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:
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.