Critical Perspective of Atwood


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Critical Perspective of Atwood

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Editado: Mar 14, 2007, 10:49am

From written by Garan Holcombe in 2004

Critical Perspective

It is hard to believe it now, but there was a time, and it was not that long ago, when Canadian literature was something of a joke, particularly in the USA, where mocking the Northern neighbours is a national pastime. Few books were published, and fewer still were taken seriously by the English-speaking literary community. Then Margaret Atwood arrived. Her first novel The Edible Woman (1969), which many saw as a critique of women's role within society, was notable for its use of irony and metaphor. Her passionate and irreverent book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) in which she called for her compatriots to value their own experience as Canadians, did much to boost a neglected country. Forty years on and things are very different. In the last decade, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel (and Margaret Atwood herself) have all won the Booker Prize for Fiction. The late Carol Shields won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Stone Diaries and writers such as Rohinton Mistry, Douglas Coupland and Alice Munro have won an international following. However, there is no doubting that Atwood is the true diamond.

Margaret Atwood is the kind of writer for whom hyperbole seems an understatement. An icon in Canada, astonishingly prolific and famously abrasive in interview, she mixes high intelligence with a natural dry wit that leaves many a journalist foundering. Atwood has proved herself to be a writer whose acuity, lyricism and versatility are almost unmatched. She writes with wit and intellectual flair and seems able to turn her hand to anything from bildungsroman in Cat's Eye (1989), to Orwellian dystopia in The Handmaid's Tale (1986). Unlike those authors who peter out after a burst of early brilliance, Atwood's creative power shows no sign of diminishing.

It was with her poetry that Atwood first came to attention. Her poetry is marked by a fascination with the natural world and a disdain for the contemporary compulsion to accrue possessions. Her poems are rarely opaque and always accessible, demonstrating her memorable image-making and caustic wit. In one supposedly romantic poem she wrote 'I hold your hand which probably detaches at the wrist.' However, as accomplished as her poetry is, it is as a novelist that Atwood has built her international reputation as one of the English-world's greatest living authors.

Atwood leaves the ends of her stories untied, so that the reader is left with something to do. Life Before Man (1980), a bleak exploration of contemporary sexual machinations, ends on an enigmatic note that is both distressing and strangely hopeful. In the novel Atwood attempts an archaeology of the propulsion to love, excavating a parochial world of despairing confusion, self-centred motive and romantic backstabbing, that is all too recognizable. However, what we take away from the book, be it confirmation of our own cynicism or a belief in the importance of change, is entirely up to us.

Although Atwood's work deals with murder, emotional cruelty and religious totalitarianism she is never crass, sensational or transparently provocative. Like Graham Greene, she writes intelligent and beautifully crafted books that are also compulsively readable. It is a rare talent. Her work is profoundly human, and although she is often seen as a feminist writer, I think this is a misjudgement, (and given the prevailing attitude to the 'f' word, an attempt at dismissal) to deem her a feminist writer. If we are to bandy labels about then I would suggest that Atwood is a humanist. She places her characters in complex, challenging situations, which allow her to ruminate on the way we live and act towards one another. She moves with deft ease from the particular to the universal. She creates (mostly) female protagonists who are forced to remake themselves, to achieve a courage and self-reliance in their attitudes and relationships with others and the world around them. Although she writes of pain and suffering and the essential cruelty at the heart of human behaviour, her ever present sense of the absurd rescues her from an overt and distressing bleakness. Remember the conclusion to The Handmaid's Tale? The carpet is unexpectedly pulled from under the feet of the novel, leaving the reader unsure of what is real and what is not. The final sentence, 'any questions?', is not only a wonderfully terse conclusion, but one that has the reader screaming 'yes, hundreds.'

In Surfacing (1973), Atwood's second novel, a young Canadian divorcée journeys to an island in the wilderness of northern Quebec with her boyfriend and two friends, in search of her missing father. Convinced her father has drowned in one of the area's many lakes and frustrated at having found nothing after days of looking, she dives in. 'It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest level where there was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs. It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead.' She recovers the past that has been submerged for years, recalling her abortion and affair with a married man. She undergoes an extraordinary and almost mystical metamorphosis. The natural world exerts its hold over her and she enters a barely sane state in which she rejects the trappings of civilisation and declares, in a sentence destined to become one of defining logos of the feminist movement of the 1970s, 'This above all, to refuse to be a victim.' Atwood's use of the wilderness as a metaphor is far from simplistic. This is her achievement. In a lesser writer's hands the cracks would show. Yet with a writer this in control of her craft we are invited to find our own way through this unsettling and unexpected Kafkaesque conclusion.

Being a poet, it is perhaps unsurprising that Atwood's novels have a lyrical quality. Her sentences do much more than take the story from A to B. They can be appreciated for their rhythms, puns and delicious ironies, as this passage from the Booker Prize for Fiction winning The Blind Assassin (2000) demonstrates. 'He was putting on weight, he was eating out a lot; he was making speeches, at clubs, at weighty gatherings, substantial men met and pondered, because - everyone suspected - there was heavy weather ahead.' The repetition and tongue in cheek accumulation of synonyms is its own pleasure. Unlike Martin Amis, whose foregrounding of his own dazzlingly inventive verbal style often gets in the way of the story he is trying to tell, Atwood manages to fuse the two, thus deepening the experience of reading her.

Atwood has been criticised by some for the way in which her books are constructed. Some of her most compelling fiction, The Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace (1996) and The Blind Assassin, all play with narrative convention. They use multiple narrators, novels within novels, fake newspaper articles and time shifts in a way that is never confusing but does require close reading. Atwood is a knowing and arch writer who, whilst never intruding into her own fiction, does very much like to be seen to be in control. In a way she reminds me of Stanley Kubrick. She has excelled in a variety of genres, she has a powerfully unique voice, her stories are enigmatic and demand to be read again and again, and there is an unmistakeable irony, distancing and protective, never far from the surface of each sentence.

Atwood's latest novel, Oryx and Crake, (2003), short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, is a cautionary tale set in a future in which genetic science, climate change and social inequality have laid waste to civilisation. Featuring a male protagonist for the very first time, the novel is once more a puzzle in which the reader spends a great deal of time unsure of what is happening. In that sense, it is vintage Atwood. Although Oryx and Crake has been described as a work of science fiction, Atwood herself prefers to see it as 'speculative fiction' - her definition of the latter being that it doesn't feature any space ships.

Any comments?

Mar 14, 2007, 11:05am

My first reaction was - is Gavin Holcombe a cover name for her mother/husband/child?

I've read a few of the critical appraisals on contemporarywriters and they almost always err too much on the positive, rather than attempting to give a more balanced view. (This could be done to it being sponsored by the British Arts Council).

To be honest, I haven't read enough Atwood to respond meaningfully to this critique but I now feel as if I should read more, just to find out if Holcombe is right or wrong.

Mar 15, 2007, 7:58am

I agree, "critical" seemed the wrong word as I was expecting, well, a bit more criticism. It does sound like it was written by a volunteer:-) but it does also have the effect of encouraging me to reread everything!

It hadn't occurred to me that Oryx and Crake featured her first male protagonist, hmmm.

Maio 14, 2007, 10:24am

I've only read two Atwood novels (so far), but I would agree with most of what is written in this review. I find Atwood to be a very readable author - who uses humor and symbolism/metaphor incredibly well. Both books I've read thus far have completely immersed me in the story and I find myself compulsively turning the pages until I get to the end. Any writer who can do this for me is tops on my list!

Jul 19, 2007, 2:26pm

I agree with many of Holcombe's points, but take exception to his comment that Atwood is more humanist than feminist. He seems to be apologizing for Atwood's tone or perspective, which is decidedly feminist with no apologies necessary. One of the reasons I love many of her novels is because she writes from the perspective of a female, a female who is living in a patriarchal and mysogynistic world.