal and degrading captivity, and periodically gunned down in the arena. These powerful, sickening scenes evoke both radical Islamist regimes and South American juntas. But they take place in a dystopian version of the United States; the makeshift prison is Harvard’s football stadium. To legions of Atwood’s American fans, this nightmarish vision is terrifyingly real. Yet the fantasy of martyrdom that Atwood taps into is self-indulgent and ultimately self-defeating—raising the question of why so many fans are so eager to believe the worst.
Atwood’s novels, and the recent Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, have clearly struck a deep chord with a key segment—mostly well-educated, white, and female—of America’s reading and viewing public. The Testaments is in its fourth week as a New York Times best seller—currently in third place, down from first—while The Handmaid’s Tale has been on the paperback fiction best-seller list for two years. The TV show, whose third season ended last month, just scored two Emmys. And the Handmaid fandom has famously crossed over into politics: The red cloaks and white bonnets of the Handmaids, breeder slaves in the ultra-patriarchal theocracy of Gilead, have become a popular outfit at protests.