Archive for the ‘Margaret Atwood’ Category

Dancing Girls

April 16, 2018

Karen and Simon’s biannual reading clubs, each focusing on a particular year as we travel through time decade by decade, are a great way of discovering new writers, returning to old favourites, and, as in this case, dipping into the back catalogue of those authors whose work you are yet to fully explore. Dancing Girls was Margaret Atwood’s first short story collection, published after numerous collections of poetry and three novels, though almost a decade before the novel which brought her both critical acclaim and bestseller status, The Handmaid’s Tale. Most of the stories in Dancing Girls dissect relationships which fall broadly into two categories: those which have failed and those which are failing.

‘Betty’ is one of the former, told from the point of view of a seven-year-old child remembering a particular summer, much of which was spent at her neighbour’s, Fred and Betty’s:

“There was more to do at Fred and Betty’s than at our house.”

Both the narrator and her older sister, Catherine, are fascinated by Fred:

“Beyond all these attractions there was Fred. We both fell in love with Fred.”

While these are childish infatuations, Fred is generally easy to like – “there was something about Fred that attracted people” – in contrast to Betty, who is dismissed by the narrator’s father as having “no sex appeal.” Despite her crush on Fred, the narrator recognises “it was unfair that everyone was in love with Fred but no one, despite her kindness, was in love with Betty.” Naturally, Fred is unfaithful to Betty, and it is the narrator who discovers Betty shortly after she has found out:

“Her face was white and uncomprehending, as if someone had just hit her for no reason.”

Four years later, the narrators’ mother finds and befriends Betty again, but, in a scene with echoes of her discovery of Betty, the narrator returns home one day to find her mother crying: Betty has accused her of sleeping with Fred. A brain tumour, which proves terminal, is blamed for this outburst, though our child’s viewpoint (even at fifteen) makes the truth difficult to decipher. The narrator continues to be haunted by Betty:

“When I first heard about her death I felt doomed. This, then, was the punishment for being devoted and obliging, this was what happened to girls such as (I felt) myself.”

The idea of being punished for being ‘devoted and obliging’ is touched on again in ‘Under Glass’ when the narrator discovers her boyfriend has been unfaithful to her again:

“I’m not allowed to be angry. He thinks it’s unfair.”

When she tells him, “I wish I didn’t love you,” he feels forgiven:

“He kisses my fingers; he thinks we’ve all been cured. He believes in amnesia, he will never mention it again.”

In ‘Hair Jewellery’ the lover is unfaithful before he can even become the lover. The narrator must travel to New York as part of their plan to sleep together (“In those days, as you recall, it had to be discussed first…”) but her boyfriend fails to meet her. When she finally gets through to him on the phone a woman answers, “Some chick wants you.” In ‘Lives of the Poets’ it is also a phone call which suggests infidelity as Julia, who is out of town to give a poetry reading, phones her husband Bernie only for a younger woman, Marika, to answer:

“As she put down the phone she thought she heard something. A voice, a laugh?”

The men in these stories seem both more careless than callous; the women lacking in confidence rather than weak. That lack of confidence can be seen in ‘Man from Mars’ when Christine finds herself (as we would say now) stalked by a Chinese man she is momentarily kind to. When he phones and forces an invitation to her home from her mother she can’t help but feel “slightly festive”. She is aware that his unwanted attention makes her seem more attractive;

“Annoying and tedious though it was, his pursuit of her had an odd result: mysterious in itself, it rendered her equally mysterious. No one had ever found Christine mysterious before. To her parents she was a beefy heavyweight, a plodder, lacking in flair, ordinary as bread.”

This is not true of all the stories; in both ‘When It Happens’ and ‘A Travel Piece’, the resourcefulness of the female characters is one of the key points. In the former, Mrs Burridge imagines surviving a nuclear war, an early piece of science fiction disguised as social realism. In the latter, Anette, a travel writer, finds herself surviving in lifeboat after her airplane is forced to land on water; it is she who has the foresight to take some food from the plan as she leaves, though events are also an ironic response to her earlier complaint, “Sometimes I feel I’m not alive.”

Two of the stories also have sympathetic male viewpoints. In ‘Polarities’ Morrison must cope with his colleague, Louise’s, growing madness; in ‘Training’, one of the rawest tales, Rob, volunteering at a camp for those with disabilities, struggles to retain his goodness.

Dancing Girls demonstrates Atwood’s nuanced understanding of character more than her craft. Both ‘Dancing Girls and ‘The Sin Eater’, for example, over-reach themselves in their conclusions, but Atwood’s characters always feel true. She is particularly good on both the spoken and unspoken relationships between lovers and those in love, but, even when her characters are alone, you leave their stories feeling as if you have met someone you are unlikely to soon forget.

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The Year of the Flood

February 20, 2010

End of the world novels seem thicker on the ground than they were when Margaret Atwood published Oryx and Crake, to which this novel is a companion piece, featuring some of the same characters, seven years ago. Even that was a sign that literary writers were moving away from using science fiction to tackle social issues (as Atwood did in The Handmaid’s Tale) to addressing environmental ones. Atwood’s intent to deal with both global catastrophe and religion is made clear in her title, The Year of the Flood. In the novel she presents us with two main narratives, Toby’s and Ren’s. Both, at some point, find themselves part of the cult religion, God’s Gardeners. Their stories initially alternate, and finally unite, interspersed with speeches from Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, and hymns from their hymnbook, which Atwood has had set to music and performed.

Both stories are told post-apocalypse, but tell of events leading up to the ‘flood’ as well as the aftermath. This allows Atwood to present us with a vivid picture of the pre-catastrophe world, a distorted version of our own, where rich and poor are literally divided, the rich living in walled compounds owned by corporations and protected by their private police force, the CorpSeCorp – the abbreviation of corporation and security neatly creating the word ‘corpse’. This is just one example of Atwood’s playfulness with language, from the crossbred animals like rakunks and liobams to the phonetic corporations like ANooYoo and HelthWyzer. My favourite is perhaps the name for those who live in the slums, the pleebrats, with its connotations of plebeian, rats, mallrats and brats.

This world is an unpleasant place for just about everyone. Even in the compounds, life is far from safe: any attempt to rebel against the Corporation may well end in an unfortunate ‘accident’, and scientists are frequently kidnapped by rival power blocks. Outside the compounds it is dog eat dog, as Toby’s back story makes clear. Desperately short of money, she ends up working at Secretburger (so called because what they put in the burgers is a secret), and soon finds herself the manager’s sex slave, shortly after he has murdered the last one:

“She’d been Blanco’s one-and-only for less than two weeks but it felt like years. His view was that a woman with an ass as skinny as Toby’s should consider herself in luck if any man wanted to stick his hole-hammer into her.”

Atwood shows the particular dangers for women in this society. After leaving the Gardeners, Ren finds work as a dancer and prostitute; Amanda uses sex to gain favours; and, after the Flood, women are seen by some as possessions to be used and traded. The polarisation, however, is not simply between rich and poor, but between the intellect and the animal. In the compounds science is used to satisfy every human whim, the only aim being to make a profit. People are remade, animals are spliced together, and immortality is the ultimate goal. Outside people live from hand to mouth, eating whatever is available, in thrall to the strongest and most violent.

God’s Gardeners are Atwood’s alternative. Like many religions they believe in an approaching apocalypse, but they prepare for it by creating stores of food, and by teaching the skills that people will need to survive afterwards. Many of their ideas come from the environmental movement: not eating meat; having very few possessions; re-using and recycling everything. One of their central aims is to unite what we know from science with religion. We see this in Adam One’s first speech:

“Unlike some other religions, we have never felt it served a higher purpose to lie to children about geology.”

We also see the intention in their hymns, for example in ‘My Body is My Earthly Ark’:

“It’s builded firm of genes and cells,
And neurons without number;
My Ark enfolds the million years
That Adam spent in slumber.”

Atwood’s decision to have the hymns set to music and performed has led to suggestions that this religion is something she takes seriously outside of the world of the novel. Her presentation, however, is hardly uncritical. The numerous saint’s days, named after varied and fallible historical figures, come to seem slightly ridiculous. The Gardeners themselves are involved in the movement for a number of reasons, not all of them sincere, Toby and Ren included (Toby is there initially for protection, Ren because her mother has joined). The Gardeners who survive to the end both eat meat and use violence to protect themselves. It has to be said, though, that their survival shows their preparedness and their responses are often the most logical.

Like all of Atwood’s fiction, The Year of the Flood is a page-turner, at times as tense as a thriller, and illuminated with bursts of imagination. At no point did I find myself preferring one narrative to the other, as often happens in novels with alternating stories. Coincidence, however, plays too large a part, with characters reappearing at a rate that stretches credulity. Blanco, in particular, becomes a pantomime villain brought on whenever the audience requires something to boo at. Other characters meet up years apart more frequently than is likely, even for a novel. The conclusion is weakened by this as the only resolution we are granted is the coming together of a number of the novel’s characters to make a new community. The rather arbitrary finish perhaps reflects its synthesis with Oryx and Crake, but is not entirely satisfying when considered alone. Still, it’s more enjoyable and more interesting than most novels.