Today is beloved literary icon, Booker Prize-winner, and electric scooter enthusiast Margaret Atwood’s 81st birthday!
Though Atwood’s 1985 feminist dystopian urtext The Handmaid’s Tale—a chilling speculative vision of a repressive theocratic America in which women’s rights have been completely abolished—is undoubtedly her most famous work, the Canadian author’s wider body of speculative fiction imagines more than just violent misogyny as governmental policy. Whether focused on patriarchal totalitarianism (Handmaid’s Tale), human-wrought environmental destruction (the MaddAddam trilogy), or the grotesqueries of finance capitalism (The Heart Goes Last), they speak to our current political climate in myriad, and increasingly disquieting, ways.
Alongside these darkly prophetic novels, however, Atwood has also produced award-winning historical fiction, biting satires, reimaginings of The Tempest and The Odyssey, pastiches of Gothic romances and fairy tales, quiet interrogations of identity and memory, and more. Basically, she can do it all (and that’s without mentioning the poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, children’s books, and libretti).
Today, we look back on what the critics (as well as some recognizable peers) first wrote about every one of her seventeen novels, from 1969’s The Edible Woman to 2019’s The Testaments.
The Edible Woman (1969)
What a moron I was to think you were sweet and innocent,
when it turns out you were actually college-educated the whole time!
“We are all prone these days to gloomy laughter or comic despair as we consider our lives in consumerdom, the country where in the end we find ourselves consumed—that is, converted into waste by the things we acquire, the goods and packaged ideas dispensed along the supermarket aisles of our culture. In this first novel, however, a female hand gives an extra twist to the switchblade. The Canadian poet Margaret Atwood has written a work of feminist black humor, in which she seems to say that a woman is herself likely to become another ‘edible’ product, marketed for the make appetite that has been created (or at least organized) by the media.
This may put the matter more blackly than one should. Miss Atwood’s comedy does not bare its teeth. It reads, in fact, like a contemporary My Sister Eileen. One can see how, with a little scissoring, an enterprising dramatist could make a light-hearted series of stage episodes out of the adventures of Marian and Ainsley, two ex-college girls bumpily adrift in a Canadian city. Marian, our chief focus of interest, is vaguely about the business of acquiring a mate in the shape of a ‘rising young lawyer.’ Her roommate has chosen the more deviant course—deliberately incurred pregnancy for the purpose of motherhood, sans the encumbrance of a husband. In the end, Marian discards her lawyer. Ainsley discovers that her baby will need a ‘father-image,’ and the comic turn is achieved.
But Miss Atwood’s imagination is too wacky and sinister for situation comedy, and, to our considerable diversion, her comic distortion veers at times into surreal meaningfulness.
“As her wedding day approaches, Marian quite literally begins to lose her ability to consume things. First she rejects steak, finally she cannot even stomach salad. A case of bridal jitters, says a married friend. Or, as I think the author means us to half-seriously see it, a piece of truth-telling dementia that is a symbolic answer to lying sanity. Not to eat or be eaten up like a confection of calculated flavors might be her heroine’s unconscious aim and Miss Atwood’s symbolic sense. To finally express her meaning, Marian prepares a cake-and-frosting lady, which she serves to her fiancé in the place of herself, after having slept with that indigestible other fellow.”
Stupidity is the same as evil if you judge by the results.
“Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing invites comparison with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: both novels by poets, both about a young woman who has been made desperate by a stifling social milieu and who can find relief only by abandoning what those around her have defined as sanity. Yet Plath’s novel, written ten years ago, expresses only a pure and private suffering; her heroine, Esther, can make no more impression on the conditions of her life—those of New England suburbia in the Eisenhower years—than a fly on the walls of the jar enclosing it. The sixties, whatever else they left unchanged, at least broke open that particular doll’s house.
Miss Atwood’s nameless heroine expresses a more sweeping revolt than Esther, but she is able at the novel’s end to come up for air, to move confidently out of the destructive element and into freedom. The more recent novel, then, avoids the tone of flat, sealed-off resignation on which The Bell Jar ends; rather, it invigorates by its heroine’s resolve to trust herself to the world while refusing, at the same time, to be a victim of it.
“The action of Surfacing resembles that of old tales recounting journeys from the city to the wilderness, where some ordeal or initiation must be undergone. Atwood’s heroine doesn’t develop her character through engagement with the social world; rather, she progressively strips off the encumbrances and falsities that society has imposed on her over the years. In so doing, she finds that experiences she had thought lost or discarded have only been submerged. They have therefore remained menacing, like the lake’s infestation with deadheads, ‘old pieces of tree waterlogged and partly decayed, floating under the surface.’ Her alienation from the empty camaraderie of her friends, run-of-the-mill urban neurotics, clears the way for her initiation into the savage mind, in the experience of a shamanistic possession wherein the voices of nature demand that she avoid all things made or cultivated, all places enclosed by human hands.
Against this primitivism Atwood counterposes a malignant cluster of forces subsumed under the name of ‘American,’ and marked especially by violence and the mechanical pillage of nature…If the novel’s anti-Americanism lacks ideological rigor, it is at least true to life: Canadian resentment of the United States is unique in its intimate appreciation of the enemy, and in its rueful awareness that in the sellout of their nation Canadians themselves have usually been the most eager brokers.
“At a time when many novelists restrict themselves to a single mode of expression, such as documentary realism or unrestrained fantasy, Miss Atwood has undertaken a more serious and complex task. Denying Emerson’s maxim that the true art of life is to skate well on surfaces, she shows the depths that must be explored if one attempts to live an examined life today.”
Lady Oracle (1976)
I planned my death carefully, unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another,
despite my feeble attempts to control it.
“True, we overlook improbabilities in comic writing—often they are part of the joke —but only when we are dazzled by deft action and ingenious devices. in spite of many funny moments, Lady Oracle moves too slowly and is basically too serious to distract us from its clumsy contrivances. And so the zany narrative, perhaps intended to spice a familiar tale of feminist woe, points all the more plainly to a deeper unanswered question who are these people, anyway?
Like her heroine, Margaret Atwood seems to have two literary selves. The first, upon which her considerable reputation is based, writes spare, tense poems full of Images drawn from the bleak landscape of her native Canada and suffused with a quasi‐mystical animism. This self has also written an extraordinary novel, Surfacing, in which the sick relations between the sexes are explored as part of a larger sickness in the relations between man and nature. in both Surfacing and the poetry a powerful sense of place compensates for a large vagueness where human beings are concerned. The other Atwood is the author of Lady Oracle and an earlier The Edible Woman, a comic novel about a young woman who escapes a conventional marriage by raising her consciousness in the nick of time. Both these books lack the metaphoric and mythic force of the other work while sharing with it a limited interest in individual character. Instead of archetypes and myths, they offer us the stock figures and pat insights of a certain kind of popular feminist‐oriented fiction. it may be that the genre is not congenial to Atwood’s real gifts: perhaps the very confusion of Lady Oracle is a measure of her discomfort. Her best work is so original, so energetic, that one is tempted to guess that Lady Oracle is for Atwood what Gothics were for Joan a flight from the demands of her truest, most thoughtful self.”
Life Before Man (1979)
They meet in church basements and offer bandages to those wounded by the shrapnel of exploding families.
“It is no surprise to discover, on the publication of Life Before Man, that the Canadian Margaret Atwood is a writer of importance, with a deep understanding of human behavior, a beautiful understated style and, rarest of all, broad scope—an awareness of wide stretches of time and space.
“All three of Miss Atwood’s previous novels share a theme that is often called the search for identity but is more accurately defined in her fiction as a search for a better way to be—for a way of life that both satisfies the passionate self and yet is decent, humane and natural. When Miss Atwood has attempted satire in the past, her work has dwindled into triviality. Until now, her not inconsiderable gift has seemed introspective, lyrical, poetic. But in Life Before Man she combines several talents—powerful introspection, honesty, satire and a taut limpid style—to create a splendid, fully integrated work.
“Life Before Man is composed of a series of brief sections that record a period of about two years, each focusing on one of three characters: Elizabeth, her husband Nate, and Lesje, the woman who eventually becomes Nate’s lover. On the surface, the story concerns Elizabeth’s response to the suicide of her lover, Chris, and Nate and Lesje’s gradual movement toward each other. But the life of the novel really lies in its texture, in the densely interwoven feelings, memories and insights of the characters.
“This novel suggests that we are still living before man, before the human—as we like to define it—has evolved. Lesje’s lover articulates Miss Atwood’s concern with man’s destruction of nature. Though Chris is a satirical figure, Miss Atwood’s serious concern is evident, and it is paralleled by her dissection of cultural traditions and attitudes—of a history that is also destructive of human life. Elizabeth provides a powerful statement of what is, of reality. And Lesje offers perspective on that. Although in the course of the novel, she evolves from ‘prehistoric’ innocence and un-self-consciousness into history, knowledge, pain, maturity (which she defines as ‘the point where you think you’ve blown you life’), she consoles herself by thinking ‘she is only a pattern. She is not an immutable object. There are no immutable objects.’ She considers ‘a wall chart, the geological ages marked in color blocks. Dinosaurs, a hundred and twenty years of tawny yellow; man, a speck of red. She’s a fleck, a molecule, an ion lost in time.’ Humans are a mere dot on the graph of time: we may become extinct, our stories frozen tracks like fossils; we may only be the beginning.
Life Before Man, however, is not. It is superb, complete.”
Bodily Harm (1981)
She sees where she is, she’s here, by herself, she’s stranded in the future. She doesn’t know how to get back.
“Bodily Harm is unpleasant. It chooses to be so. In nine volumes of poetry and in such earlier novels as Surfacing and Life Before Man, Margaret Atwood proved she could be lyrical when she wanted to, whether on the occasion of sex or of snow. In Bodily Harm, she doesn’t want to. On this occasion, cells riot and meat rots and history itself is diseased.
“…one thinks of Joan Didion, Renata Adler, Margaret Drabble, Lois Gould, Joyce Carol Oates and Jerzy Kosinski. Kosinski? Yes. It is amazing how often in novels by and about intelligent women a deracinated heroine wakes up inside a situation—hidden cameras, male menace—Mr. Kosinski might have ordained. Since only Mr. Kosinski would want to live in any of his recent books, such heroines skip town almost immediately, to a desert, a mountain or another country, leaving the reader with the impression that all men are Kosinski phantasms. This seems unfair. But Miss Atwood goes even further; in Bodily Harm Kosinski Gothic, by dilation, becomes the whole world, all shadows and teeth and appetite, pirates and victims.
“I doubt that we are expected to sympathize with Rennie, at least until the unlikely epiphany in the last paragraph of the book. Miss Atwood is too impatient and severe, and Rennie doesn’t even sympathize with herself. She is a contraption of attitudes, allknowing and uncaring, too easily bored and too quick to disdain, ‘an event freak,’ ‘aw material,’ scared of appearing ‘ludicrous,’ so thin and translucent that upside-down, instead of inside-out, naked, drinking a glass of red wine, she would look like a thermometer.
No. In novels like Bodily Harm, we are expected to sympathize with ideas instead of characters; too much is at stake to trust a golden shiksa with what Doris Lessing calls ‘the existentials.’ Miss Atwood sermonizes. See how cancer becomes history. (Can anyone get away with this after Susan Sontag’s brilliant Illness as Metaphor?) See how sadism and masochism in the bedroom are an undressed rehearsal for violent affairs of state, the rape of cultures. (After Susan Brownmiller’s fierce deposition Against Our Will, is it necessary to say this again? Unfortunately, it is.) See how pornography is politics. (Rennie visits a Toronto sculptor who harnesses a muzzled woman to a dogsled and calls it ‘Nationalism Is Dangerous.’) Notice the cyclic appearances of the deaf and dumb Carib. (Imagine an Ancient Mariner who can’t talk.) Watch Rennie on the boat. Isn’t it suggestive that the name of the boat is ‘Memory’? (Rennie spends most of the book remembering parts of herself she has lost.)
It is an eloquent, gnarled, ugly sermon. Of course, ‘something is missing’ in each of us … The triumph of Bodily Harm over packaging and pornography, over the deathstyle of sexual domination and the politics of cannibalism, is this pledge. We choose our friends.
None of this would have worked if Miss Atwood had been lyrical. For the hummingbirds of her poetry she has substituted crabs, signifying cancer. The severed hands are semaphoric. Perhaps, by paying attention, we buy some luck. There is no way to like such a novel; it is impossible not to admire its uncompromising author.”
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.
“Life as we know it in the U.S.A. no longer exists. We have entered the Republic of Gilead … In The Handmaid’s Tale, her fifth and most powerful novel, she looks into the clouded glass of the future and, fully attuned to some of the negative signals in the present, envisions startling but by no means illogical consequences. In opening her imagination to what we might find some years down the road, Atwood joins the company of Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, literary writers of future shock fiction—a genre whose pioneers include H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell.
“…the novel of the disastrous future offers the writer of fiction rejuvenated possibilities. Characters are placedmis, calling upon all their resources of courage and ingenuity in order to survive. Rebels defy the rules of society, risking everything to retain their humanity. If the world Atwood depicts is chilling, if ‘God is losing,’ the only hope for optimism is a vision that includes the inevitability of human struggle against the prevailing order.
“Just as the world of Orwell’s 1984 gripped our imaginations, so will the world of Atwood’s handmaid. She has succeeded in finding a voice for her heroine that is direct, artless, utterly convincing. It is the voice of a woman we might know, of someone very close to us.
“The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections of politics and sex, and it will no doubt be labeled a ‘feminist 1984.’ Yet it is Atwood’s achievement to have produced a political novel that avoids the pitfall of doctrinaire writing.
“Gilead threatens those who break its rules with extinction. Yet for Offred, the price of obedience is even higher—the death of the senses, the death of the spirit … Overwhelming loneliness and boredom afflict her even more than oppression. ‘Nobody dies from lack of sex,’ she discovers. ‘It’s a lack of love we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are or what their names are now? They might as well as be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person.’
Offred’s plight is always human as well as ideological, and so is her inevitable assertion of her needs. Her tale, in Atwood’s masterful hands, is extraordinarily satisfying, disturbing and compelling.”
“Surely the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition. Surprised recognition, even, enough to administer a shock. We are warned, by seeing our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue. That was the effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its scary dating, not 40 years ahead, maybe also of Brave New World and, to some extent, of A Clockwork Orange.
It is an effect, for me, almost strikingly missing from Margaret Atwood’s very readable book The Handmaid’s Tale … A fresh postfeminist approach to future shock, you might say. Yet the book just does not tell me what there is in our present mores that I ought to watch out for unless I want the United States of America to become a slave state something like the Republic of Gilead whose outlines are here sketched out.
“The Handmaid’s Tale contains several such touches of deft sardonic humor—for example, the television news program showing clouds of smoke over what was formerly the city of Detroit: we hear the anchorman explain that resettlement of the children of Ham in National Homeland One (the wilds of North Dakota) is continuing on schedule—3,000 have arrived that week. And yet what is lacking, I think – what constitutes a fundamental disappointment after a promising start—is the destructive force of satire. Nineteen Eighty-Four had it, A Clockwork Orange had it, even Brave New World had it, though Huxley was rather short on savagery. If The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t scare one, doesn’t wake one up, it must be because it has no satiric bite.
The author has carefully drawn her projections from current trends. As she has said elsewhere, there is nothing here that has not been anticipated in the United States of America that we already know. Perhaps that is the trouble: the projections are too neatly penciled in. The details, including a Wall (as in Berlin, but also, as in the Middle Ages, a place where executed malefactors are displayed), all raise their hands announcing themselves present. At the same time, the Republic of Gilead itself, whatever in it that is not a projection, is insufficiently imagined. The Aunts are a good invention, though I cannot picture them as belonging to any future; unlike Big Brother, they are more part of the past—our schoolteachers.
But the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. And nothing like the linguistic tour de force of A Clockwork Orange—the brutal melting-down of current English and Slavic words that in itself tells the story of the dread new breed. The writing of The Handmaid’s Tale is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality. That must be why, collectively, it is powerless to scare.”
Cat’s Eye (1988)
Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.
“Elaine’s first eight years are spent on the road with her family, as her father, an entomologist, tracks infestations across northern Canada. For Elaine and her brother it is an enchanted existence, ‘irregular, and slightly festive,’ a life of motels and housekeeping cottages and tents, but it little prepares her for the life that is to follow when her parents move to Toronto, to a new and only partially completed tract house in a growing postwar suburb. There, amid the tightly prescribed rituals of that time and place, she quickly learns that there are ‘things my parents have been keeping from me, things I need to know’ … It is a world that Margaret Atwood portrays with deadly accuracy, a lonely, terrifying place where time is marked by the endless procession of paper pumpkins and snowmen and tulips that are hung in classroom windows, and the future, with all its repulsive, distinctly feminine mysteries, is only a threat. At its center is Cordelia.
“All this is vintage Atwood: the precise and devastating detail, the sense of the ordinary transformed into nightmare, the quiet desperation of characters trapped, silenced, utterly alone. Inevitably, the emotional intensity of these early scenes makes the more familiar material of Elaine’s later life seem somewhat anticlimactic. Leaving Cordelia behind, Elaine begins to study drawing, has an affair with her teacher, marries another art student and is caught up, reluctantly, in the dawning feminist movement. She has a child, attempts suicide (urged on by what she describes as a 9-year-old’s voice) and finally flees Toronto. She sees Cordelia twice as an adult, the second and final time when Cordelia is a resident of a ‘discreet private loony bin,’ drugged, trapped, ‘a frantic child . . . behind that locked, sagging face.’ The nightmare has been exchanged between them.
“Given the artist narrator and the retrospective that frames the novel (in which Elaine includes a self-portrait called ‘Cat’s Eye’), it is tempting to use the book as a guide to Ms. Atwood’s own work, to hear the author’s voice in Elaine’s, especially when she discusses feminism (‘I avoid gatherings of these women, walking as I do in fear of being sanctified, or else burned at the stake’) or fame (‘Eminence creeps like gangrene up my legs’) or her art itself (‘I have said, Look. I have said, I see’). But while reading the novel as Ms. Atwood’s own midlife assessment of her life and her work adds a certain significance to its conclusion and may lead us to speculate further on some elements of the story that the character does not confront – the undercurrent of misogyny, the joylessness in a life that is in every other respect carefully recounted – it in no way adds to the pleasure the book provides. For finally Cat’s Eye is not only about memory, nor is it the chronicle of a particular life. It is a novel of images, nightmarish, evocative, heartbreaking and mundane, that taken together offer us not a retrospective but an addition: a new work entirely and Margaret Atwood’s most emotionally engaging fiction thus far.”
The Robber Bride (1993)
Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies?
“Margaret Atwood’s new novel is a fairy tale of malicious simplicity. Fay Weldon’s She-Devil meets John Updike’s Witches of Eastwick, you’d say if you were pitching it for a movie. If the title hadn’t already been used, you could call it Women Beware Women. After the dark dystopian fabulism of The Handmaid’s Tale and the superb evocation of childhood, family and the past in Cat’s Eye, this is a work in lighter vein.
That may seem an odd description of a novelabout a duel to the death between women, which suggests that the risks women face from men are as nothing compared to the soul-eating, hope-murdering wounds which their fellow females are capable of inflicting, but it’s true. The Robber Bride is an absorbing, high-speed read, the prose burnished with the author’s characteristic verve, wit and insight. But Atwood, in this gleefully un-PC parable, is having too much fun to plumb the depths of true evil.
“I wanted to know more about Zenia than The Robber Bride tells us. She never becomes more than the darkness in Roz, Charis and Tony’s lives; she is their hatred made flesh, and it’s suggested that they somehow cause her to come back to life because they have failed to let her go. She is heavily mythologised, remaining young-looking while the others age; she leads an amazing, piratical life, even getting herself mixed up with the Iraqi supergun affair. But why she is who she is remains opaque. Atwood makes her a perfectly credible monster. I would have preferred to see her, as we see the other women, from the inside.
“The Robber Bride is a tale of small, private catastrophes. Its villain unleashes nothing grander than domestic and emotional violence. But it is vividly written, acutely observed and is very possibly the most intelligently tongue-in-cheek novel of the year. It is as good as ever to hear Margaret Atwood’s dry, droll, spiky voice.”
Alias Grace (1996)
If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.
“There’s nothing like the spectacle of female villainy brought to justice to revive the ancient, tired, apparently endless debate over whether women are by nature saintly or demonic. Unleashed by ghastly visions of the angel of the house clutching a knife or pistol, a swarm of Furies rises shrieking from our collective unconscious, along with a flock of martyrs. Meanwhile, our vengeful passions or pious sympathies are never so aroused as when the depraved criminal or unjustly slandered innocent happens to be touchingly young and attractive.
One such alleged miscreant—a double murderess, no less—is at the heart of Margaret Atwood’s ambitious new novel.
“Alias Grace has the physical heft and weighty authority of a 19th-century novel. In its scope, its moral seriousness, its paradoxically ponderous and engrossing narrative, the book evokes the high Victorian mode, spiced with the spooky plot twists and playfully devious teases of the equally high Gothic—the literary styles of the period in which the book is set.
Margaret Atwood has always had much in common with those writers of the last century who were engaged less by the subtle minutiae of human interaction than by the chance to use fiction as a means of exploring and dramatizing ideas. So, after reading her novels, we may find it harder to recall her characters than to remember the larger issues their destinies reflect: the tidy convergence of misogyny and totalitarian social control in The Handmaid’s Tale, the machinations of female power and malice in Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride. Part of what’s interesting about Alias Grace is that among the themes it addresses (guilt and innocence; conscience and consciousness; Victorian notions of criminality, insanity, gender and class) is the irreducible and unique mystery of the individual personality.
“Much of this is beautifully written and convincingly imagined. Ms. Atwood manages the considerable achievement of finding a voice for Grace—and a tone for her narrative—that doesn’t seem mannered, anachronistic or archaic. With startling authenticity, she renders, for example, the delirious joy that a fresh red radish or a newly plucked chicken offers a woman who has survived on prison fare. Arguably, the book’s great strength lies in its elegant and evocative descriptions of the domestic activities that once commanded the full attention of women from the less privileged classes.
“Some readers may feel that the novel only intermittently succeeds in transcending the burden of history, research and abstraction—all that gloomy gaslight, all those creepy shadows. Others will admire the liveliness with which Ms. Atwood toys with both our expectations and the conventions of the Victorian thriller. Such fans will be delighted by the plot’s many riddles, its edifying Victoriana, the enigmas that continue to perplex us even after we’ve finished this latest installment in the mystery of a pretty young woman who was either the loathsome perpetrator or another innocent victim of an infamous crime.”
The Blind Assassin (2000)
The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read.
“Atwood’s opulent, tortuous new novel moves its narrative forward on five levels…Atwood, as she showed in the futuristic Handmaid’s Tale, is a dab hand at science fiction. Here, Zycron is out of this world’s time but echoes, as the often interrupted narrator explains, ancient earthly history—the Hittites, the Babylonian code of Hammurabi. Thus the tale extends the novel’s general indictment of what (the novel reminds us) de Maupassant called L’histoire, cette vieille dame exaltee et menteuse—that ancient dame exalted and false. History, embodying ‘the ill will of the universe,’ is the ultimate blind assassin, a vast repository of cruelties and annihilations…
“Atwood’s maze should be allowed its turns and surprises, which unfold cunningly, and at (too much?) leisure. The attentive reader may guess some secrets before they are revealed; others are never revealed completely, as is the way with reality. A nagging sense of gimmickry, amid all these spinning wheels of plot, accompanies our awed and often delighted awareness of Atwood’s mastery of period detail, of costume and setting, of landscape and sky, of odor and texture and mood and voice as this dwindling family floats down the twentieth century’s dark river.
“…Though North American in its gloomy ambition (saying No in Ontario thunder), the novel has a lively English talkiness and nimble ease with social nuance… [T]he novel is less moving than it might be if we cannot share the heroine’s sense of his charm, his worth. She contemplates the single photograph of them together, taken at a picnic, and claims, ‘The picture is of happiness, the story not. Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out.’ The reader cannot get through the glass wall, either, which perhaps suits Atwood’s message…The novel gets us in its grip and then loosens it and leaves us feeling lost.”
“Far from preaching to the converted, Atwood’s cunning tale assumes a like-minded reader only so that she can argue, quite persuasively, from the other side … This family saga is sketched with Atwood’s trademark dark humor and deft hand … Complementing the historical plotline of Iris and Laura’s coming-of-age between the world wars, Atwood braids in two other strands that keep her tale moving at a brisk clip…In presenting Iris’ story, Atwood culls from all the themes and styles she’s explored in the past. There is a little of The Handmaid’s Tale in the sci-fi dystopian novel-within-a-novel and much of Cat’s Eye in the protagonist’s reflective journey back in time. The Blind Assassin takes Atwood fans to all their favorite places—and ups the ante. This is a dark masterpiece in which tension comes from the sharp juxtaposition of worlds and in which futuristic fantasy interrupts and reflects a disquieting reality..”
Oryx and Crake (2003)
After everything that’s happened, how can the world still be so beautiful? Because it is.
“In her chronicling of contemporary sexual manners and politics, Atwood has always been interested in pilfering popular forms—comic books, gothic tales, detective novels, science fiction—in order to make them do her more literary bidding.
In her towering and intrepid new novel, Oryx and Crake, Atwood, who is the daughter of a biologist, vividly imagines a late-twenty-first-century world ravaged by innovations in biological science. Like most literary imaginings of the future, her vision is mournful, bleak, and infernal, and is punctuated, in Atwood style, with the occasional macabre joke—perhaps not unlike Dante’s own literary vision.
“Tonally, Oryx and Crake is a roller-coaster ride. The book proceeds from terrifying grimness, through lonely mournfulness, until, midway, a morbid silliness begins sporadically to assert itself, like someone, exhausted by bad news, hysterically succumbing to giggles at a funeral.
“In the novel’s whimsical fantasies of biological evolution and technology, one can discern the dark left hand of Ursula K. Le Guin, and in its shrugging, eschatological amusement it channels the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut. In fact, the sick joke and the botched experiment are offered up as rough equivalents and become, through the technical alchemy of the novel, a kind of trope for life itself.
Seventeen years ago, Mary McCarthy, reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale, found it unconvincing as a jeremiad: ‘Surely the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition. . . . It is an effect, for me, almost strikingly missing.’ … But a dystopian novel is not intended as a literal forecast, or even necessarily as a logical extension of our current world. It is simply, and not so simply, a bad dream of our present time, an exquisitely designed horror show in which things are changed from what we do know to a dream version of what we don’t. Atwood does this well. To ask a novel to do more is to misunderstand its nature. Besides, given what is known about fish-gene-enhanced tomatoes—or those genetically modified goats that produce spider silk—the biologically reëngineered world of Oryx and Crake ceases to seem very far-fetched.”
The Penelopiad (2005)
Now that I am dead, I know everything.
“…a version of The Odyssey story from Penelope’s side. It concentrates on the horrible killing told in The Odyssey of 12 slave-girls, believed to have consorted with the suitors. For Atwood, these girls had been complicit in Penelope’s plot to outwit the men, and their speedy dispatch by the returning Odysseus points to their status as a mythic underclass—of peasants, slaves and servant girls—which our favourite heroic tales are happy to trample on or (at best) ignore.
“Atwood takes Penelope’s part with tremendous verve. She reveals Helen as a heartless bimbo trading on her looks, and she vividly recaptures the tensions of domestic Ithaca (dealing with Odysseus’ ex-nanny proves predictably more of a problem than Homer ever let on). There are delights, too, for classical ‘insiders’: the debate, for example, about whether Penelope and Odysseus are to set up house in the bride’s or the groom’s home turns into a neat joke about changes in prehistoric Greek marriage practice. But more than this, she explores, through the figures of Odysseus and Penelope, the very nature of mythic story-telling. When Odysseus is such a renowned liar, how is Penelope to understand what he tells her on his return from his wanderings? Can you know something to be untrue and still ‘believe’ it?”
The Year of the Flood (2009)
…we must be a beacon of hope, because if you tell people there’s nothing they can do, they will do worse than nothing.
“To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction. In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is ‘fiction in which things happen that are not possible today.’ This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.
Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.
“The personality and feelings of characters in Oryx and Crake were of little interest; these were figures in the service of a morality play. The Year of the Flood is less satirical in tone, less of an intellectual exercise, less scathing though more painful. It is seen very largely through the eyes of women, powerless women, whose individual characters and temperaments and emotions are vivid and memorable. We have less of Hogarth and more of Goya.
Affection and loyalty are strongly felt; loving relationships between characters are memorable. Such loyalties are affirmed, of course, against all the odds, and like everything Toby, Ren, Amanda, the Gardeners are and do, will soon end in the brute failure of all human intentions. Yet such loyalties spring up, like the shoots of March. In this tiny green featherweight in the scales of Doom we persist in seeing a vast, irrational hope. And somewhere here, somewhere in this irrational affirmation, I think, lies hidden the heart of the novel.
“Perhaps the book is not an affirmation at all, only a lament, a lament for what little was good about human beings—affection, loyalty, patience, courage—ground down into the dust by our overweening stupidity and monkey cleverness and crazy hatefulness … I found the final sentences of the book unexpected, not the seemingly inevitable brutal end or dying fall, nor yet a deus-ex-machina salvation, but a surprise, a mystery. Who are the people coming with torches, singing? You must read this extraordinary novel and decide for yourself.”
The best way of being kind to bears is not to be very close to them
” ‘Where, where is the town?’ Talking Heads sang. ‘Now, it’s nothing but flowers.’
What a joy it is to see Margaret Atwood taking such delicious pleasure in the end of the world. And it is nothing but flowers. In MaddAddam, the third volume of Atwood’s apocalyptic MaddAddam trilogy, she has sent the survivors of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood to a compound where they await a final showdown. But what gives MaddAddam such tension and light are the final revelations of how this new world came to be, and how the characters made their way to this battle for the future of humanity..
“Like its predecessors, MaddAddam is as much a story of adolescent longing and disappointment as it is of life before and after the Waterless Flood. In Atwood’s world, hearts broken early in life don’t heal; the larger strokes of politics and plague are less important to these books than the small hurts and jealousies of its survivors … And yet, for all this sorrow, the novel is also filled with humor and joy.
“Atwood’s future may have bits of brightness, but our present does not. As she states in her acknowledgments, ‘Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction or are not possible in theory.’ The setting is our own century. The gated science compounds are some of the recognizable demons of our age, and the monsters that roam free, post-Armageddon, are already glints in some bioengineer’s eye … ‘I thought that we’d start over,’ sang Talking Heads, ‘but I guess I was wrong.’ Wrong indeed. This finale to Atwood’s ingenious trilogy lights a fire from the fears of our age, then douses it with hope for the planet’s survival. But that survival may not include us.”
The Heart Goes Last (2015)
The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened.
It can’t be changed; so, in a way, there’s nothing to dread.
“You make the dystopia you deserve. It’s the near future, and finance capitalism has pushed itself over the edge. The US is a rustbelt. Charmaine and Stan started out well…Now they live in their car, just two ordinary Americans down on their luck…They have each other. They seem a little naive in the way they maintain their love as a bulwark against the world; and it is this naivety that makes them vulnerable when, in desperation, they join Positron, a socioeconomic experiment based around a privately funded postmodern prison. At Positron everyone is employed to serve a month as an inmate and a month as staff, turn and turn about. You get everything you want from life, but onchangeover day you go to jail and a couple you are never allowed to meet or know—your ‘alternates’—live in your beautiful home and eat off your nice plates
“The Heart Goes Last, originally written as an ebook serial, is a jarring, rewardingly strange piece of work. At first a classic Atwood dystopia, rationally imagined and developed, it relaxes suddenly into a kind of surrealist adventure. The satirical impulse foregrounds itself. Narrative drive ramps up, but in the service of something less like a novel than a political cartoon, in which raw inventiveness undercuts the very idea of story, revealing it to have been a fairly flimsy disguise all along. Atwood allows her sense of the absurd its full elbow room; her cheerfully caustic contempt—bestowed even-handedly on contemporary economics, retro culture, and the social and neurological determination of identity—goes unrestrained. The result, reminiscent of Russian author Victor Pelevin’s superficially chaotic but linguistically controlled satires…If Atwood doesn’t quite attain Pelevin’s levels of ebullient despair, she matches him for savagery.
“Jubilant comedy of errors, bizarre bedroom farce, SF prison-break thriller, psychedelic 60s crime caper: The Heart Goes Last scampers in and out of all of these genres, pausing only to quote Milton on the loss of Eden or Shakespeare on weddings. Meanwhile, it performs a hard-eyed autopsy on themes of impersonation and self-impersonation, revealing so many layers of contemporary deception and self-deception that we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
It’s the words that should concern you, he thinks at them.
That’s the real danger. Words don’t show up on scanners.
“In Atwood’s unsettling reinterpretation [of The Tempest], Miranda is a spirit too, melting in and out of thin air in her father’s cottage. While the lost kingdom in Hag-Seed might seem comparatively trivial, a theater festival versus the city of Milan, the festival was all Felix had, and the lost daughter lends a layer of anguish absent from the play. As years pass in solitude and Felix lives off his savings and retirement package, obsessed with revenge, he likes to imagine he’s not alone. When he realizes he can actually hear his daughter’s voice, he decides he’s taken solitude too far and finds employment teaching literacy at the local prison. In the class, which quickly becomes wildly popular, the inmates study and perform Shakespeare.
“In some ways, staging the play at the prison is an elegant choice: Prospero’s island is both prison and theater, and the play-within-a-play was of course a favorite device of Shakespeare’s, while the novel-within-a-novel has in the past been used by Atwood to spectacular effect. But for the same reasons, the decision to stage The Tempest within Hag-Seed can be read as something of a failure of imagination on Atwood’s part. It also marks an unfortunate transition. The novel to this point is a marvel of gorgeous yet economical prose, in the service of a story that’s utterly heartbreaking yet pierced by humor, with a plot that retains considerable subtlety even as the original’s back story falls neatly into place. But the prison production of The Tempest leads to some of the book’s clunkiest elements … Hag-Seed is at its eerie, enchanting best when Atwood dwells on Felix’s relationship with his lost daughter.”
The Testaments (2019)
But now I must end our conversation. Goodbye, my reader.
Try not to think too badly of me, or no more badly than I think of myself.
“[A] compelling sequel … It’s a contrived and heavily stage-managed premise—but contrived in a Dickensian sort of way with coincidences that reverberate with philosophical significance … Atwood’s sheer assurance as a storyteller makes for a fast, immersive narrative that’s as propulsive as it is melodramatic … Atwood wisely focuses less on the viciousness of the Gilead regime (though there is one harrowing and effective sequence about its use of emotional manipulation to win over early converts to its cause), and more on how temperament and past experiences shape individual characters’ very different responses to these dire circumstances … Atwood understands that the fascist crimes of Gilead speak for themselves—they do not need to be italicized, just as their relevance to our own times does not need to be put in boldface … it’s worth remembering that the very ordinariness of Atwood’s Offred gave readers an immediate understanding of how Gilead’s totalitarian rule affected regular people’s lives. The same holds true of Agnes’s account in The Testaments, which is less an exposé of the hellscape that is Gilead than a young girl’s chronicle … Atwood seems to be suggesting, do not require a heroine with the visionary gifts of Joan of Arc, or the ninja skills of a Katniss Everdeen or Lisbeth Salander—there are other ways of defying tyranny, participating in the resistance or helping ensure the truth of the historical record.”