Fictions and Frictions
by Margaret Atwood
New York: Canongate, 2005, 199 pp., $18.00, hardcover
by Margaret Atwood
New York: Doubleday, 2006, 160 pp., $18.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Valerie Miner
Margaret Atwood’s two new books, The Penelopiad and The Tent are complementary, almost conversational volumes exploring the resonance of legend though narrative, drama, and poetry. Atwood’s certainty of tone might be attributed to the venerable stage of her life and career. However, authoritative voice has been her hallmark ever since she won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Literature at the age of 27. Now, in her mid-sixties, she retains our rapt attention.
In The Penelopiad, Odysseus’s wife demonstrates more agency and complexity than in most versions or interpretations of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Long fascinated by myth and archetype (from Surfacing to Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature to Procedures for Underground to The Handmaid’s Tale as well as in recent work), Atwood is a natural choice to summon Penelope’s “true” story.
“Now that I’m dead I know everything.” These opening words introduce Penelope as a meta-fictional narrator, commenting on stories within stories, from her position of hindsight in Hades. There’s more to Atwood’s Penelope than the devoted, chaste wife who waits twenty years for heroic Odysseus to return from his adventures with Trojans, sirens, nymphs, goddesses, and the Cyclops. Her manner is by turns witty, lonely, raging, catty, sanguine, bitter, entitled, grieving, dignified, and ever-alert.
Counterpointing Penelope’s testimony is a subplot presented by twelve maids in chorus. These young servants join her as children, keep her company in bad times, spy on the threatening suitors and are murdered by Odysseus and son Telemachus. The maids remind us that if Penelope was disenfranchised by sex, they were further disadvantaged by class.
Penelope, the plain, but clever daughter of King Icarius of Sparta and a supernatural Naiad, is married off to the nimble, ambitious Odysseus when she is fifteen. “As for my mother,” says Penelope, “she’d stopped swimming around like a porpoise long enough to attend my wedding, for which I was less grateful than I ought to have been.” Later, Penelope comes to rely on this nuptial advice from her aquatic parent: “Water does not resist. Water flows…If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
Another dramatic figure in the marriage section is cousin Helen, a notoriously more comely Spartan, who taunts, teases, and infuriates Penelope throughout her life and even after death. “She tilted her head towards me, looking at me whimsically as if she were flirting. I suspect she used to flirt with her dog, with her mirror, with her comb, with her bedpost. She needed to keep in practice.” Elsewhere Penelope chastises Helen for her vanity and superficiality, calling her, “poison on legs.” Penelope’s coup de grace comes in Hades. “‘I understand the interpretation of the whole Trojan War episode has changed,’” she tells Helen. “‘Now they think you were just a myth. It was all about trade routes.’”
Young Penelope sails off with her new husband to the remote, goat-infested island of Ithaca, where she is greeted by a hostile mother-in-law and the thorny maid Eurycleia. Odysseus bestows a fond, but detached paternal affection on his wife. Everyone celebrates when Telemachus, their son, is born. Too soon after that, Odysseus is enlisted to fight the Trojans in order to restore the detested Helen to her husband, King Menelaus, and Sparta.
Penelope’s travails pale compared to those of the young maids, whose chorus emerges in song, poetry, play, anthropology lecture, court transcript, and other inventive forms. “We too were children. We too were born to the wrong parents. Poor parents, slave parents, peasant parents, and serf parents; parents who sold us, parents from whom we were stolen… We were set to work in the palace, as children, we drudged from dawn to dusk. If we wept, no one dried our tears. If we slept we were kicked awake… We laughed together in our attics, in our nights. We snatched what we could.”
After years of loneliness and heartache, Penelope’s troubles are compounded by the invasion of the harassing, greedy suitors.
The Suitors did not appear on the scene right away. For the first nine or ten years of Odysseus’s absence we all knew where he was—he was at Troy—and we knew he was still alive. No, they didn’t start besieging the palace until hope had dwindled and was flickering out. First five came, then ten, then fifty.”
They come, of course, for Penelope’s treasure and the kingdom. “It was hardly my divine beauty. I was thirty-five years old by the end of it, worn out with care and weeping, and…I was getting quite fat around the middle.” Penelope fends off their aggressive advances by declaring she is busy finishing a shroud for her father-in-law, a hallowed garment that is never completed because the young maids help her unravel it each night.
When Odysseus returns, he does a star turn, annihilating all the suitors before he slaughters the young maids. He questions Penelope’s fidelity, yet she persuades him of her chastity. What the hero doesn’t know can’t hurt him, although the truth could cost Penelope her life. The plain, clever Spartan prevails again.
Time passes in Hades much as it did in Ithaca. Helen continues to annoy Penelope. Odysseus still suffers wanderlust. He chooses many rebirths—as a French general, a Mongolian invader, an American tycoon, a movie star, an advertising executive. Often he escapes to a new life when the twelve maids approach. They continue to haunt husband and wife. “We’re the serving girls, we’re here to serve you. We’re here to serve you right. We’ll never leave you, we’ll stick to you like your shadow.”
The Tent, a collection of thirty-five micro-narratives and poems, is as provocative as The Penelopiad. Here Atwood herself becomes the prophet, seer, oracle, diviner, and sibyl. The concise prose pieces are more “frictions” than “fictions.” They are parables, rants, lessons, editorials, koans, invocations. Scattered through the short book are over a half-dozen of the author’s black-and-white line drawings. These stylized, sober images of mostly female figures underscore The Tent’s fateful atmosphere.
“Voice” is a lament about the seductiveness of talent and the subsequent destructiveness of fame. “I was given a voice…..I nurtured it, I trained it, I watched it climb up inside my neck like a vine.” The voice is courted, well-paid, applauded. As the narrator sits in her hotel suite noticing that the voice is beginning to shrivel, she prepares for one more luminous occasion. “Then we’ll descend to the foyer, glittering like ice, my voice attached like an invisible vampire to my throat.”
Has Atwood adopted the spirit of her New England ancestor, who after being hanged as a witch, got down from the gallows and walked away to live eleven more years? Indeed The Tent’s narrators are often witchy. You imagine the crone’s gnarled finger beckoning (a gesture that is both outwardly accusatory and self-referential, for the crooked digit points back to the speaker). These frictions are filtered through a literate, confident, ageing feminist consciousness. The tone ranges from fey to cranky, philosophical, menacing, contemptuous, envious, protective and—very occasionally—optimistic.
A mere paragraph, “No More Photos” summons sentiments about cameras and visibility similar to those in Atwood’s early poems in The Circle Game and The Journals of Susanna Moodie.
No more photos. Surely there are enough. No more shadows of myself thrown by light onto pieces of paper, onto squares of plastic. No more of my eyes, mouths, noses, moods, bad angles. No more yawns, teeth, wrinkles. I suffer from my own multiplicity. Two or three images would have been enough, or four, or five. That would have allowed for a firm idea: This is she. As it is, I’m watery, I ripple, from moment to moment I dissolve into other selves. Turn the page: you, looking, are newly confused. You know me too well to know me. Or not too well: too much.
“Our Cat Enters Heaven,” offers a wry view of the afterlife.
Meow, said God. Actually it was more like a roar.
I thought you were a cat, said our cat, but I wasn’t sure.
In heaven all things are revealed, said God. This is the form in which I choose to appear to you.
I’m glad you aren’t a dog, said our cat. Do you think I could have my testicles back?
Of course, said God. They’re over behind that bush.”
Other pieces confront geopolitical issues. In “Chicken Little Goes Too Far,” the chicken’s warnings about global warming go unheeded. In “Postcolonial,” invaders now face invasion themselves, from across the seas. “Thylacine Ragout” takes on cloning and capitalism. “King Log in Exile” addresses the devastation economic “development” wreaks on defenseless communities. “Warlords” ponders the circularity of violence.
Toward the end, the narrator grows more sanguine. “But It Could Still” is a recitation of astonishing moments of survival, rescue, and redemption. “At this dim season we hunger for such tales. Winter’s tales, they are. We want to huddle round them, as if around a small but cheerful fire.”
In “The Tent,” Atwood declaims, of the necessity of witnessing, “[Y]ou keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?”
“Tree Baby” reveals how, after the great wreckage of history—what some may see as the Day of Judgment—a baby is found in a tree.
Will they call it Catastrophe, will they call it Flotsam, will they call it sorrow? Will they call it No-family, will they call it bereft, will they call it Child-of-a-Tree? Or will they call it Astonishment, or Nevertheless or Small Mercy?
Or Will they call it Beginning.
Atwood is writing about survival, a theme she has addressed often in poetry and fiction: survival of personal integrity; survival in the family; survival in marriage. Odysseus survives because of his agility and strength. Helen survives because people covet her powerful beauty. Penelope survives through her patience and wiles. The Tent addresses the survival of populations, of the earth. In this urgent context, it may be wise to return to the advice of the Naiad:
Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water.
Valerie Miner’s thirteenth book, After Eden, a novelistic revision of “Paradise Lost,” will be published in spring 2006. She teaches feminist studies at Stanford University. Her website is www.valerieminer.com.