I've been trying to read Riddley Walker and failing miserably. A critic I admire and respect thinks it is a great book, so I tried. Hopeless. It's not that I don't get it. I have the same problem with lobster and single malt whiskey. Yeah, best of their sort. Who cares?
Meantime, Alias Grace. It took me six months to get around to buying it, and it's been on the table, waiting for me, for three more. Why? Because a new book by a wonderful writer is like a visit to a distant lover; each time we get together, there is the chance that something has changed, that the magic will have gone away. So we approach shyly, wary of disappointment. I am as wary of John Fowles, who disappointed me once (Daniel Martin), and Scott Momaday, who is so unreliably brilliant. With some writers — Orson Scott Card, William Goldman, Frederick Manfred, Frank Waters — I want less and therefore am less vulnerable to disappointment. With some writers, for whatever reason, my trust is absolute. Atwood I haven't known well; but everything has been too nearly perfect. I worry.
Oh little faith. The first sentence blossoms. By page 33 I was engaged, wondering if Grace was a multiple personality possessed by 'Mary Whitney.' By page 100 I was thinking, "This is what The French Lieutenant's Woman would be, if written from a feminine sensibility" (Bear with me, I'm referring to Grace's sensibility, not Atwood's; it doesn't mean what you might think!). The device of the interesting but essentially pedestrian young psychologist worked fine to give Grace a necessary interlocutor, and then, suddenly, he came to life with one of those phrases Atwood will brush like feathers under our noses. A lovely young lady flirts with him. Later, while he is collecting his wits, Atwood remarks, "He felt as if he had been ambushed by a flowering shrub."
I howled with delight, to the alarm of my dog. It is a phrase as apt, as precise, as characteristic as my favorite moment in all her fiction, when Tony observes in The Robber Bride, to describe her love for her husband, "He was like one's own children, boring." This is real writing. Not the word games and puzzles that obscure meaning, but the obscure meanings of real life illuminated as best we can, not explained but laid on the table, under the bright kitchen light, for us to puzzle over.
Some years ago, a writer I respect very much was my guest at a reading on campus. (She didn't know and I never told her, but I had paid half her stipend myself to persuade the school to bring her, so she was literally my guest.) She met with the women's resource center and at one point in the discussion she offered the opinion that men shouldn't write about women because they couldn't understand them. I objected to the principle. By that reasoning, no one should write about anyone but themselves, and no one who reads will understand what's written but the writer. She blew me away, to the delight of the women present. I was, after all, a man. We both grew older.
Alias Grace is so clearly an Atwood book that it is a bit surprising to be reminded of other books not hers. The two that come to mind are John Fowles' classic The French Lieutenant's Woman, with its wonderfully ironic title (if there is anything Sara is emphatically not, it is anyone's 'woman').
There is so much of Charles Smithson in Atwood's poor, arrogant, innocent 'alienist.' The mystery of Fowles' novel is that seeing the story from Charles' perspective leaves us almost as baffled as he by Sara. Atwood turns the situation upside down. Grace tells the story, most of the time, and we are no less puzzled.
The other book that comes to mind is Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, which plays the first-person narrative for all its subtle power to persuade and obscure. The mystery in James' novella is that we can only know what the governess thinks happened. Since she is uncertain what happened, we are too busy trying to "help her" figure it out to consider the possibilty that she is not telling the whole truth, even to herself. The same device engages the energy of Alias Grace. The title, if you are paying attention, seems a giveaway. It's not.
The novel suffers the odd fate of so many Atwood fictions. She seems at a loss to find a satisfactory conclusion. In The Robber Bride, Zenia's melodramatic end is so contrived that it comes across as deliberately funny. Here, we expect something, some semblance of an explanation, a position on the part of the authorial voice. But no. Fowles wrapped his last ambiguities in an Escher print of alternatives; James left us standing there with the governess, helpless to intervene or know anything more than she can tell us, the only certainty the dead child. Atwood steps away from her puzzle with the last pieces still strewn on the table.
Samuel Johnson once said anyone who read Samuel Richardson (Pamela and Clarissa) for the plot would hang himself. With Margaret Atwood, the power is not in the plot but the illuminations, the distinctive voices. We know her characters as well as we know our friends and enemies; and hers is a creative gift to flaunt proudly.
I have posted reviews of The Blind Assassin and The Robber Bride. Upon publication of The Blind Assassin Atwood's publisher, Doubleday, put up a page for her which may still be available. The Random House "Reader's Companion" page for The Robber Bride has some useful interpretive materials, including a few Atwood poems and her address to the American Bookseller's Association the year the book was published.
She has her own website as well, the delightfully named Owtoad. Other good sites are The Atwood Society and Brittany Chenault's Atwood Links. I recently discovered a beautiful and comprehensive bibliography site, luminarium.org
If you like Margaret Atwood, you might like Louise Erdrich, a woman of Michif (Métis) heritage who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Love Medicine in 1985. I have posted an annotated bibliography of her work and reviews of The Antelope Wife and her newest novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.