Jamie's Reviews > Surfacing

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
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Apr 29, 11

bookshelves: 1001-books, read-in-2011
Read from April 14 to 24, 2011 — I own a copy

An unusual novel, I think, for Atwood. It's clear to me that her novelist's voice was still developing (& probably didn't really hit its stride until Handmaid's Tale, though I still need to read Bodily Harm), but the wryness and the fascinating bird's eye view of the protagonist strike me as incredibly Atwoodian. Interestingly, though, that bird's eye view becomes more and more distorted, and we suddenly find ourselves as unhinged as the nameless narrator has become in the course of the novel. By the end, there were moments where I'd think: oh, of course it makes sense to do this fucked up animalistic thing!

Perhaps it seems out of sorts in the Atwood canon because it's such a wilderness tale. Even some of Atwood's more 'domestic' or 'rural' novels (Lady Oracle in its later portions, Alias Grace, Cat's Eye, parts of Blind Assassin) place social relations, rather than the natural world, at the center of things. This is the Canadian bush; the narrator's quest to find her lost father may be totally pointless from the start, as he could have gotten lost in the woods, hit his head and fallen into the lake; any number of things that have nothing to do with we ridiculous humans and our petty travails. With this at the forefront of the novel's concerns, the strange conclusion does indeed seem logical, or at least palatable. Moreover, the cruel actions of people among themselves, against one another, &c becomes so much more potent, if only because it seems less the exception to the rule than the central thing that has been concealed by the rule. There's a scene in particular that I won't ruin but that should be memorable enough for you to pick up on this resonance--a scene where what would typically be presented as a flagrant violation of ethics & compassion for others becomes instead a perfectly unexceptional act.

I'm not quite sure why so many reviewers here have labeled this an 'academic' book. Admittedly, I'm an academic, but I wouldn't call this Atwood's most meta- or 'high' literary novel (see Alias Grace, Blind Assassin). It's a strange novel, which perhaps leads some people to assume it's somehow 'above' their heads--but hell, it was above my head too. I think the thing is to have patience in the second half: the first half was actually a real pleasure to quickly read; the second half, where things begin to turn upside down, required a little more work, but felt unsettling, I think, in a really fabulous way. It's not the Atwood novel I'd suggest beginning with--sort of a "deep cuts" work by her (using silly iTunes 'Best Of' list-lingo)--but definitely worth its salt.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Moira Russell I liked this one a lot, altho I tend to like first novels because they're sort of like baby pictures - HATED Bodily Harm, tho, think I only read it once. The Edible Woman actually has a good first-person opening and closing, altho the whole body of it is in v dull 3P. I am actually very fond of Lady Oracle, altho it's sort of deliberately slapstick - I used to have a long review of it online I should dig up (along with Alias Grace). Life Before Man was ehh. I think her personal pinnacle for me is either Cat's Eye, Alias Grace - or maybe Handmaid, altho that's a difficult book to love.


Jamie I have a love/hate thing with both Edible Woman and Lady Oracle, which I used for my undergrad honors thesis (well, technically EW & Robber Bride, but I snuck some stuff on LO in there as well). Both do really interesting things, but aren't always interesting to read--particularly EW, which feels like such a chore through the middle section. I don't think Atwood yet had a handle on balancing the novel-of-ideas--there was too much emphasis on the idea, & not enough on the novel.

Bodily Harm & Life Before Man (oops, forgot that one altogether) are the ones remaining for me. I might try and knock both out this summer so I can finally feel I've made a dent in her HUGE body of work (short stories, poetry, nonfiction, jeebus). I'm with you on the favorites, though: Alias Grace, Cat's Eye, & Handmaid's Tale for me, too. I'm a big fan of Blind Assassin & Year of the Flood, too. Both Robber Bride & Oryx & Crake felt somewhat hit-or-miss to me.


Moira Russell Jamie wrote: "I have a love/hate thing with both Edible Woman and Lady Oracle, which I used for my undergrad honors thesis (well, technically EW & Robber Bride, but I snuck some stuff on LO in there as well).

OMG, nice!

particularly EW, which feels like such a chore through the middle section

Yeah, it was interesting to see Atwood revisit some of her earlier life in Cat's Eye and compare them - I admit I have a secret fondness for Lady Oracle because of the dancing (and the weight problem, heh). Parts of that also are a lot like Cat's eye, I think.

Bodily Harm & Life Before Man (oops, forgot that one altogether) are the ones remaining for me.

Life Before Man is sort of....earnestly dull? At the time I think it was a big scandal because it was supposedly a roman a clef about Anansi Press, altho I was never able to keep straight who was who, and perhaps no book is more dull than a roman without a clef. It does have I think Atwood's first attempt at a male protagonist, altho she didn't try a first-person one (unless I'm forgetting short stories) til Alias Grace, I think.

HATED Bodily Harm. Hated, hated, hated. All the women are victims and the men are predators and it just totally sucks. I think it came out around the same time she was getting to know Carolyn Forche (?), and her poetry depicts that shift in radicalized politics a lot better (True Stories, and “Notes Towards A Poem That Can Never Be Written,” esp). It's just bad. Not badly written, but kind of badly imagined, like Le Guin's Tehanu.

I'm a big fan of Blind Assassin & Year of the Flood, too. Both Robber Bride & Oryx & Crake felt somewhat hit-or-miss to me.

I continue to bounce right off BA and haven't tried YF/O&C yet, but yeah, Robber Bride felt....like Zenia should have been more sympathetic? No, the point was, she was rapacious. She felt very cardboard - it was more interesting to me if she sort of represented the womens' dark sides, or what they wished they could really do. I don't know, I always want to like it more than I do, but it never quite works for me. You can tell Atwood sort of delights in Zena, but the other characters certainly don't and the reader doesn't really, either.


Jamie You make Bodily Harm & LBM sound so appealing for my summer reading list! Atwood is sadly an author that I have little interest in seeing write male protagonists (see also: Toni Morrison). I just don't find it to be particularly nuanced with her, when she does. Which isn't to say something stoo-pid, like "Women can't write men; men can't write women." Maybe it's a voice thing? Maybe her voice is so distinctive that it's hard for me to be convinced when that same writerly voice is put in a man's POV?

YOTF is *fantastic*--O&C is good, too, but it's almost as if YOTF is, in addition to being a 'sidequel' or whatever, Atwood's rewrite of O&C with all her best novelistic qualities intact. I suppose it wouldn't make much sense to read it without O&C, but definitely give it a shot sometime.

I always read Zenia more akin to your note here: that is, as a specter of the women's darker qualities that have been displaced (or, ick, in Freudian terms, the uncanny). One of the reasons why, I think, the three must all band together to 'finish off' Zenia's haunting. I don't know, it just feels too long; too disjointed; too flattened. As you say, Zenia comes off as a kind of cut-paper person; she's too easy to despise, which makes sense, as she's only accounted for by characters who do, in fact, hate her--but it feels that there's little motivation to sympathize with her (which I think always makes for the more fascinating villain).


Moira Russell Jamie wrote: "You make Bodily Harm & LBM sound so appealing for my summer reading list!

Heh, sorry! I did find LBM a lot better than BH.

I just don't find it to be particularly nuanced with her, when she does. Which isn't to say something stoo-pid, like "Women can't write men; men can't write women."

Yeah, I don't think that's far wrong -- she sounded so dubious in I think Second Words about ever even attempting to write from a male viewpoint that it seemed to be more a kind of psychic block, maybe a failure of imagination. I don't remember much about the male narrator of Alias Grace - Grace eclipses him so.

YOTF is *fantastic*--O&C is good, too, but it's almost as if YOTF is, in addition to being a 'sidequel' or whatever, Atwood's rewrite of O&C with all her best novelistic qualities intact

Oh, cool! Yeah, a lot of my friends were put off by O&C, but people do seem to like Flood a lot better.

I always read Zenia more akin to your note here: that is, as a specter of the women's darker qualities that have been displaced (or, ick, in Freudian terms, the uncanny). One of the reasons why, I think, the three must all band together to 'finish off' Zenia's haunting. I don't know, it just feels too long; too disjointed; too flattened

Zenia as the uncanny! I like that. And she does seem more than anything else like a projection -- so supremely powerful, stealing all those men away, and then at the end she's so diminished and kind of easily defeated. Like the nun turning into the costume on the bed in Villette! Only the Gothic/fairytale elements of RB didn't really work for me.

I think a big problem I had with that book was I didn't find the three female characters interesting; they were Dull, Duller and Dullest. In a funny way I don't think Atwood's often good at characterization; when she writes 1P all the other people seem to be enigmas to the narrator, especially men. And her first-person narrators are so vivid (Grace, Elaine, Handmaid/June, &c) they make her third-person narrators really flat, at least to me.


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