On Monday night, I set off with my friend Susan to see, and hear, my old pal Margaret Atwood. Sponsored by the Ottawa Writer’s Festival, Atwood was speaking at the Southminster United Church, a beautiful old building that’s part of the historical and cultural fabric of Old Ottawa South. Kind of a fitting venue for someone who has been such a big part of Canadian literature for so long. You could say that, like this old church, Atwood has become part of the fabric of Canadian culture.
But, as Elizabeth Bennet (kind of) said of Mr. Darcy… I didn’t always love her as much as I love her now. Atwood’s early novels that I read in the seventies and eighties, The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle, Bodily Harm, left me a bit cold. But I absolutely adored Cat’s Eye when it came out in 1988, and cherish my signed copy. Ditto Alias Grace, The Robber Bride, and Blind Assassin. I think that Blind Assassin is a masterpiece. It’s my favourite Atwood work.
The Blind Assassin is not universally well loved. But I was captivated by the story of sisters Iris and Laura, as told by a cranky, and now impoverished, eighty-two year old Iris. I love the way Atwood weaves the past and present together, with flashbacks, and newspaper articles, as well as the story within a story, the pulp- fiction tale of “The Blind Assassin” as told to Laura by her lover. One review I read called the characters “bloodless.” Remorseless, scarred by tragedy and abandonment, coerced into ‘behaving’ by a rigid and oppressive society obsessed with respectability… certainly. But not bloodless. Iris, an old lady of apparent ruthlessness and lack of emotion, retelling her life story, actually reminds me of that other iconic Canadian fictional character, created by that other Margaret. Namely Margaret Laurence’s character of Hagar in The Stone Angel. If you’re not familiar with Canadian fiction and some of its earlier stars, you should read Margaret Laurence. Stone Angel is her best known novel, but I prefer A Jest of God. I seriously love that book.
The last time I heard Margaret Atwood speak was in 2013, when she was touring her recently published book MaddAddam. She was brilliant. Ascerbic, funny, telling stories in her deadpan way, poking fun at how old she was, and how young the interviewer was. Afterwards when my friend Nancy and I were standing in the very long line to get our books signed, and the host strolled by, I quipped, “That must have been stressful!” Atwood is a notoriously “difficult” interview. He laughed ruefully, “I had a whole list of questions, and I only got to ask two.” And then we both laughed. Atwood had taken over the show and had gone on and on from one fascinating story to another. Thank God. The host’s questions had actually been pretty bad.
While I was researching this post I watched a charming interview on CBC with George Stroumbouloupoulos following the publication of MaddAddam. George is lovely, and it’s clear that Atwood thinks so too. Have a look.
I’m just now getting around to reading MaddAddam, which as you probably know is the third book in her post-apocalyptic trilogy. Oryx and Crake came out in 2003 and TheYear of the Flood in 2009. I loved Oryx and Crake, couldn’t put it down, in fact. Have a look at this insightful analysis of the novel on the blog Fiction Unbound. Oryx and Crake depicts a not too distant future that we can all imagine. Atwood merely exaggerates the narcissism, corporate greed, and “unfettered consumerist debauchery” we see today, and combines it with “endemic social and economic inequality” and “catastrophic climate change” to depict a world that is willfully blind to its own impending apocalypse. Definitely not light reading. Oryx and Crake both begins and ends with the apocalypse. The Year of the Flood covers the same ground from a different perspective, that of the outsiders. Characters in this second novel do not live in the gated and heavily secured world of the wealthy, all-powerful corporations, but on the fringes of civilization, in the violent, poverty-ridden Pleeblands. In this world if you’re not part of the corporate aristocracy, you’re a “pleeb.”
MaddAddampicks up where the first two books end, uniting the survivors of the apocalypse, a mix of characters from both of the first two novels. As one reviewer says, this third book deals with the question of “now what?” Emma Brockes wrote a wonderful article for the Guardian in which she and Atwood discuss MaddAddam, Atwood’s career, and her views on everything from women writers to the life of bees. You can read the articlehere.At one point in her interview, Brockes says the author replies to a question in that “Atwoodian tone of steely levity.” I love that description.
I haven’t finished MaddAddam yet. I’m struggling with it, reading in short spurts. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a wonderful book. Brilliant. Funny, in a darkly ironic way. It’s just that it is so dark. And I think that I’m not entirely in the mood for dark these days.
This is a shot of my friend Nancy and me, with our buddy Margaret, in 2013. She signed our books, and then her assistant took our picture with Nancy’s i-phone. I was planning all manner of intelligent things to say, but it was getting late. We’d been standing in line for an hour. Margaret looked exhausted. In the end we just giggled and said thank-you.
On Monday night I took along my copy of Atwood’s newest book The Heart Goes Last, but by the end of the evening I couldn’t face another hour long wait in line. So I came away with it unsigned. Ah well. That’s okay. I’d enjoyed Atwood’s conversation and her stories. As I always do.
Atwood is such a wonderful writer. I love that she’s so smart, and so wide-reaching in her interests, and her causes. And so open to new ideas and experiences, even those that her publishers tell her are “beneath her.” But she does them anyway. Like writing about zombies. Or hair.
If you haven’t heard, or read, about #hairgate … you must. Atwood’s article “Hair Is in the Election Season Air” for the National Post was a tongue-in-cheek jab at Stephen Harper and the Conservative party’s attack-ads which commented on Justin Trudeau’s hair. For those of you who don’t follow Canadian politics, the ads painted Trudeau as a light-weight and then ended with the comment, “Nice hair. though.” Atwood wrote the article, then the Post pulled the article, and then all hell broke loose on Twitter. You can read about all the kerfuffle here. The whole thing was such a hoot.
Like George Stroumbouloupoulos said, Margaret Atwood “makes this country a better and more interesting place.” You got that right George.
Yep, Maggie and me… we go way back. Although, I guess I shouldn’t be so disrespectful as to call a literary icon ‘Maggie.’ Or Peggy, or Mags. I should just stick to Margaret. Much more dignified. Especially since she doesn’t know me from Adam. Or even from MaddAddam. Ha! Sorry… but I’ve been waiting days to make that terrible pun.
P.S. I haven’t even started reading Atwood’s latest book The Heart Goes Last. I’ll no doubt get back to you when I’ve finished it.
High Heels in the Wilderness is for women like me. Women who love clothes. And books. Who dream of travelling to amazing places. Who want to explore their own lives, and their own potential, now that they aren't twenty (or even forty) anymore.