Books

Exquisite Amusements

Twenty-five years ago, Margaret Atwood published her Big Book. What should we make of what she’s done since?

by
Illustration by Carl Wiens

• 3,483 words

Illustration by Carl Wiens

As an American writer, reader, and teacher, I would like to be able to tell you that we here in the States are big fans of the great Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood. But it isn’t quite so. We are her fans, of course, but the idea of her as a Canadian novelist, however fundamental to her aesthetic and her identity, has a way of eluding our attention. I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise: we Americans, worldly as we may be, tend to ignore our neighbour to the north. The exception is when something from Canada sucks, at which point we go out of our way to mock it. If something from Canada is awesome, on the other hand, we tend to claim it as our own, or at the very least file it away in our minds in a folder marked “Might as well be American.” Or, if we’re feeling generous, a folder marked “North American.”

Atwood’s best-known novel here—and, I presume, among her best-known elsewhere, too—is 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a harrowing, dystopian metafiction about a concubine living in a phallocentric, theocratic dictatorship of the near future. This state of affairs has been arrived at by way of a military coup that brings down the government—the American government, I mean. You could write a novel about an overthrow of the Canadian government, if you really wanted to, but nobody here would read it. You could probably overthrow the actual Canadian government, and it would barely make the American evening news. They would put it on right before the late-night talk shows, perhaps preceded by a story about a horse that can multiply and divide. Which, come to think of it, sounds like something out of an Atwood novel.

The Handmaid’s Tale has proven a sturdy text in American colleges. We assign it for its explorations of gender politics, race, and American-style nativist ideology. We dig its Nabokovian textual layers and its cracking-good storyline. We marvel at its emotional honesty, its black humour, its disrespect for the boundaries of genre. It’s the subject of many American critical essays—the American Library Association even threw a conference on it. An entire conference! On just this one book!

You couldn’t say any of this was bad for Atwood. The book took an already-respected career and turned it into a kind of religion. With any luck, the people of 2210 will regard The Handmaid’s Tale the way we regard 1984: not quite on the money, but eerily prescient in unexpected ways. The book earned Atwood last-name-only status, as in “When’s the new Atwood coming out? ”

But there’s a flip side to having a Big Book: the burden of always being associated with it, above and beyond everything else you’ve written. This is particularly vexing in the case of Atwood, whose larger career, unlike those of many writers of timeless blockbusters, rewards careful and obsessive examination. In the twenty-five years since her Big Book, her stylistic range has been extraordinary, her interests diverse. She has proven as adept at the small and obscure as she is at the grand and complex, and has revealed herself to be a brilliant eccentric, a comic fabulist and an inveterate tinkerer, a Willy Wonka of the literary arts—indeed, not just of the literary arts: one of her most interesting projects isn’t even a book. It’s a robot.

Atwood could only be Canadian. No other nation is simultaneously so huge and so obscure. She embodies this contradiction perfectly: she is wildly famous, and yet big swaths of her career seem to go more or less unnoticed. A consummate lit nerd, she pursues her interests with dogged persistence and obvious pleasure, without evident regard for what anybody thinks. Her equally talented countrywoman, Alice Munro, is a steadier kind of writer: her innovations are many but quiet, her particular skills reliable and regular. Atwood, on the other hand, is always throwing you a curve. (That’s a sports metaphor, by the way—you guys have baseball up there, right?)

The first curve, after The Handmaid’s Tale, was Cat’s Eye (1988), a novel about a woman named Elaine who makes art that is often pigeonholed as “feminist.” She travels to Toronto (referred to only as “the city of her youth” on the back cover of my mass-market paperback) for a retrospective of her paintings, and is interviewed by a reporter:

“Well, what about, you know, feminism? ” she says. “A lot of people call you a feminist painter.”

“What indeed,” I say. “I hate party lines, I hate ghettoes. Anyway, I’m too old to have invented it and you’re too young to understand it, so what’s the point of discussing it at all? ”

“So it’s not a meaningful classification for you? ” she says.

“I like it that women like my work. Why shouldn’t I? ”

“Do men like your work? ” she asks slyly…

“Which men? ” I say. “Not everyone likes my work. It’s not because I’m a woman. If they don’t like a man’s work it’s not because he’s a man. They just don’t like it.” I am on dubious ground, and this enrages me.

The main business of Cat’s Eye, however, is the cruelty of children. Elaine’s return home sets off a series of memories, of her friends Grace and Carol and Cordelia and the shifting alliances among them. I confess that I didn’t like this book the first time I read it—a Handmaid’s Tale bandwagoneer, I had not yet read anything else of Atwood’s, and must have hoped for more sci-fi geekery.

What was I thinking? The world of these four girls is as strange and bleak as anything in the previous novel: Elaine, driven to nausea by Cordelia’s insidious influence, allows herself to be buried alive, and nearly freezes to death in a creek retrieving her thrown hat. (“There’s your stupid hat,” says Cordelia… “Why don’t you go and get it? ”) Some of Atwood’s favourite riffs and motifs are on display here, notably several that would later be put to such marvellous use in the current MaddAddam trilogy: chants and songs, environmental destruction, genetic engineering. Elaine’s father, an entomologist, is preoccupied by a possible future in which everyone is diabetic and the world is covered with insulin-producing cows. And “he’s heard some son of a gun is working on an experiment to breed a turkey with four drumsticks, instead of two drumsticks and two wings.” To judge from Oryx and Crake’s nauseating ChickieNobs, the experiment was a smashing success.

When I discovered Margaret Atwood, I believed that a writer’s true worth could only be determined by the success of her short stories. And so it was the 1991 collection Wilderness Tips that cemented my convictions. It’s a great book, still one of my favourite story collections ever. I was in the early stages of becoming a writer when I first read it, and I still use the tricks I cribbed from Atwood’s blackly comic tales. She is masterful here at the transference of weight from emotion to object, as in “The Bog Man,” where a swamp-cured mummy with its feet sliced off serves as a metaphor, to the protagonist, for her married lover, an archaeologist immobilized by his wife and children. She dreams of the bog man’s “dark tender shape, a shape of baffled longing.” Or the haunted paintings in “Death by Landscape,” the story of a girl’s disappearance that might have been foul play or might, in the narrator’s imagination, have been a liberation. “Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is. She is in Lois’s apartment, in the holes that open inwards on the wall… She is here. She is entirely alive.”

But the story that has stuck with me most powerfully over the years is “Hairball,” in which a woman trapped in a depressing relationship with a smug married man is hospitalized for the removal of an ovarian cyst. She keeps the cyst in a jar on the mantel and names it Hairball. With strands of hair “like the guck you pulled out of a clogged bathroom-sink drain,” with its tiny, misshapen bones and fragments of toenail and “five perfectly formed teeth,” it’s the child she’ll never bear with her schlump of a lover. In the end, fed up with him, she wraps the thing in tissue paper, puts it in a fancy box, and has it delivered to the “drinks party” his wife is throwing. “Secrets will be unearthed,” she thinks, as the package is on its way. “There will be pain. After that, everything will go way too far.”

Right there, you’ve got a pretty succinct description of what happens in every Atwood book: secrets, pain, and things going too far. You could read this story as a simple feminist revenge fantasy. But what makes it special is not what it’s about—it’s the way it is executed, with such immoderate flair. It is thoroughly, joyfully revolting: from the depths of the Politest Nation comes a barbaric yawp. When, hard at work, pen in hand, I hesitate to do the unthinkable thing, I remember this story and tell myself to man up.

But wait—she was up to other stuff, too. She wrote a lot of poetry (I would need a space twice as large as this to address the poetry, so let’s just say it’s really good, in that eye-rollingly impressive way some people have of being better at their secondary career than a lot of people who have chosen it as a primary career), and there was a sort of chapbook called Good Bones, which nowadays can be found combined with previously published work in the collection Good Bones and Simple Murders. This little book of incidental pieces is funny, assured, accomplished, and diverse; it’s filled with gentle mockings of literary convention, recontextualization experiments, weird fables. She writes about writing and chickens and men. At least in the later omnibus edition, she has also done the illustrations (and therein seems to inaugurate a third career). There were children’s books as well, and essays, and she was probably working regularly on the updated 2004 edition of her seminal book on Canadian literature, Survival—just in case you thought she was, I dunno, reading magazines or watching television.

Next came The Robber Bride, her wry retelling of “The Robber Bridegroom,” the Brothers Grimm’s tale of a maiden-munching monster. Here, the monster is a husband poacher, Zenia, previously presumed dead, who resurfaces to threaten our three maidens (Roz, Charis, Tony) once more. Delightfully brainy and trashy, brimming over with comic send-ups of feminine types, the book would probably be called chick lit if it were being published today, and it was Atwood’s first novel.

In any event, it is a stunning model for the genre—a smart, rollicking page-turner that many far-lesser writers might have decided was beneath them. Atwood clearly doesn’t think that way. She claims all genres, all storylines, as her own, without regard for (or, perhaps, with calculated disregard for) their presumptive proper contexts. Alias Grace, her next book, is of course ridiculously, impossibly different: a novel of ideas, of national identity, of gender and morality. Grace Marks, a real-life teenage housemaid in 1840s Toronto, was convicted of murdering her employer and his lover; in fictionalizing her story, Atwood gives us a dual narrative: one from Marks herself, and one from a curious doctor who takes up her case in the spirit of scientific inquiry. Packed with intrigue, exquisite detail, and the interplay of competing narrative lines, the book nonetheless vexed some readers (Francine Prose, in her review in the New York Times, complained that “you can almost hear the requisite historical notes being struck, one by one, like bars on a xylophone”). But it stands as another staggering artifact in Atwood’s gallery of departures.

At this point, she seemed to decide upon a path for her late career: that of constantly evolving, uncompromising weirdness. If Alias Grace was merely large and complicated, The Blind Assassin is a massive, sprawling metafiction, a veritable doorstop of mad ambition. Iris and Laura Chase are sisters, growing up in 1920s Toronto in a large house with a disreputable father, and the memory of a mother who has died during a miscarriage. When Laura dies at twenty-five, her car sailing off a bridge, she leaves behind a science fiction novel (in an inevitable po-mo wink, it’s called The Blind Assassin) that is published to great success. But it turns out that…

Actually, do I even have to do this? You’ve read it, right? The story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Brontë-esque plot twists, the lavish period detail—this has all been discussed half to death in book clubs all over the world, in critical essays and reviews, in gushing speeches at awards dinners where The Blind Assassin was the artifact of the hour. This was the era of Atwood writing thicker and thicker novels containing more and more complexity and historical detail, and of readers convincing themselves that this must mean the books were better, more accomplished, than what came before. Don’t get me wrong—these are accomplished novels indeed. But during this time, I found I wasn’t really reading Atwood. I never did get through these two books. I liked The Robber Bride. I liked the short stories. I wanted a return to the days when Atwood just seemed to be amusing herself, if sometimes in the most exquisite way possible. Enter Oryx and Crake:

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

“What the hell is it? ” said Jimmy.

“Those are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.”

“But there aren’t any heads… ”

“That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.”

Oh. My. God.

What we’re looking at here is the ChickieNob, the abhorrent agri-unit that convinced me the Margaret Atwood I loved best was back in action. It wasn’t the sci-fi (although I didn’t mind that one bit). It was the delight. Chickie-Nobs were the epitome of gross-out Atwoodian black comedy, little Hairball all grown up. They were a scientific, moral, environmental, and emotional abomination. I loved them. Oryx and Crake was Atwood’s most inspired novel in years, and when I learned it was part of a planned trilogy my reaction was “Of course it is.” Once you have found the perfect thing to do, you have to do as much of it as you can.

Oryx and Crake posits a drugged, corporatized, engineered near-future where genetic experimentation has resulted in massive environmental catastrophe. Our guide to this world is Jimmy, also known as Snowman, a grizzled survivor of indeterminate age who seems to be the only normal human left on earth. Through parallel storylines—one set in the ruined present, the other in the years preceding it—we learn that Jimmy was a witness to history: his friend Crake, a boy genius turned bio-anarchist, has murdered humanity and replaced it with a new breed of being: flawless, mannequinlike innocents for whom Jimmy is creating a new, Crake-centred mythology. Throughout, he moons over Oryx, the child prostitute turned lab assistant, who serves as love object to the two young men, and eventually as mother to the Children of Crake. Morality has been banished from her conception of sex by the violence done to her; this emptiness makes its way into the new humans, who, unburdened by a conventional sex drive (they go into heat, like animals), are as bland and undistinguished as Twinkies. In the end? Secrets are unearthed. There is pain. And, of course, everything goes way, way too far.

This novel, and its successor, The Year of the Flood, feel to me like the books Atwood was put on earth to write. In their commingling of myth, folklore, politics, gender, sexual politics, and wilderness survival, they stand as works that epitomize the woman—one feels that Atwood has at last managed to find a way to give form to all her personal obsessions at once, without clutter or confusion or excess. That they are science fiction novels is beside the point. All of Atwood has always been science fiction, or speculative fiction, anyhow; her fictional worlds have always been fantastic versions of this one. The only difference has been degree.

Between these two novels, Atwood published three other books of fiction: The Penelopiad, The Tent, and Moral Disorder. They are, respectively, a retelling of the Odysseus myth from the points of view of Penelope and her maids; another collection of experimental essays, metafictions, and drawings; and a series of more conventional, but linked, short stories. These are very good books, but the shadow of the MaddAddam trilogy hangs heavily over them; one feels Atwood has her great love, and then she has her other stuff. Indeed, it’s hard to conceive of what might come next. Whatever it is, though, it’s likely to feel completely surprising and utterly inevitable, just like everything that came before it.

But what of the LongPen? you ask. Let me quote a 2009 article by André Voshart from, of all places, the online trade journal CanadianManufacturing.com:

When Margaret Atwood called Matthew Gibson from a hotel room in the spring of 2004, she was in the middle of a grueling, multi-city, multi-country book tour… She imagined being able to sign books for her fans from afar, and at that moment, she had the seed of an idea that would, years later, become the LongPen Freehand Script Robot.

Gibson, a specialist in intellectual property and development, teamed up with Atwood to form a company, Unotchit (since renamed Syngrafii), which created the first prototypes of the LongPen, a device that allows remote input with a stylus and a tablet to be translated, miles away, into a signature on a page. How does it work? “The system,” Gibson writes, “is a pantograph-based device with an anti-backlash mechanism to correct for gearbox non-linearity. It has four high-quality Faulhaber micro motors to maneuver the robotic arm. One is for vertical motion to make the robot approach the book, two are the pantograph so the pen writes on the X-Y plane, and the fourth lifts the pen toward and away from the paper.” One imagines Atwood could rattle that off with equal ease, and actually know what the hell she was saying.

It is possible to imagine other writers coming up with this idea, but it strains credulity to put the execution into anyone else’s hands. Only Atwood could have made it happen, with her fearless confidence, ingenuity, and energy.

And, dare I say, her inalienable Canadianness. No one in my country, I don’t think, would design a device intended to keep the famous as far as possible from their fans. The notion of literary celebrity, of celebrity in general, is something we take terribly seriously. To form a company dedicated to lessening its effects is decidedly… sensible. Sober. Un-American. And more power to her.

This appeared in the October 2010 issue.

Carl Wiens won best illustration at the 2013 Western Magazine Awards, for his contributions to subTerrain.