KfC’s 2013 Project: Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood

Personal first edition

Personal first edition

Margaret Atwood is undoubtedly one of Canada’s best known and most prolific authors. The third volume in her Oryx and Crake trilogy, Maddaddam, is due for publication later this year — it will be novel number fourteen on her resume, published forty-four years after The Edible Woman marked her introduction as a novelist in 1969. At that time, she was already a well-regarded poet — she has continued to publish poetry, children’s books, commentary and criticism throughout her career.

As one who has read her first 10 novels (she and I parted ways with Oryx and Crake), I would argue that there are three quite distinct groupings of Atwood novels:

  • The early “feminist” books, starting with The Edible Woman up to Bodily Harm (1981), including Surfacing, her second novel, published in 1972. “Feminist” is perhaps too lazy a label — the books do feature troubled, youngish female characters who are facing some difficult choices, not all of their own making. The male characters in the books are definitely part of the problem, not the solution, and society in general seems stacked against the heroines.
  • The “historical” novels, starting with Cat’s Eye (1988) and extending through to The Blind Assassin (2000). These four (The Robber Bride and Alias Grace are the other two) are probably her best known and most critically recognized — they all featured on Booker, Orange, Governor-General’s and Giller Prize short lists. While feminism is still present, they have much broader plots and Atwood doesn’t hesitate to introduce her political leanings (she has been an outspoken activist throughout her career) into her fiction.
  • The “dystopian” novels, presaged with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and fully developed in the Oryx and Crake trilogy beginning in 2003. My distaste for dystopian fiction is profound — I read, but did not much like, The Handmaid’s Tale, and have not even sampled the two most recent works.
  • So before even looking at Surfacing, I should note that this is an Atwood work that may not be familiar — or even representative — to some of her most avid fans. It may well be the least read of her 14 novels (although it is still in print) and at first glance seems an unlikely choice for KfC’s 2013 project of rereading a dozen Canadian authors who influenced me. I’ll extend this introduction further by saying that it does have particular personal significance for me. Atwood also published a critical work in 1972, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, arguing in that volume that most Canadian novels published to that date were brutal stories of how individuals coped with a hostile natural environment. I had some experience with early Canadian fiction at that time and was doing some book reviewing for the Calgary Herald — I remember to this day how a scheduled 45-minute interview with Atwood turned into a two-and-a-half hour conversation. While I have never been a fan of her public persona, I can assure you that face-to-face she was a fascinating, warm, informative subject — a positive assessment that may well have influenced my first response to this novel.

    Indeed, Surfacing itself is as good an example as one can find of the transition from the fiction that Atwood described in Survival to the kind of work that has proved more representative of Canadian writing since the 1970s. To be sure, every publishing season still features some “frontier” works and the challenges that hostile natural elements present, but that has becomes just one of the streams, not the all-pervasive, central one.

    Surfacing definitely has an element of “nature-coping” to it. The first-person narrator is an illustrator who lives in urban Canada (Toronto is suggested, but not named) and who is returning to an island in the rocky Canadian Shield country of Quebec where she was raised, accompanied by her boyfriend Joe and a couple of married friends, David and Anna. She has received word from old friends of her parents that her elderly father (who has retreated, hermit-like, to the rugged island cabin in his retirement) has gone missing — she has persuaded Joe, David and Anna to come along on a two-day trip to see what might have happened.

    Atwood wastes no time in letting the reader know that the conflict between frontier and urban environments will be a feature of the book. It opens:

    I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have sea-planes for hire. But this is still near the city limits; we didn’t go through, it’s swelled enough to have a bypass, that’s success.

    I never thought of it as a city but as the last or first outpost depending on which way we were going, an accumulation of sheds and boxes and one main street with a movie theatre, the itz, the oyal, red R burnt out, and two restaurants which served identical grey hamburger steaks plastered with mud gravy and canned peas, watery and pallid as fisheyes, and French fries bleary with lard. Order a poached egg, my mother said, you can tell if it’s fresh by the edges.

    That “survival” conflict will never disappear from the novel — the narrator’s three fellow travelers are all urban people, neophytes in the remote environment who can’t even paddle a canoe, so she is their guide into this remote world. Without giving too much away, as the narrator discovers more about herself the theme becomes even more pervasive and dominates the closing chapters of the book.

    Along the way, however, we get some of Atwood’s more contemporary observations. She’s never been known as a great supporter of America and that thread also gets introduced in the opening chapter:

    Now we’re passing the turnoff to the pit the Americans hollowed out. From here it looks like an innocent hill, spruce-covered, but the thick power lines running into the forest give it away. I heard they’d left, maybe that was a ruse, they could easily still be living in there, the generals in concrete bunkers and the ordinary soldiers in underground apartment buildings where the lights burn all the time. There’s no way of checking because we aren’t allowed in. The city invited them to stay, they were good for business, they drank a lot.

    “That’s where the rockets are,” I say. Were. I don’t correct it.

    David says “Bloody fascist pig Yanks,” as though he’s commenting on the weather.

    And finally, there is the gender tension. Readily-available birth control may have introduced a version of sexual freedom in the 1960s but, in many ways (particularly among pseudo-lefties like these four), it has only increased the dominance of men over women. The narrator and Joe may live and sleep together back in the city, but they are anything but a happy couple. David and Anna may be married, but in no way does that result in Anna being David’s equal. And “sexual freedom” and the remote location supply the excuse for some four-way, male-dominated “play”.

    Of the four novels that I have re-read so far in this project, I would have to say that Surfacing has aged least well. Part of that is certainly my own aging: the tension/abuse between the female and male characters had a present-day reality to it when I first read this novel which simply is only a distant memory now. The anti-American story line seems embarrassingly naïve and simplistic, given current reality. The conflict with a hostile environment (and Atwood does get into some natural spirituality in that thread) is the strongest element but even that did not lead to new insights for me on this read.

    Having said all that, I would say that readers who respond enthusiastically to Atwood’s dystopian works (and there certainly are many of them) might well want to pick up Surfacing for some early indications of where she will be heading in her later writing career. The latter part of the book may have landed flat with me — I suspect there is much more there for readers who find the “naturalism” of Oryx and Crake rewarding.

    As for KfC’s 2013 project, it will be taking a minor detour in the next two months. The first four books have featured well-known Canadian novelists (Robertson Davies, Carol Shields and Mordecai Richler in addition to Atwood) and the last six, while perhaps not so well known to contemporary readers, do have international reputations. My May read is Hugh Hood’s White Figure, White Ground — Hood was my favorite novelist in the 1970s and I would rate him as one of Canada’s most unjustly overlooked authors. And June features Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man, a Prairie novel that I suspect few visitors here have even heard of. If you have found the first four authors of any interest at all, stay tuned — Hood and Kroetsch may not be as well known, but they are well worth reading.

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    22 Responses to “KfC’s 2013 Project: Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood”

    1. Sheila O'Brien Says:

      While I applaud your project to revisit Canadian novels of note to judge how they have aged, I must say, I have really never thought of Margaret Atwood as a “Canadian novelist”. I think she is a Toronto novelist, and is tone deaf to the sensibilities of the rest of the country. Both Alice Munro and Carol Shields write with a Canadian sensibility, and feel very familiar to me, even when they set their work in specific places. I think when the dust settles on this era of Canadian authors, the work of both Munro and Shields will endure and prevail, while Atwood’s will feel dated and anachronistic.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        “Dated and anachronistic” might be a touch harsh, but is directionally correct when it comes to how I found Surfacing this time around. And there is no doubt that her public persona is very “Toronto-centric” — actually, “Annex-centric” is probably more accurate since it comes with a very definite political point of view that seems to reflect that neighborhood.

    2. Trevor Says:

      I have been looking forward to your revisit of Atwood, Kevin, knowing how you feel about her current work. I had hoped it would have held up well. I’ve read a number of Atwood’s novels, but not this one, and I’ve felt her later work, particularly The Year of the Flood to be, as you charge her anti-American line in this novel, “embarrassingly naïve and simplistic.” Don’t worry, though; should Maddaddam get on the Giller, I’ll take it and run for the Shadow Jury.

      By the way, I’m very anxious to hear more about Hood and Kroetsch!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I was almost cringing at some of the anti-American stuff in this book. Certainly it was written at a particularly low period in Canadian-American relations (I was leftie enough that our rented co-op house was the first stopping point for a number of draft dodgers) but if a novel was going to take an effective run at the Yanks it could have used more substance.

        And I hope you will find reason to pick up both Hood and Kroetsch. I should note that Hood in particular is known as a short story writer (he was part of the Montreal gang that included people like Blaise, Richler and Moore) and you might want to give one of his collections a try. And I hope when I get to Kroetsch that I may evoke some memories of your Idaho upbringing. :-)

    3. Lisa Hill Says:

      What a fascinating post! I was interested to see this because of your … um…what’s the word? … angst? ambivalence? about Atwood. I have a similar problem with one of Australia’s best known and well-loved authors, so I feel your pain!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        “Ambivalence” would be the right word. She is definitely a talented writer and I was impressed with her early and mid-career novels. I’ll admit that the fawning attention she gets from much media here and the way she leverages her literary reputation to promote her political causes does tend to stick in my craw.

        • Lisa Hill Says:

          Interesting what you say about fawning: here in Oz we’re having a bit of soul-searching about the state of book reviewing, partly because the space for the traditional print review is declining in newspapers but also because there is a growing prevalence of book reviews being written by fellow-authors. There is a perception that they all know each other and don’t want to write anything nasty about each other’s books. Is this a problem in Canada?

        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          The issue of authors reviewing authors has always been on the agenda — be it overly-friendly or grudge-bearing hostile (not hard to find examples of both). My view is only anecdotal but I’d say that it is less of a problem now.

          Certainly shrinking space in traditional newspapers means there are far fewer reviews appearing than there were when I was writing them for publication — only the two national newspapers and Toronto Star really have any book coverage at all anymore. Having said that, for those willing to look, the online book coverage from both the Globe and Mail and National Post offers more than you could find in print 20 years ago. And the CBC also does an effective job of mixing broadcast and online book coverage.

          • Lisa Hill Says:

            Yes, that’s true here too, online gradually supplanting print but here there is less reviewing by professionals and the interesting issue is whether anyone can make a living reviewing books online – and what might be lost and gained by the demise of professional reviewing if that’s what happens.
            You can sense the disquiet in this article with its dismissive headline, from one of our daily newspapers, (in which *blush* I feature). http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/bookworms-on-the-web-20130419-2i5bs.html
            Yes, not being part of the industry gives the freedom to be critical, but does it confer the sort of expertise that professional reviewers have?

        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          Thanks for that link — it was a good read and, as a fan of your blog (and a couple others mentioned), you deserve the positive press.

          I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that bloggers are now my main source for reviews (I visit all the ones on my blogroll daily). I do subscribe to Quill and Quire, the Canadian industry publication, because it does offer short reviews on just about every fiction title that is released in Canada. I check the Globe and Mail and National Post online sections less often. I virtually never read Amazon reviews and don’t participate in some of the other sources like Goodreads — I certainly think that have value for some readers but I don’t think they would offer much return on the time that I would have to invest.

          I don’t think anyone outside of book industry capitals like London and New York (and perhaps one or two people in Toronto) has made a living doing reviews for a long time — even when I was running the book section in Calgary more than 30 years ago, reviews were just a small added source of income for the authors and academics who would qualify as “professionals” (I’d say what we paid for a review was probably enough to buy a decent bottle of Scotch, not much more).

          I would offer one other observation, however. I think following bloggers and a limited number of national newspaper book sections (plus prize lists) keeps me pretty well informed on books in the U.K., Canada and, yes, Australia. I can’t say the same for the U.S. — I don’t know any blogs that keep up with the kind of contemporary American fiction that I read. I do follow the NY Times reviews, but that is about all.

          Finally, another piece of praise for you (in your role as IFFP Shadow juror) and some other bloggers. One area where the blogging world really has expanded my horizons is translated works. I don’t read nearly as many as some bloggers do but I do read some — I have found that following some of the blogs like Stu’s and Trevor’s where a lot are reviewed and the various Shadow Juries and forum boards on translation prizes is an excellent way of developing a shortlist of those that I do want to read. Perhaps more important, they identify a lot of novels that I am willing to read 1,000 words about but have no interest in tackling the entire book.

    4. leroyhunter Says:

      Atwood is someone I’ve not felt any urge to ever read, so I’m most interested in your thoughts about her oeuvre and “persona” (known to me only by occasional appearances on BBC).

      If you did that kind of thing, a post about your dislike of dystopian fiction would be very interesting!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Actually, the dislike extends beyond dystopian to utopian and other futurist works — although it is most intense with fiction that seeks to portray a future of disaster. My issue is that I don’t grant authors the right to make up versions of the future world that, conveniently, allow them to exercise the biases and prejudices they have in the current one and present these as faites accompli. I have no problem with fiction promoting those kind of views as part of the work — I just feel you need to locate them in a convincing version of current reality (or recognizable history) for them to be seriously considered.

        I am obviously out of step with a lot of readers on this to the point that every couple of years I seem to take a tentative step and “try” a futurist volume. And find that a few pages in, I am already reacting against the book rather than reading along with it — so I guess I just must be hard-wired to reject that kind of fiction.

        • leroyhunter Says:

          Interesting thoughts. I’m no expert in this area, I’d be interested in Max’s thoughts.

          I think though that an effective way to test (rather than merely “exercise”) certain ideas is to exaggerate them in an imaginative context. Sometimes that can lead to interesting places. I agree that the realisation of the book needs to be convincing (in some probably indefinable way) to compensate for the exaggeration.

    5. sshaver Says:

      I agree about dystopian literature, which can sometimes manage to seem stiflingly self-indulgent and dizzily unmoored from reality at the same time. I do wonder whether it’s the rage now because we’re all living in a corporate-run dystopia.

      But I smiled at “nature-coping” as a category. I like it, and it’s mine!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        While it has been a long time since I read Survival, I think you might find it interesting if you ever run into a copy, given your interests. The very first “Canadian” book was Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It In The Bush, published in 1952 — Atwood argues that for the next century, our fiction was pretty much all devoted to versions of that same story.

    6. Tom Cunliffe Says:

      A very interesting review Kevin – I have read a few Atwood’s but not this one. It’s a shame it’s not aged all that well. I would have thought her anti-Americanism in this book would go down rather well today and surprised you now find it “embarrassingly naïve and simplistic, given current reality”. America has few friends in the cultural world outside her borders.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Your last statement rings true — in this novel, the anti-American statements are inserted almost as if by rote. I am glad I reread it, however. Even if it did not live up to my perceptions from first reading, it is a valuable example to the transition that was taking place in Canadian fiction at the time.

    7. Isabel Says:

      I love her dystopian novels. (I think that I am in that phase of my reading.). Genetic manipulation and plastic surgery could be taken to the extreme, as she depicts in her novel. And the new view of beauty is starting: http://www.mrtoledano.com/a-new-kind-of-beauty/01-A-new-kind-of-beauty

      I just read The Not-Yets (set in a soggy New Orleans in the next century). Canada is considered one of the lands of the free! http://www.moiracrone.com/the-not-yet/

    8. future landfill Says:

      Good for the Hood! Shamefully unrecognized, even among prolific readers of my acquaintance. I thought the Proust comparison a bit pompous I read every last one of the New Age books as soon as they came out, and most of the others as well.

      Also not getting the attention they deserve are Jack Hodgins and Bill Gaston. Ah, don’t get me started.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Very interesting timing — I thought I would just check for comments before starting White Figure, White Ground and what should I find but your thoughts. Hood has always been a quick read for me so a review should be up in a week or so — check back in then and we can talk about the New Age books (I’d agree Proust comparisons are only appropriate when it comes to length, even if I did enjoy most of the 12).

        As for Hodgins and Gaston, getting back to them may have to wait until next year. Keith Maillard is another name I would add in to that mix and I have been meaning to return to him as well.

    9. ivereadthis Says:

      I totally agree with your argument regarding her three phases-and my favourite was definitely the second. I like watching dystopian movies, but I don’t like reading dystopian works, much like yourself. Perhaps it’s too depressing to be in those worlds for too long, or we just can’t get a sense of them without seeing it in person, but it’s definitely a genre that’s hard to get into.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        There is no doubt there is a market for dystopian fiction — I am just not part of it.

        I would also like to point out to regular visitors here that “ivereadthis” is a new entry in the Canadian book blogging world. The blogger is Anne Logan, who until a few days ago was Programming Manager at WordFest, Calgary’s international authors festival. I’ll confess that Anne reads even more Canadian fiction than I do and for a couple of years has been a very valuable source to KfC in drawing my attention to both debut authors and outstanding work from small presses that often escapes my attention. You can check out her blog by clicking on the highlighted “ivereadthis” label on her comment. Her blog may be new but she already has a number of very interesting posts up.

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