Tuesday, 20 November 2012

1001 Books Review - Surfacing

Margaret Atwood is a very good writer, isn't she? A very good writer. That is not in any doubt.

But oh I hated this particular book.

This is partly due to over-exposure. I've now read almost all of Atwood's books, and I feel like I know her much, much too well as a result. If this was a real relationship we would be over the honeymoon stage, way past easy fondness and at that awful place where every word that comes out of the other person's mouth sounds like a broken record. You hear them start to tell THE SAME STORY like it's still brand new information, and all you want to do is leap up and scream, "THIS IS NOT FUNNY! IT HAS NEVER BEEN FUNNY! WERE YOU ALWAYS THIS BORING?"

I mean, GOD, Margaret Atwood, is there some line in your contract that stipulates that every single one of your novels must contain a man repeating the phrase 'Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot!' and then laughing like it's funny? Is there? IS THERE REALLY? Because if not, why do you keep doing it? Why? And why are your main characters always you, and why do they all have the same childhoods, and why do they all hate themselves, and why are all the men in your novels hideous penis-brained idiots? WHY?

I'm overreacting, and I know I am, but I just can't take it any more. I am Atwooded out.

Surfacing is the story of Narrator X (many of Atwood's narrators don't have names, because 1. they are secretly just Margaret Atwood, and 2. they are simultaneously Everywoman and a big woman-shaped vacant space), who goes into the Canadian woods with her three friends to look for her missing father. Of course, what she discovers is that culture is terrible, humanity is terrible and she has spent her adult life as a TOOL OF MEN. So she goes crazy, rips off all of her clothes, smashes some mirrors and returns to nature. Sigh.

The sad thing is that I technically agree with a lot of what Atwood has to say. Humans are destroying the natural world. A lot of men do treat women reprehensibly. We haven't solved any of the problems that feminism was created to combat. Thinking about all of that makes me incredibly angry. And yet, Surfacing just left me wishing profoundly that Margaret Atwood would write one novel at least that didn't read like a big old cloud of unrelieved despair.

The one bright spot, for me, is that Surfacing (first published 1972) does inadvertantly prove that, for all the awful sexism that women still have to deal with on a regular basis, relationships between men and women (or at least some men and some women, or at least the men and women that I know) have improved immeasurably since it was written. I found myself really struggling to connect with the mindset of Atwood's characters. There's Anna, who can't ever take off her makeup in case her husband David hates her, and then there's the narrator's boyfriend Joe, who keeps trying to rape her while shouting "DO YOU LOVE ME YET?" I just can't imagine a group of my own friends behaving the way they do, and more importantly, I can't imagine my boyfriend or my male friends behaving the way Joe and David behave. Yes, the men in my life still sometimes insist on making pointless sexist jokes, but they do it sheepishly, like they know at a base level that they're being bad.

I've suggested before that this disconnect between Atwood's lived experience and my own is because it has taken (and will still take) a long, long time to create a sensible and automatically feminist pool of potential husbands. Atwood was writing in the second-wave 70s, but the men she was surrounded with had been brought up in the 40s and 50s, when women were mostly housewives and made meatloaf and stared at the wall and cried. My own men, by contrast, were brought up in the 80s and 90s, when women mostly wore power suits and were Prime Minister. My boyfriend's mother is a GP, so it would have been pretty difficult for him not to grow up knowing that women were capable of being intelligent and effective public figures.It's a process of tiny baby steps, is what I'm saying, but all the same those baby steps seem to have led us somewhere.

I feel very lucky that the battle of the sexes in Surfacing didn't ring true for me, because of the effect that it has on its narrator. The hate X receives from the male characters has been internalised and turned in on herself. She despises herself. She sees herself as intrinsically wrong and lacking and stupid, and Atwood's pretty clear that this is because she's been surrounded by people feeding her this nonsense every day of her life. If you get hate, hate's all you know, and you can't possibly like yourself as a person if you're constantly being told how inadequate you are. In a way, Surfacing is an updated 'Yellow Wallpaper' - the woman takes what men imagine her to be and twists it into a really terrifying monster version of herself. Again, I know that this is a problem that has nowhere near been solved for all women, but I'm so glad that, for me, that updating feels in need of another update. Baby steps!

By rights, I should probably like, or at least agree with, Surfacing. But I can't. I see that it's beautifully written, I see that it's got views that I am intrinsically on board with, but all the pleasure I might have had in actually reading it fell down that tiny gap between Atwood's point of view and my own and was lost for ever.

Purely on enjoyment, I have to give this

2.5 stars.

Oh, and my 1001 books progress? 20.48%

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