ASK CANADIAN AUTHOR Margaret Atwood about the critical contention most frequently leveled at her five novels--that they "hate men"--and she will acrew her aristocratic features into a grimace, primly fold her blue-veined hands, and lunch sing-song into what is clearly an oft-repeated litany.
Mcan on men? Am I mean on men? Silly people. Let on consider. On the one hand you have Hitler, on the other Albert Schweitzer. Are people in books like this? People in books ought to be human beings. Let us consider human beings in books Consider the men in Tess of the D'Uhervilles, written by a man Alex D'Urbervile, a rake. Angel Clare, a total wimp Dogs Hardy hate men? Consider Dickens, a man, writing about men. Now those are men I would love to have in my living room Consider.
The stream of examples continues to flow smoothly even over the questioner's embarrassed apologies. "Not at all," she finishes smoothly, and the sardonic expression breaks in a smile "It is a question I answer with glee."
Atwood's air of unflappability is exactly what one would expect from the assured, seamless flow of her prove and poetry. On one level her protagonists--especially Rennie Wilford, the young "life styles" journalist central to Bodily Harm--are smooth and sophisticated, gliding productively through life. It is this apparent power, most likely, that prompts so many feminists to claim her work as the ideological property of the women's movement, a tendency which leads naturally to the temptation to dismiss her male supporting characters as evil insensitive foils for the struggling females. The temptation is false, through: Atwood's men, though by no means models of balance, meet her "real people" criterion of complexity, and her feminism is of a healthy, direct sort.
"I have never written a trapped housewife novel," she says, but adds. "People have a paranoid image of feminism--a narrow, ideological view. Feminism oughtn't to be an attack on men. I don't buy that line. I thought we were all striving to be free and equal."
But she is equally far from rejecting the movement in the style so those she classifies--reaching back to the four years she spent at Radcliffe in the early 1960s--as "women who were never kept out of Lamont. "Any woman who can read and write is de facto a feminist," she says, adding crisply. "Some of them should take a trip to Afghanistan if they want to see what wars are really being fought over."
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WHAT THE FEMINIST interpretation of Atwood's work ignores, though, is the texture and depth of even the most textbook "liberated" characters. In Life Before Man, the novel before Bodily Harm, for instance. Lesje, one of three narrators who form a triangle, holds a paleontology job at a Toronto museum. She works there passionately, betraying encyclopedic knowledge, weaving elaborate Cretaceous fantasies Atwood's twist makes the job consist in large measure of classifying, cleaning and filing innumerable Jurassic fish earbones.
Bodily Harm takes such complexities further, building an entire story line on the freelancer Rennie's gap between outer confidence and inner decimation. Her fluffy but well-ordered life having suddenly exploded in a partial mastectomy, a breakup with the man she lives with and subsequently a death threat. Rennie successfully wheedles her editor into sending her to write a travel piece on St. Antoine, an obscure Caribbean island. The Caribbean sun is soothing, but the islanders are fomenting revolution; and the steadily more surreal chain of events that lands Rennie in a tropical jail teaches her only, in the end, that she cannot ever muster the strength to make herself "exempt" from pain.
Throughout, Atwood downplays the island's inflammatory politics, using Rennie's character and the stunning force of her own visual imagery to fuel tension. She disavows that any specific foreign incident inspired the setting, preferring to generalize: "I've been places like that, and you can think about what's happening to journalists in foreign countries these days."
But she has no visible qualms about describing an uncannily similar "incident" that has since befallen a friend of hers who "writes about angora sweaters" for a Toronto lifestyles journal, one who, in fact, partly sparked her idea for Rennie's character. The coincidence apparently does not strain Atwood's credulity. "The normal thing about normal people is that strange things happen to them. Usually, you have to tone down reality to make it fictionally probable."
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BUT IN THE TONING-DOWN she maintains a respectful distance from even her own creative process, politely refraining from anything resembling a psychological poke around. Engaged in a sixth novel, she notes first that her publishers won't "allow" her to discuss it, then adds. "I don't want to tempt the gods."
Nor can she pinpoint experiences her books are "about" or events that "affected" them, offering instead the anecdote of a farmer neighbor whose barn caught fire several years ago. The entire herd of cattle was brought out unharmed, suffering no visible effects; five months later, though, all the cows miscarried. Rather than assess and second-guess her own delayed shock values. Atwood states her preference for filling the months between novels--when the emotional and creative cycles don't overlap--with writing T.V. docudramas and adaptations, her mental equivalent of a jog around the block.
Occasionally when time and a suitable request coincide, she reverts to the days when she pursued a semi-serious degree as an academic at Radcliffe (studying under Perry Miller and completing all the Ph.D. Requirements but a thesis), and writes a piece of critical analysis. Though Survival, a collection of critical essays, met a good reception, she says she never felt any particular fondness for the form and, even at Radcliffe, felt equally smug, and guilty for listening to junior faculty's political woes "and secretly knowing I would never have to cope with any of it."
The serious work between the docudramas, then, splits equally between novels and poetry, of which she has published nine collections so far. She sees the two forms as complementary and not only in the different possibilities they lend.
"As far as I'm concerned, poetry is the cutting edge of the language, the place where it regenerates and reinvents itself," she says, "and prose is the place where language intersects with society."