I didn’t go into Louise Erdrich’s latest novel Future Home of the Living God with the expectation that it would leave me so anxious about The Future that I had to read half of Archer’s Goon just to get myself to sleep. But you can see that this is my own error.
Cedar Songmaker is pregnant at a time when evolution has begun to run backward. She visits her biological Ojibwe family to inquire about any potential medical issues, but has yet to tell her adoptive Minnesota liberal parents that she’s expecting. As she’s wrestling with all of this, the country has begun to change at an ever-increasing pace, with pregnant women being called in to give birth in government-controlled centers. This is compulsory. If anyone sees a pregnant woman out in public, they are required to inform on them, which means that Cedar’s movements are strictly curtailed.
Remember when I invented the term process dystopia like a damn genius? Well it has come in handy a fair few times, and every time I read a book that fits that definition, I am like:
What a great coinage by me. Process dystopia refers to the kind of dystopian story where the world is in the process of falling apart. So it is not yet fallen apart, a la The Hunger Games. That is the case with Future Home of the Living God, and one criticism I’ve read of it is that Erdrich doesn’t spend enough time on worldbuilding. Certainly the details we see of Cedar’s world are fragmented, but number one, it’s literary so I didn’t come here for the worldbuilding SORRY LITERARY FICTION BUT SFF IS BETTER AT THIS THAN YOU, and B of all, the worldbuilding is fragmented because Cedar’s access to information is fragmented. It contributes to a claustrophobic uncertainty — with a limited notion of what kind of present Cedar’s living in, we’re even more terrified about the future these characters will face.
Okay, I know your next question is “How does this book compare to The Handmaid’s Tale?” Here are some answers, broken down by category.
Scary too-real-ness: Tough call. The Handmaid’s Tale is more thorough and explicit about what the end product world looks like, whereas Future Home of the Living God leaves a lot to the imagination. On the other hand, I read Handmaid’s Tale during the Bush presidency, and things are scarier and realer now. So, Future Home probably wins in this category for AT LEAST the duration of Trump’s term in office. We’ll reassess if American democracy survives thereafter.
Scary misogyny: Handmaid’s Tale contains way more focused and horrifying misogyny, which is why it’s unlikely I will ever have the fortitude to reread it. The villains in Future Home of the Living God are frequently women themselves, people who have failed in bravery and integrity when they faced the test. The specter of rape doesn’t hover over this book, and that was a relief to me. So, Future Home of the Living God wins this category too.
(“Jenny, you made the scarier book the winner in the first category, and you made the less scary book the winner in the second category, how does that make sense?” I AM THE BOSS OF THIS BLOG, SO SIT DOWN AND ACCEPT THE VERDICTS YOU’RE GIVEN.)
[SPOILERS] Hopefulness: Uh, Handmaid’s Tale wins this category. Future Home of the Living God ends in a dark, dark place. On the other hand, whereas Offred is (am I remembering this right?) deeply cynical throughout the book, Erdrich gives her heroine a perverse and persistent hope that things are going to be all right, despite all evidence to the contrary. It helps some. The ending of this book is still incredibly dark. Be prepared.
[SPOILERS] Babies dying on page in a lengthy and brutal birth scene: Look, I don’t know, it’s been a while since I read The Handmaid’s Tale. Do we see any babies dying in childbirth? Not that I remember! But the scene in Future Home of the Living God goes on for kind of a while (it’s not Cedar’s baby). So I’m calling The Handmaid’s Tale the winner in this category, and you can correct me if I’m wrong.
So, it’s a tie. I thought both books were really good, and they both upset me so much it’s unlikely I’ll ever reread them. But I’d reread Future Home of the Living God before I’d reread The Handmaid’s Tale because it turns out the only category that mattered is I’m goddamn tired of reading about rape. Thank you and good night.