This post is looooong overdue. Last week (or was it the week before?) I finished Lady Oracle, another of Atwood's earliest novels, and again I noted similarities to both Surfacing and Cat's Eye.
Lady Oracle is the story of Joan Delacourt, an overweight child whose arguably evil mother taunts her about her body size and stews in bitterness over the failings of her own life during Joan's childhood. Her father is largely absent from her life; a WWII vet, he works as an anesthesiologist at a local hospital bringing those who have attempted to commit suicide back to life. Rather than her parents, Joan is close with her Aunt Louise, who spends time with Joan and is warm and kind. Joan's friends are remarkably like the childhood "friends" in Cat's Eye: sadistic and cruel in the way of children. At one point Joan's friends tie her to a tree in the woods and leave her there. But Joan grows up, and for the most part seems relatively unaffected by her weight, her mother's attitude of finding fault in everything she does, and her questionable friends. Indeed, Joan always seems somewhat detached from the proceedings of her life in Lady Oracle; while her mind moves a mile a minute with various schemes and musings, she doesn't seem downtrodden or sorry for herself.
When Joan is a teenager her beloved Aunt Lou dies and to the shock of her family leaves her $2,000. The only catch is that she must lose a stipulated amount of weight. At the time she receives this news she has already lost a majority of the weight and only has something like 18 more pounds to lose. After one of her mother's rude outbursts about her weight, Joan divulges that after she loses the final weight and gets the money, she is moving out. The reaction? Her crazy mother snatches a paring knife from the kitchen counter and stabs her in the arm with it. In typical Joan fashion, the reader isn't privy to her panicking. She maintains a conversation with her mother, but late that night when her family goes to sleep she leaves. This is an example of the character detachment I wrote about: Atwood isn't indulgent with average emotions. In another novel, the mother stabbing her daughter with a paring knife would be grounds for a surfeit of melancholy, but for Atwood, it's just the sort of kooky event that happens. It's not overanalyzed or lingered upon by Ms. J, it simply moves the plot forward.She's a resilient broad.
With the $2,000 Joan goes to England. After a fateful meeting with a Polish count, she moves in with him and becomes his mistress. When she discovers that he writes nurse romance novels under different pen names to make money, she decides to try her hand at writing costume Gothic novels. She is successful, more so than the count. At this point the novel becomes occasionally peppered with examples of Joan's work, which she is writing under her aunt's name, Louise Delacourt. She meets a young Marxist man named Arthur by accident in Hyde Park. She is still living with Paul, but, prone to swift, easy emotions, by the time they pick up his Communist pamphlets that had fallen to the ground, Joan claims to be in love. I never found anything truly appealing about Arthur--he was a smug, pretentious stick-in-the-mud--but Joan leaves the Count and moves in with him. They marry. Goodness gracious I'll speed this up: Joan writes a book of poetry - under her real name this time, expecting nothing to come of it - and she is suddenly thrust into the spotlight of celebrity. J meets and carries on with a man called the Royal Porcupine, easily my favorite character of the book. So on and so forth. I tend to give too much away in these synopses so to learn more you'll have to read it!
I identified strongly with Joan in this passage:
"There were two kinds of love, I told myself; Arthur was terrific for one kind, but why demand all things from one man? I'd given up expecting him to be a cloaked, sinuous and faintly menacing stranger. He couldn't be that: I lived with him, and cloaked strangers didn't leave their socks on the floor or stick their fingers in their ears or gargle in the mornings to kill germs. I kept Arthur in our apartment and the strangers in their castles and mansions, where they belonged. I felt this was quite adult of me, and it certainly allowed me to be more outwardly serene than the wives of Arthur's friends. But I had the edge on them: after all, when it came to fantasy lives I was a professional, whereas they were merely amateurs." (216)
This passage shows Joan's wry humor and also her practicality. Since I was a little girl I've been this way too: living via my imagination. It's the supreme manifestation of personal responsibility: by placing less pressure on yourself to extract happiness from a fallible human being and instead creating your own heroes, you're showcasing independence and resourcefulness. I enjoy this idea of creation as a salve for other people's natural imperfections; it corresponds with my belief that no single person can or should fulfill every emotional role in someone's life. At the end of the day we have only ourselves. Joan's cleverness and imaginative resilience was probably why I preferred Lady Oracle to both Cat's Eye and Surfacing.
As always, there's way more going on in an Atwood novel than can be reflected upon quickly or shallowly, so all apologies to Ms. Atwood for the quick and shallow attempt.