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Critical Review by Helen Yglesias
SOURCE: "Odd Woman Out," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VI, Nos. 10-11, July 1989, pp. 3-4.
Yglesias is an American-born educator and novelist whose works include How She Died (1972), Family Feeling (1976), and Sweetsir (1981). In the following review, Yglesias praises Atwood's style and commitment to issues, but finds the novel Cat's Eye an uneven work.
The successful publication of The Handmaid's Tale transformed the distinguished Canadian poet and prose writer Margaret Atwood into a world-class, internationally acclaimed, best-selling writer—to use some of publishing's most favored phrases. Her next novel, Cat's Eye, inevitably became an occasion for critics to weigh and measure this current work against the brilliant evocation of a repressively anti-woman dystopia depicted in The Handmaid's Tale. Those looking for a falling off found it. Though Cat's Eye has been sufficiently well-marketed and praised, placing Atwood once again on the best-seller list, reviewers have also expressed disappointment. (Sharon Thompson in the Village Voice, Vivian Gornick in New York Woman are only two examples.)
Why this carping? Atwood's oeuvre is astonishingly varied, copious and good. Beginning publication in 1961 with a book of poems, she continued with other works of poetry, a solid body of short fiction, and seven novels, including the stunning Surfacing. She has written children's books and collections of prose criticism and theory, so rich an outpouring in fact that the usual rumblings have been voiced, the uneasiness that often greets prolific "serious" writers. (Joyce Carol Oates is a prime target for this specious concern of critics.) There is no such thing as too much good and important writing, and Atwood's work is certainly good and important; but there is room, within the rejoicing over her accomplishment, to inquire into the force and future direction of her output. Where are Atwood the writer, and her creation. The Atwood Woman, going?
Not directly in response to this question, but to a related one, the title poem of a 1985 collection, True Stories, reins the reader in. Atwood writes:
Don't ask for the true story;
Why do you need it?
It's not what I set out with
or what I carry.
What I'm sailing with,
a knife, blue fire,
luck, a few good words
that still work, and the tide.
But in Cat's Eye it is Atwood herself who is in desperate quest for "the true story" of a childhood experience which has eluded her until now in her fiction. If she has at long last reworked this material to her own satisfaction, she fumbles in passing on gratification to her readers.
The power to pleasure the reader, to gratify, is perhaps the single most important gift a writer possesses, not teachable in creative writing courses, not to be enforced in fact by any of the devices in the critic's arsenal and, conceivably, useless to talk about. If it's a case of the writer either having it, what is left to analyze beyond the harsh sentence of an absence of gift? The overwhelming love the great heroines of literature have called up from readers, those girls and women who step off the page into one's own life and consciousness, imparting an almost physical quality of identification and hope, seems to be, if not entirely lost to contemporary literature, then so diminished as to be effectively gone. It doesn't even seem proper for the reader to request a passionate response any more.
Post-Modernism (a term I use reluctantly as a shortcut definition of a pervasive type of contemporary novel) scoffs at such yearnings, finding them repulsively nostalgic. Understandably, since Romanticism has had its day and its say, and didn't do all that much for us anyway. But must the reader give up altogether the emotional release of gratification? Are dreariness, misery and failure, and the negative joys of satire, the substitutes we must accept as part of the modernist resolve to move beyond romantic realism?
The current Atwood Woman, Elaine Risley, is an accomplished artist who returns to Toronto, where she mostly grew up, to attend a retrospective of her work, heralded by the women's movement. Like Atwood herself, she is nearing 50, and the occasion becomes a memory trip in which her tormented girlhood is relived in the kind of detail Atwood can shape so obsessively. But there is an uneasiness in Atwood's handling of this experience, an uncertainty of direction and, yes, meaning—though, again, in modernist terms stories are not supposed to "mean," or at least no more or less than whatever they may happen to signify to individual readers. But Atwood isn't that kind of writer, or critic either. She means to "mean" something specific when she writes, no matter the disclaimers she supplies at the front of the book. But in Cat's Eye her purpose is opaquely veiled.
Much of the matter of Cat's Eye, as well as its themes (to borrow an Atwood word from her quite brilliant 1972 survey of Canadian literature, Survival: A Thematic Guide), will be recognized from earlier Atwood fictions: the unconventional parents, the challenge of the natural world, the thin quality of men-women relationships, the suppressed horror of the heroine's inner life, and the excitement and nourishment of creativity, in art and in science. And here, once again, she gives us the ultimate outsider as nail-biting third-world person, a mirror-image of her heroine, echoing the disquieting parallels she has found before between that displaced condition and the heroine's precarious sense of herself in a middle-class corner of a colonized country.
Mr. Banerji is a guest at Christmas dinner,
a student of my father's a young man from India who's here to study insects and who has never seen snow before. He's polite and ill at ease and he giggles frequently, looking with what I sense is terror at the array of food spread out before him, the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the lurid green and red Jell-O salad, the enormous turkey … I know he's miserable underneath his smiles and politeness … His spindly wrists extend from his over-large cuffs, his hands are long and thin, ragged around the nails like mine. I think he is very beautiful, with his brown skin and brilliant white teeth and his dark, appalled eyes … I can hardly believe he's a man, he seems so unlike one. He's a creature more like myself: alien and apprehensive. He's afraid of us. He has no idea what we will do next, what impossibilities we will expect of him, what we will make him eat. No wonder he bites his fingers.
We have met this creature before in Atwood fictions, most notably in the masterly short story, "The Man From Mars," from Dancing Girls, where too-large, unattractive Christine, "statuesque her mother called it when she was straining," is relentlessly pursued by "a person from another culture" because she has been kind to him in a perfunctory fashion, giving him directions to a particular location on campus. He is so small, she mistakes him for a child at first; then she notes his thinning hair and the aging lines on his face. The threaded edges of his jacket sleeves hang down over his thin wrists, his nails and the ends of his fingers are so badly bitten "they seemed almost deformed." His insanely fixed obsession with Christine makes her a laughing-stock. He ends up arrested and deported, and Christine remains an odd-woman-out for the rest of her life.
Atwood's persons "from another culture," dual images for her heroines (in Cat's Eye Elaine not only bites her nails and her fingers, she peels the skin of her feet every night until she is barely able to walk), also add complex values to her fiction, deepening the narrow, mean-spirited, middle-class dreariness of her milieus with a more painfully sharp social reality, just as the neat, swiftly executed satirical scenes at which she excels supply a deliciously nasty refreshment.
The core of Cat's Eye, the terrors and heartbreak of the realm of "girls" and "best-friends," has already been explored in Murder in the Dark and especially in Lady Oracle, where the anguish of the innocent youngster victimized by her best-friends is similarly played out, down to the symbolic locale of the sexually threatening ravine, the shaky bridge to safety, and the fall from grace, though without the mesmerizing effect Atwood produces in Cat's Eye.
That Atwood can mesmerize to some purpose was amply proven by The Handmaid's Tale. There her strengths and weaknesses came together to produce a classic, and the narrow path of her vision worked perfectly for a story in which every detail was controlled by the artists's imagination. But Cat's Eye is about life here and now, the life we all know, the life we live and question daily, not a construct totally bent to the author's will, and it is subject therefore to a set of different reader demands: a stacking up of the work's achievement not only against the author's intent, but against our own concept of what's what in the world.
What Atwood seems to be grappling with in Cat's Eye is a fundamental ambivalence about women, which many women share and should not be dismissed out of hand as simple-minded. It is the first, basic disfigurement of the oppressed: being taught, and learning well, to hate oneself. From her first novel, The Edible Woman. Atwood has mapped the syndrome eloquently. Among her women coworkers at an office party, this Atwood Woman reflects:
She examined the women's bodies with interest, critically, as though she had never seen them before … she could see the roll of fat pushed up across Mrs. Gundridge's back by the top of her corset, the ham-like bulge of thigh, the creases around the neck, the large porous cheeks; the blotch of varicose veins glimpsed at the back of one plump crossed leg, the way her jowls jellied when she chewed, her sweater a wooly tea cosy over those rounded shoulders; and the others too, similar in structure but with varying proportions and textures of bumpy permanents and dune-like contours of breast and waist and hip … What peculiar creatures they were … and the continual flux between the outside and the inside, taking things in, giving them out, chewing, words, potato chips, burps, grease, hair, babies, milk, excrement, cookies, vomit, coffee … blood, tea, sweat, liquor, tears and garbage … she was one of them, her body the same, identical, merged with that other flesh that choked the air in the flowered room with its sweet organic scent; she felt suffocated by this thick sargasso-sea of femininity … she wanted something solid, clear: a man; she wanted Peter in the room so that she could put her hand out and hold on to him to keep from being sucked down.
There are similar passages in all Atwood's novels.
In Cat's Eye, ambivalence lives at the center of the story. Elaine Risley is pulled towards the rich intellectual and scientific interests of her father, and particularly of her brilliant brother. At the same time, she worries that she is failing at being one of the boys, and longs for the mysteries of best-friends, the unknown world of girls. The vagaries of attitude of her unconventional mother leave her prey to the stupid and cruelly distorting conventions of the middle-class mothers and girls of the neighborhood in Toronto in which her odd family settles down after the Second World War. Torn, and ignorant of feminine lore, she tries to make her way.
Boys are easier in some ways, but girls and their exotic concerns are irresistible. She dissects frogs with aplomb, but the complexities of sweater-sets, girdles, perms, Church-going and Sunday School are unattainable however hard she strives. She never measures up. Among the group of best-friends into which she is initiated, Elaine is chosen as victim to be mocked, teased, mistreated and tortured to the point of real harm. She is buried at one point, and left to freeze or possibly be raped at another. As she grows into adolescence, she finds her relationships with boys "effortless … It's girls I feel awkward with. It's girls I feel I have to defend myself against; not boys."
And well she might. Apart from her mother, the women in Elaine Risley's girlhood are very nasty indeed. Cordelia, the particular best-friend who leads the pack in torturing Elaine, seems to be utterly without redeeming characteristics, yet Elaine remains obsessed with her even into her own maturity and success as an artist, though Cordelia has achieved nothing in contrast, and is last seen confined to a mental institution. It isn't Cordelia who is the subject of Elaine's paintings, however, but the mother of one of the other best-friends, a woman who devoted herself to remolding Elaine into a proper, Church-going, right-thinking, middle-class female—and failed. In the paintings so praised by the women's movement, Elaine exacts the ultimate revenge and Mrs. Smeath is rendered in canvas after canvas as the damaging, monstrous creature she had been to the young girl.
But the women's movement is no haven. Here too ambivalence flourishes. Elaine is between husbands, a single mother, and a beginning artist when she becomes reluctantly involved in a support group:
Confession is popular, not of your flaws but of your sufferings at the hands of men. Pain is important, but only certain kinds of it: the pain of women, but not the pain of men. Telling about your pain is called sharing. I don't want to share in this way; also I am insufficient in scars. I have lived a privileged life, I've never been beaten up, raped, gone hungry … A number of these women are lesbians … according to some, it's the only equal relationship possible, for women. You are not genuine otherwise … I am ashamed of my own reluctance … but I would be terrified to get into bed with a woman. Women collect grievances, hold grudges and change shape. They pass hard, legitimate judgments, unlike the purblind guesses of men, fogged with romanticism and ignorance and bias and wish. Women know too much, they can neither be deceived nor trusted. I can understand why men are afraid of them, as they are frequently accused of being … I avoid gatherings of these women, walking as I do in fear of being sanctified, or else burned at the stake. I think they are talking about me behind my back … They want to improve me. At times I feel defiant … I am not Woman, and I'm damned if I'll be shoved into it. Bitch, I think silently. Don't boss me around … But also I envy their conviction, their optimism, their carelessness, their fearlessness about men, their camaraderie. I am like someone watching from the sidelines, waving a cowardly handkerchief, as the troops go boyishly off to war, singing brave songs.
The most mystifying event in the book is the scene in which Elaine is deserted by her best-friends and left to freeze in the snow at the bottom of a ravine. Rescue comes in the shape of a vision of the Virgin, though it is the down-to-earth concern of her mother that truly leads Elaine to warmth and safety. Oddly, too, in winding up the threads of this long book, Elaine's beloved brother Stephen is killed off suddenly, without a design intrinsic to the book's intent, or at least to the reader's understanding. On a journey to Frankfurt to present a scientific paper "on the subject of the probable composition of the universe," his plane is hijacked, and he is singled out by the terrorists and killed. This act of cruelty summarily ejects the reader from the world of the book, in a state of shock and blame for its senselessness. There is something so wayward and arbitrary in this killing that one's primary emotion is rage at the author: You killed him and I don't know why and I don't think you do either.
On the final page, in what was for me a failed attempt to sum up and resolve the book's concerns, Elaine is herself on a plane, returning home from her memory trip. In the two seats beside her are
two old ladies, old women, each with a knitted cardigan, each with yellow-white hair and thick-lensed glasses with a chain for around the neck, each with a desiccated mouth lipsticked bright red with bravado … They have saved up for this trip and they are damn well going to enjoy it, despite the arthritis of one, the swollen legs of the other. They're rambunctious, they're full of beans; they're tough as thirteen, they're innocent and dirty, they don't give a hoot. Responsibilities have fallen away from them, obligations, old hates and grievances; now for a short time they can play again like children, but this time without the pain … This is what I miss, Cordelia: not something that's gone but something that will never happen. Two old women giggling over their tea.
Stubbornly, these happenings fail to coalesce or to peak. Does the death of Stephen signify anything? Is it divine punishment for being male? (Women and children are allowed to leave the plane.) Does the vision of the Virgin? Woman as a force for good? That notion takes some straining. "Two old women giggling over their tea"—a (condescending) image for the strengthening joys of long-lasting friendships between women. Perhaps Atwood is straining out the essence of her ambivalence, locating the pure liquid of her passionate negation of traditional femininity, seeking its source so as to choke it off; or perhaps she is struggling through to an open acknowledgement and embrace of sisterhood, down to its most repellent characteristics.
A novel is like a single breaking ocean wave, its waters gathered from far-away coasts, diverted by channels and chance winds, yet moving inexorably towards a crashing silvery moment that peaks and breaks on a designated shore. Cat's Eye gathers its many streams, sends them flowing forward in wash after wash of rich detail and observation, but disappointingly no wave forms. Fizzling, it disperses its brilliant waters ineffectually, allowing them to be sucked back into the general stream. But water is one of Margaret Atwood's powerful elements, and there is no doubt that her extraordinary gifts will keep her and her readers sailing.
This section contains 3,025 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)