Woman of many marvels ● by Brandon Cook
“A scintillating wordsmith” and “unflappable” are just two of the descriptions critics have used to describe the prodigiously talented novelist, poet, and critic, Margaret Atwood. The prolific author has published more than forty works of fiction, poetry, and criticism—not to mention several opera libretti and TV scripts—and received numerous awards, among them five Booker prize nominations and one win for her novel The Blind Assassin.
Atwood has earned a rightful place as one of the world’s most celebrated modern writers.
She will make an appearance at Indiana University as a Ruth N. Halls Distinguished Lecturer on February 3rd.
The author of The Handmaid’s Tale occupies a curious place in world literature. Physically, on the bookshelf, she falls somewhere around Paul Auster and Kevin Barry: one a Francophone poet and postmodern novelist, the other a writer of gritty short fiction and a dystopian novel. Atwood has dabbled in all these subjects plus many more, which just goes to show her astonishing range. She is one of those rare things: a technically gifted writer who has not stopped experimenting in the sixty years of her career.
To read Atwood for the first time or the fortieth is to read an author constantly, obsessively on the brink of a changing identity. Fluctuating from historical fiction to sci-fi to Gothicism, she is as chameleon as Joyce Carol Oates, with the poise and devastating subtlety of Hilary Mantel. Take this sentence from Mantel’s short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher:
“My husband was silent. The air conditioner hacked away. He walked into the shower, having evicted the cockroaches. Walked out again, dripping, naked, lay on the bed, stared at the ceiling. Next day I swept the business card into a bin.”
and compare it with one from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:
“A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.”
Atwood has a fine technique for world building using these wry collections of details: her art is the art of the splatter painter whose gobs of color reveal their rhythm and balance if one is patient and scrupulous. The longer the observer spends wandering over the canvas, the more powerfully the scene materializes. In Atwood’s case, the effect in totalis ends with disastrous results for the characters.
Many of her protagonists are self-conscious females facing inauspicious, often horrifying futures—The Blind Assassin opens with the suicide of the narrator’s sister; Alias Grace is about the real life murderer Grace Marks who was sentenced to life in prison at a young age. These characters spend a good portion indulging their fragmented observations, sussing out their own characters and the circumstances through which they’ve been doomed.
The effect is ruthless in The Blind Assassin, in which Iris Chase reflects on her sister’s death sixty years ago while she takes her walk in the landscape outside her house. In the year during which the novel’s present-day action takes place, the world Iris inhabits revolves monotonously around her, suggesting a kind of purgatorial uphill struggle. As her external world grows physically with the increasing distances she walks, her internal world produces thoughts on the hopelessness she sold herself into when she was younger, which in turn produces clues about the environment that drove her sister to death.
The details in the passage quoted above are all hard and concrete: territory in which Atwood is most at home. Occasionally she strays into abstractions and the prose becomes over-wrought and over-searching, like something from a creative writing workshop:
“There’s a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?”
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1939. The daughter of a forest entomologist for the Department of Agriculture, she and her family traveled extensively in rural Quebec throughout her childhood, settling down long enough for Atwood to begin attending school full-time in the eighth grade. Having read voraciously throughout her childhood: mysteries, Grimm’s fairy tales, Edgar Allen Poe, she decided at 16 that she would be a writer full-time, what she referred to later in the Paris Review as her “vocation.” In 1961 she completed her B.A. at Victoria College in Toronto, and her M.A. from Harvard’s Radcliffe college in 1962-1963.
She published her first book of poems, Double Persephone in 1961. The name suggests many of the trademarks of her later work: double or mirroring identities, motifs drawn from classical mythology, and fate ordained from an arbitrary and violent patriarchy.
The story of Persephone probably held particular resonance for Atwood, a Canadian preparing to publish in a market dominated by American men. A precocious young woman with everything to prove, she must have viewed the publishing market and its uncompromising make-it or break-it mentality as a kind of grim specter capable of rising up out of the ground at any time to swallow an unobservant writer. “My choices were between excellence and doom on the one hand, and mediocrity and coziness on the other,” she said later. “I gritted my teeth, set my face to the wind, gave up double-dating, and wore horn-rims and a scowl so I would not be mistaken for a puffball.”
Although most of her press photographs show a sprightly, whimsical woman with defined cheekbones and a mop of curls, no one who’s read her could mistake her for a puffball. Atwood has cut her teeth tackling just about every major theme there is — sexuality and violence, the marriage between love and power, the tension between history and fantasy, survival vs. identity, and sometimes all of them at once, as she does in this stanza from her poem “Marrying the Hangman”:
She has been condemned to death by hanging. A man
may escape this death by becoming the hangman, a
woman by marrying the hangman. But at the present
time there is no hangman; thus there is no escape.
There is only a death, indefinitely postponed. This is
not fantasy, it is history.
The woman, who’s been sentenced to death for stealing clothes from her master because she “wished to make herself more beautiful” must seduce the man on the other side of her cell, known only by his voice, into becoming her would-be killer so that she can marry him and escape. As this complicated allegory unfolds the woman reflects on what other choice she’s got and the voice of the poem drifts away from the condemned woman to an external speaker who confesses that it is historical circumstances, is not the woman’s choice, that dooms her.
Atwood’s theory of history being at fault occupies territory familiar to feminist writers—George Bernard Shaw’s controversial play Mrs. Warren’s Profession seems to be obvious comparison.
Shaw’s play was centered largely on class as well as gender divisions, and Atwood’s views are likewise augmented by her awareness of the division between Canada and the United States. Her opinion of the historical inequality between men and women—grounds upon which The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace are based—also comprises the “unequal power relationship” by which Canadians are plagued with internal and external threats of inferiority. It is no wonder that so many of her characters— Offred, Grace Marks, Elaine Risley, Iris and Laura Chase—are either confronting or in the process of remembering various mortal crises. Atwood has described the survival of Canadian identity as a “national obsession” and its collective conscious one of “schizophrenia” as opposed to the United States’ “megalomania.”
This does not mean that Atwood’s female characters are weak or internally disabled, just as it doesn’t mean that her male characters are dominant. For example, Simon Jordan in Alias Grace does not try to ‘reinvent’ his client Grace into a more becoming image, but rather reconciles the sensationalist aspects of her court case to the realistic aspects of her personality; although the same could not be said of The Blind Assassin’s Alex Thomas, whose presence and the science fiction novel-within-a-novel he tells comes to overtake the story and gives the sisters Laura and Iris much more than insight.
As with much of Atwood’s fiction, there are no rules of behavior that cannot be broken later.
Atwood takes numerous risks throughout her work—the unsustainability of the novel-within-a-novel; the inherent clichés of dystopian fiction—and her prose can be blunt, methodical, and sloppy when it handles complex and sophisticated forms. She is not a master stylist, and her sentences often sacrifice their lyricism by tacking on too much description.
Take this example from “Alphinland,” in her latest collection of short stories Stone Mattress, in which the character Constance observes the freezing rain:
“Under the streetlights it looks so beautiful: like fairy silver…But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment. The beauty is an illusion, and also a warning: there’s a dark side to beauty, as with poisonous butterflies. She ought to be considering the dangers, the hazards, the grief this ice storm is going to bring to many.”
The image of the rain is palatable and stands well enough by itself, but the prose relinquishes subtlety with the last two sentences, and it becomes parenting and nagging, as if the writer were afraid that the unstressed symbolism might throw off some of her readers. With her blunt images of violence and sex—think Laura Chase’s suicide in The Blind Assassin or the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale—Atwood is not exactly subtle, and yet forcing readers to take the hand of the narrator when they would read well enough without it compromises some of the pleasures supplied by her otherwise ingenious writing.
The difficulties that readers may find with her text notwithstanding, Atwood is and will remain one of the most influential and popular literary novelists for a long while. Time magazine named The Blind Assassin one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, and her novels and short story collections—one of which she publishes just about every year—are regular New York Times bestsellers. In everything but name and mustache, Atwood has emerged a kind of female Kurt Vonnegut, with a style of speculative-fiction-slash-realism to match.
She even has her own moniker, the bowdlerized Latin phrase Nolite te bastardes carborundorum—‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’—worn as an ankle tattoo by the same twenty-somethings who used to wear the words So it Goes from Vonnegut’s famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Atwood’s massive popularity with the younger community of readers is an accurate gauge of her merits as a storyteller. Always inventive, always fresh, she is a writer who presents a world still in the making, still in the process of being discovered, poured over, and marveled at. With her coy, confident smile—both secretive and confiding—Margaret Atwood is a guide all readers, current and future, should feel very lucky to have.
Of course, no one knows this better than Atwood herself. Her latest work will be published a full century after its completion, in the year 2114, to ensure that readers in the unforeseeable future will have the pleasure of experiencing new work for the first time. Only a master of speculative science fiction could envision herself in such a future, beyond experience, beyond imagining.