Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood


Surfacing is Margaret Atwood’s second novel, dating from 1972. All of the facts in that sentence are significant in defining the strengths and considerable weaknesses of a most curious novel. It reads very much as an apprenticeship novel – good, but not quite right – and it struggles to transcend the social politics of both its author and the time in which it was written. Nineteen-seventies feminism would have been all but mute without the didactic. And, despite the author’s attempts to the contrary, the didactic is the underlying tone of this novel. Overall, to be honest, the novel is a bit of a mess. But it’s an intriguing mess. The fine line between genius and nonsense is seldom more evident than in this novel. Thematically, it has tremendous power but in terms of writing craft it is all over the place.

An unnamed narrator, a young Canadian woman, returns to her childhood home on an island in Quebec following the unexplained disappearance of her father, a naturalist. Accompanying her are her boyfriend, Joe, and a married couple, David and Anna. The return to one’s roots is a familiar trope in fiction, of course, allowing protagonists to review the tracks of their lives that have brought them to the mature characters they are. Flaws can be traced, decisions or actions or events uncovered which help to explain their personalities. Ron Rash did much the same thing recently with Saints at the River, a novel which bears similar flaws to those in Surfacing. It is, one suspects, a structural fault with this type of psychological character study. It is too simplistic, perhaps, to reduce the complexity of human character into a historical recreation of past events or traumas and a concomitant extrapolation of cause and effect. We’re not that straightforward. In fairness to Atwood, there is more than that going in Surfacing, but nonetheless it is a significant structural component of the novel.

However, you certainly can’t fault Atwood’s ambition. The novel is short – fewer than 200 pages – and yet she manages to pack in a thematic power which comes uncomfortably close to overload. There is gender, of course, as depicted by the cavalier, at times brutal ways the two women are treated by their menfolk. And there is a strong element of nationalism in the novel, particularly an aggressive anti-Americanism. All of this is quite acceptable, but when the thematic tableau extends to include specific linkages to the Holocaust, through the narrator’s Germanic origins, one feels the author is allowing herself to get carried away. Less is more.

Allied to her treatment of nationalism, there is a strong message about dispossession, the manner in which traditional Canadian ways and customs are being obliterated by incoming American culture. This is a very worthwhile thing to consider: the culture of a society is a powerful but fragile commodity and I’m certainly aware, as a Scot 250 years after the event, of the legacy of the Highland Clearances in my own country.

Therefore, this element of the novel could be intriguing, but it doesn’t work. This is because of the ridiculously cartoonish way in which the “Americans” in the novel are described. They are Beavis and Butthead on manoeuvres and as two-dimensionally obvious as it’s possible to be. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that Atwood inverts this by – shock, horror, who'd have thought it? – revealing that they are, in fact, indigenous Canadians and not Americans at all. The narrator's preconceptions about them may have been proved to be wrong, but the characterisation which brings about this revelation remains two-dimensional and over-the-top. It is, to be honest, simply a cheap trick on the author’s part, allowing her to make a thematic point that isn't warranted by the strength of the narrative.

From the start of the novel there is a sense of disconnection. The narrator cannot reconcile being back in the surroundings of her childhood while in the company of friends from her adult life: “either the three of them are in the wrong place or I am.” The reason for her return is to seek traces of her father, who has inexplicably gone missing and may be dead or may still be alive. Back in the family cabin once more, the sound of road traffic to which she has become so accustomed is replaced by the birdsong she remembers from childhood. Past and present, nature and civilisation, ambition and fear, certainty and doubt, they begin to jostle in her mind. As is customary for this sort of “back to one’s youth” novel, the device is used to unravel the protagonist’s personality. Memories surface: family rancour, death, violence. And, in turn, more recent memories, buried deeply in her psyche, are revealed: an abortion, an affair, relationships and breakdowns.

All of this is revealed to us through the narrator – and how irritatingly postmodern is it that the central character doesn’t even have a name so she has to be referred to as “the narrator”? She is, of course, unreliable. By the end of the novel she has completely lost her senses. Or has she? Has she, in fact, regained them? Has she recovered the animal spirit that lurks within us, the gnostic spark of knowledge which modernity and its brutalising ways have extinguished? Because now the novel begins to take an ecopastoral turn. The rational world of science and machinery that we have created is in conflict with the animalism around us: this has been the Jungian rallying cry of fiction from Modernism onwards. Although it is well handled, in honesty others have done it better: Pincher Martin, The Orchard Keeper, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Housekeeping, The Glass Bead Game, Bartleby the Scrivener, The Life and Times of Michael K., the poetry of Ted Hughes. Even Last of the Mohicans. All of them explore similar territory to this, and, until the remarkable conclusion of Surfacing, all of them are better.

Why? There are two reasons, one thematic and one craft. Thematically, there is just too much going on. There is nothing wrong, in a novel-length work, with thematic complexity, with a deep interlinking of themes and ideas. But here they don’t so much interlink as batter into one another. It’s a dodgem car of a novel, its ideas forever careering into the buffers and crashing into one another. One minute it’s ecopastoralism, then it’s gender politics, then nationalism, then the Holocaust. And the underlying fault is that the only thing linking these strands together is the flawed and unreliable narration of the main character. At times she is clearly not sane and: while it is possible to fashion a novel around the machinations of an insane protagonist, here it cannot work because the thematic targets are too varied. Crime and Punishment works because Raskolnikov’s obessions slide, in the course of the novel, from a greedy desire for both money and knowledge (specifically the knowledge of murder) into a gnawing desire for redemption. Although Raskolnikov’s sanity could be doubted, the linearity of the novel’s thematic exploration is entirely consistent. In Surfacing, that thematic exploration flails about like a woman beating off midges in the gloaming.

In terms of writing craft, the principal issue is characterisation. What do we have here? Firstly, men are shits – that old staple of feminist literature. Therefore, we have David who forces his wife to strip while he photographs her, while Joe comes close to raping the narrator. No. There needs to be a balance somewhere, a male character who is not a sexual predator. Secondly, American men are even bigger shits – that staple of leftist, anti-American writing. Thirdly, anyone embraced by modern culture is basically uncivilised, while anyone in touch with the natural wilderness has a primeval connection with some deeper spiritual knowledge. There is a ham-fistedness to much of this that is infuriating, because it damages what otherwise would be a very fine piece of writing.

Supporters will argue that I’m simplifying what is in the text to make a point, and they may be right. The ending definitely suggests a far greater control of theme than I’m allowing. And certainly, the narrator is a remarkably complex character and it would not do to take anything she says at face value. Truth shifts and warps as the story progresses. Nothing is clearly understood. Therefore, it could be argued, some of the caricatures I complain of could, in fact, be representations of that very unreliability, and therefore inverted in meaning? Well, perhaps so, but it’s possible to make this sort of argument about virtually any novel of ideas that has ever been written. I agree there doesn’t have to be a moment when an author presents “this is what I believe” – reading Blood Meridian cured me of that critical foible – but somewhere along the line one needs to get a sense of what is being addressed. That only really emerges in the novel’s terrible and wonderful conclusion.

In this, the narrator breaks free from all shackles and reverts, briefly, to a Rousseauian state of natural savagery. The ending is far and away the most interesting part of the novel. This is where you see Atwood the novelist really beginning to emerge. All before is preliminary and, it might be argued, extraneous. William Golding would have started this novel here. It is surreal and terrifying. The narrator becomes something other – freed from rational instinct but somehow different from the wilderness dweller we might have expected. She doesn’t become some vessel for an ancient spirituality, nor does she find an animalistic core. She doesn’t become a visionary. And yet she does manage to channel some of those impulses and forces. It is a peculiar thing, and this is writing of impressive depth and complexity. It echoes Suttree’s sojourn in the mountains but, here, the narrator finds some sense of inner truth that Suttree would not attain until his typhus attack: “I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone.”

As a theme, that’s about as interesting as it gets. No man is an island. No victim can be despatched without a trace. No act, however guileless, is without consequence. No human can exist without exerting an influence – for good but also for ill – on other human beings. And for all its faults, it’s definitely worth reading Surfacing in order to come to this moment of departure.

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