Surfacing – Margaret Atwood

25 March 2013
Chapters 1-5
The first-person narrator of this short novel is in a bleak place. I don’t mean the Canadian wilderness where she spent part of her childhood, and where she has returned in adult life to search for a sign of her father, who has recently gone missing. I mean the inside of her head. She seems disconnected – in fact, disconnection seems to be one of the main themes – and the continuous present in which her story is unfolding gives us nothing to hold on to. The reader doesn’t know how this thing is going to end but, unusually, neither does the narrator: she’s lost, and we’re lost alongside her.

Loss. This lakeside wilderness retreat, where her father brought the family apparently to seek out a different way of life, has been the scene of a drowning – her older brother, before she was born – and of her mother’s decline into death from brain disease. Now her dad’s gone as well, and nobody knows whether he’s accidentally drowned, or has committed suicide, or – and this sounds like clutching at straws – is hiding in the woods. The narrator has been driven up into French-speaking Canada by people she doesn’t seem to have known long. They are two couples, and the other woman is her ‘best friend’ despite them only having known each other for two months. The others know that she was married once but none of them, including her own lover, know about the child she left with her husband. I’ll come back to him – or to her version of him, which is all we’ve got.

This is only Atwood’s second novel – I remember being impressed by it in the 1980s, and it wasn’t new then – but it seems to be as carefully layered as her later work. Another level of disconnection is to do with language. However much time they spent here, only her father seems to have been comfortable having conversations with the speakers of the ‘nasal’ French dialect of the region. She, like her mother, never mastered more than a few words and, even now, her high-school French makes her sound like a tourist. Even on the journey, things twist out of her grip: the winding dirt road has been upgraded and straightened, and there are new features she doesn’t recognise. It makes her feel guilty: she is supposed to be the one who knows her way around. She even feels guilty that she doesn’t feel nauseous as the reach their destination.

She’s a wonderful portrayal of somebody who isn’t comfortable in her own skin. Or out of it: every encounter seems to be fraught with opportunities for fresh embarrassment. She makes self-imposed rules for herself: if you ask the way in a shop, you have to buy something; if you photograph the tourist gimmicks at the gas station – a family of moose, dressed in clothes – you fill up the tank. (She doesn’t tell us her friends’ opinions, because she can’t really read what they are thinking. No surprise there, then.) The son of the bar owner is someone she recognises from when he was eight years old, but she makes no sign of this. She notices his discomfort because, presumably, she recognises it.

Other layers. There’s a concern for the environment – the father who wants to live a self-sufficient life, the undertaking (by whom?) never to travel by air, the tree disease that hasn’t quite made its way this far north yet – that connect with Atwood’s most recent novels. And, most tellingly for this narrator, there are the problematic relationships with men. We don’t actually know much about her marriage, beyond the fact that she feels it was entirely for her husband’s convenience. He was the one who wanted a child, a ‘copy’ of himself, and he imposed his will on her. This is what she tells us and, inevitably, we have no way of knowing how true it is. She seems surprisingly willing to accede to the wishes of her present lover, agreeing to their moving in together with no real thought. She looks at the other couple, wonders how they could possibly have stayed together for nine long years. She has seen a bantering little game they play, and the woman confirms that they joke a lot. To our narrator, as lost as ever, this seems to be as satisfactory an answer as any other might have been.

And, unsurprisingly in a Margaret Atwood novel, there are problematic belief systems. David, the man who isn’t her lover, seems to represent the easy, cynical politics of the early 1970s. Americans are ‘fascist pig yanks’, and he jokes about training Canadian beavers to chew up the capitalist bastards on Wall Street. These people were children during World War II, and… and I’m not sure how significant that is. It gave the narrator’s brother a tendency to divide everything arbitrarily into good and bad when he was a boy, and maybe Atwood is holding up these easy divisions for us to judge. Maybe. And… there’s religion. The town by the lake is strictly Catholic – we hear stories of the repressive regime of the old priest – but the narrator’s father brought up his family entirely atheist. As a child she is astonished and appalled by the story of ‘a dead man in the sky’ looking down on the world, told to her by the girls at her school. In return, she tells them about how babies are really made, to the disgust of the girls’ parents.

Now, the narrator and her friends have made a quick reconnoitre of the paths around the family’s old cabin where her father was living. She realises they will never find him if he doesn’t want to be found, and we wonder whether this uncomfortable, disconnected woman will find anything at all. Time to read on.

26 March
Chapters 6-8 – to the end of Part 1
Three chapters in the cabin by the lake and, mostly, things are confirmed that we suspected before. A few things are given a little more clarity. The narrator’s father – like the rest of the family, including the narrator herself, he is never given a name – was a botanist whose education of his children was largely based on his wish that they would not be damaged by religion in the same way that he was. It’s no surprise at all that the mother seems to have had no say in the matter. (It’s no surprise either that it’s one of the women in the party who does the cooking and the other who does the washing up. This is the early 1970s world that Atwood, like a dismayed time-traveller, has chosen to present for our examination.)

Other clarifications. The cabin – she refers to it as a house – was where they lived for the long summer season each year. Otherwise they were in the (unnamed) city in a series of nondescript apartments. When they first found – or, rather, when their father first found – the wilderness retreat ‘ten miles from nowhere’ they lived in tents. The building of the house is something that we haven’t heard about in detail yet. But there’s another clarification about the family’s life there: the brother who ‘drowned’ is the same one who is alive now and, we learn, lives on the precise opposite side of the earth in the Australian outback. He did sink below the surface of the lake, his lungs did fill with water – but he was saved by their mother. This is the woman who seemed to have no life beyond a diary consisting only of plantings, harvestings and weather conditions and who would sometimes disappear into the woods for the whole day.

Is this narrator the product of a highly problematic marriage? It’s too early to say, but the signs are there, fed to us drip by drip. Women in this universe are incapable of decisions – or, rather, find that men make the decisions for them. This can be at any level: the narrator was steered into a ‘career’, as she mockingly calls it, as an illustrator while she was ‘still listening’ to her husband; less crucially, but just as tellingly, it is the men in the party who decide that they will extend the stay at the cabin beyond the planned two days. The narrator really doesn’t want to do this, but says nothing. The other woman, Anna, raises objections, but these are first mocked and then ignored.

In fact, there’s nothing very good to say about any of the relationships. The narrator, as we know, is locked inside herself, and never shares any of her deepest concerns. Some strange drawings she has found in the cabin suggest to her that her father might have been losing his mind – he’s spent at least one winter there alone – but she takes it for granted that she won’t mention it to anyone else. But it’s specifically the relationships between men and women that cause the reader some concern. The narrator and her lover – he’s Joe – have morning sex, which is not described beyond the way that they seem to be learning about each other’s physical preferences. Joe is definitely not a talker. And she is reminded of a boy who had once said that it doesn’t matter who the girl is, and that she might as well be wearing a paper bag on her head during sex. Ok.

And men are vain. Joe is an unsuccessful potter, which doesn’t prevent him from being competitive: he always makes another of his ugly, impractical pots whenever she lands a new job. David is no better. She takes them out on a fishing trip, because that’s what they want – she is full of trepidation that she might not be competent enough to make it successful – and uses bait that is almost guaranteed to land a fish. David gets his bite, lands it by a fluke, and is full of it. It becomes ‘my’ fish, and deserving of inclusion in his little vanity project. He won’t pose for the usual picture, not him – the narrator is almost sarcastic – but he will include its gutted body in ‘Random Samples’, the content-free, formless film he is making. Anna, who likes things civilised, turns her nose up at the whole process. As they eat, and one of the men remarks on how you couldn’t eat like that in the city, she disagrees. There’s always frozen.

31 March
Chapters 9-19 – Part 2
At the beginning I described the inside of the narrator’s head as a bleak place. In this section of the novel that’s still true – she becomes entirely disconnected from the others, and begins to look for signs left for her by her parents – but the world outside is even worse. The casual sexism of the men is revealed to be something far more problematic, the relationship between David and Anna is revealed as an ongoing power-game based on lies, and… and a lot of other things. Early on, I compared Atwood to a time-traveller. She seems, as far back as 1972 when this novel was first published, to be scrutinising the culture she’s stuck in as though through the eyes of someone from our own century. The niggling annoyances of Part 1 are being revealed as major fractures and systemic inconsistencies – and picking her way through all this is a narrator who is becoming more and more unhinged.

The difficulty is that Atwood is offering an astute critique the world of the early 1970s – its gender and geopolitical power-relationships and self-delusions – but she does it through a consciousness that in other ways is becoming distinctly unreliable as any sort of guide. As she takes us through the five or six days covered in Part 2 she cares less and less for the demands of society and begins instead to take notice of signs from another world that seems to be of her own invention. She doesn’t think it’s her own invention, but something left to her by her father…. So while at one level we can see exactly why the narrator is reluctant to become re-attached to a world that doesn’t seem worth the effort, at another level the reader – this reader, anyway – wonders who this madwoman is.

Unlike Parts 1 and 3, Part 2 is written in the past tense, as though the narrator is reporting back on a journey of discovery she’s been making. (Maybe I’ll come back to that thought when I’ve read the whole novel.) It’s easily the longest of the three sections, and a lot happens both inside the narrator’s head and in the microcosm of society we’re being presented with. To begin with, she is convinced that her father is still alive. In her mind the circumstantial evidence of his insanity – those indecipherable drawings – has morphed into a cast-iron belief that her father is definitely out there, and almost certainly watching them. When Paul, the old French Canadian, arrives to bring some vegetables – there’s been a history of their families engaging in this system of exchange that pre-dates money – she tells him her father is alive. Paul assumes that she’s seen him, but when he finds out she hasn’t he isn’t at all convinced. Then she finds a letter explaining that the drawings are of Native American rock paintings and she decides he must be dead after all. Nice to have that settled. As if.

Her father’s drawings contain what she takes at first to be coded messages, but then she realises they are map references. She even finds a map, covered in x’s ‘like a treasure map’ showing where to find the paintings. Fast forward a few chapters – I’ll come back to them later – to her arrival at the place where one of the paintings is to be found. She presents it to the others as something that will be worth a look – and it isn’t there. And she’s running out of time: ‘It was the sixth day. I had to find out.’ She re-checks the map references, keeps drawing a blank. But, she thinks, hasn’t the level of the lake been raised 20 feet? (We’ve had plenty of references to this before, and I’ll come back to that as well.) She decides she’ll have to dive down to where it must be.

This is Chapter 17, and we’re at the decisive moment. She finds nothing on the first dive, and comes up for air – and it might be at this point that the reader remembers the title of the book…. She dives again, and – and what? ‘It was there but it wasn’t a painting, it wasn’t on the rock. It was below me… it was something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead.’ You got that? ‘It’ is a long-buried memory, not of the child she has been telling us she gave birth to but the foetus she had in fact aborted. The person who persuaded her this was a good idea was the man she has been referring to as her husband but who, she now seems to be realising as though for the first time, was the married man, with a ‘real family’, who only wanted her for sex. (He was her art teacher, for God’s sake.) Those memories of the wedding day? Cobbled together from scraps of other places, other incidents. None of it was true.

My goodness. She surfaces, again – and there waiting for her is Joe, who has followed her in another canoe. You’ve no idea how much she doesn’t want to see him because I haven’t described the chapters in which she has become completely alienated from him. She rejects him again now, and comes to the conclusion that she has been guided to this mystical place by – who? – by her father, of course. All those map references are typical of that way he always had of making his children work it out. He set her a puzzle, and she’s solved it. But… he represents ‘logic’. There needs to be a corresponding message from her mother – but where is it?

By the end of Part 2 she’s worked it out: it’s in the scrap-book she’s found, the one she thought should have been buried in storage in the city. The answer is in there, and it’s a drawing she’d done as a child, a picture of her unborn self with God, horned like the devil, standing nearby. (What? What? Don’t ask.) But now the images have new meanings that she can only read with ‘the help of the power.’ This is going to take some doing. ‘First I had to immerse myself in the new language.’ And meanwhile, in the world that you and I might recognise, the others are looking at her, wondering why she isn’t overcome by the news that they’ve found the body of her father. I need to back-track a little.

The revelation of this mystical world is only one of the threads. Running parallel are others, to do with the narrator, the other characters, and the relationships between them. All through Part 2, as she is piecing together her father’s project concerning the Native Americans’ sacred places, the narrator is also trying to piece together the history of her own sense of disengagement with other people. She looks through old photograph albums, trying to decide when she stopped being like other girls. Except that won’t work, because she never was like them, always finding their games and codes pointless and nothing to do with her. She decides she is incapable of love – and that Joe is as well.

She tells him she doesn’t love him, and he doesn’t react well. Both he and David are presented highly unsympathetically, being childishly self-centred and only interested in sex. (I’m not even going to begin to try to unpack the extent to which this might be Atwood’s take on typical 1970s men, and how much is this particular narrator’s jaundiced view.) Joe, never a great talker, withdraws into sullen near-silence, and the other couple notice. And they speculate, and judge, and begin to pronounce on the extent to which the narrator is probably to blame. I say ‘they’, because, despite the way that David humiliates and bullies her, Anna almost always chooses the path of least resistance, which is to side with him. It makes the narrator withdraw more deeply into herself.

The behaviour of these typical 1970s 20-somethings is presented in such a way that it is as abhorrent to the reader as it is to the narrator. David forces Anna to pose naked for his self-indulgent little film; he tries to get the narrator to sleep with him, calls her a ‘tight-assed bitch’ (I think) when she refuses then, in a wheedling tone, asks her not to mention it to Anna. The narrator is certain, because Anna has told her what he’s like, that if she had relented he would have made no secret of it. In fact, he tries to get Anna to believe that the narrator did have sex with him, and when she denies it everybody turns against her. Anna has just slept with Joe, and they behave – or the narrator tells us that they behave – as though she is judging them.

Have I said enough? Our narrator, brought up to question everything about modern values by a father who rejected most of them, is floundering and looking for something to hang on to. She feels she can’t love, and can’t succeed in any form of relationship – we remember that Anna is described early on as her ‘best friend’ after only two months’ acquaintance. She feels as though her mouth is stopped by men who are terminally selfish and a woman who is willing to deny her own identity for the sake of a marriage that brings only the illusion of security. Beyond them, ‘the city’ is a shadowy place, full of lies of its own: there’s no sense of the reality of life in a place where human waste simply ‘disappears’ down a toilet and garbage is magically spirited away. The camp they set up has crude latrines, and garbage that stays where it is unless it’s buried or burned….

Atwood has created a world that just won’t do. It won’t do for her troubled narrator and, she seems to be insisting, it won’t do for anyone. Corporations raise water levels for profit and ‘Americans’ turn the wilderness into a playground where it’s ok to kill for fun. She – the narrator, but also Atwood – is particularly vituperative concerning the Canadians who take on the values of ‘Americans’, selling the land for short-term gain or simply behaving as though their own country didn’t exist. As everything goes to hell it’s beginning to seem less surprising that the narrator is looking for another language. Not French, not American English, but the language of mystical signs that might tell her how to live.

There’s only Part 3 left, and it’s hard to imagine that her world is going to be radically changed for the better in eight short chapters.

7 April
Part 3 – to the end
Whoo. For the second time in this novel, the narrator goes deep down into a place where nobody has been before…. It could be argued – I might argue it myself – that Part 3 is what the whole novel has been leading up to. As sane, rational readers we can see her total withdrawal from civilisation as a serious psychotic episode she might not be able to survive: the continuous present tense leaves the possibility of her death an open question. But the world that Atwood has set up for her narrator to inhabit, and the woman’s increasingly desperate sense of alienation during Part 2, offers us another perspective: we can perfectly understand why she might have attempted to revert to a feral state, waiting for the fur to grow. I referred to her as unhinged some time ago, and even though for some of Part 3 she’s off the scale and hallucinating, Atwood has made it possible for us to see what she means.

In that previous sentence, as so often when writing about this novel, that word ‘she’ is ambiguous. Do I mean the narrator, or Atwood herself? We can read the narrator’s rejection of all things man-made as the logical progression from her earlier unease and, eventually, revulsion. But this world is emphatically the creation of the same author who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and created the dystopia of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood (2003 and 2009). And suddenly I’m struck by how floods can become important symbols in Atwood novels. In this one they are a sign of man’s hubris, inflicting on the natural world whatever he considers necessary for his own comfort. In The Year of the Flood it’s a metaphor to describe the man-made pestilence that brings humanity close to extinction. And it’s a crucial part of Atwood’s symbolic scheme that it’s only by diving deep into water that the narrator of Surfacing is first able glimpse the ugly reality of what her supposedly civilised behaviour has brought her to.

Ok. But I need to back-track again, to where the end of Part 2 leads seamlessly to Part 3. The narrator has got her plan, understands that there are rules she must stick to once she’s come to understand them…. She lets Joe know that she’s willing to have sex – but on her terms. Which means outside, on the ground. And unprotected: she’s going to put right what she did wrong at the abortionist’s all those years ago. This is nearly sane, but by the next morning she’s a long way from the three people she was calling her friends not long ago. That’s been true at a metaphorical level for some days, but it’s no surprise when she makes it literal: she tricks them into putting away one of the two canoes before she hops into the other and paddles away. It’s a flawed plan, in rational terms: she has left the key behind, so that when they give up on her and go off with the man with the power-boat who’s come to collect them she can’t get easily in the cabin. And the out-house with all the tools is impenetrable….

But it doesn’t matter for long. Within a day she is destroying not only every shred of her old family life – photograph albums, scrapbooks – but also her own identity as a member of human society. She destroys her own commissioned illustrations, scores an ‘x’ on her case to show that it’s defunct… and then begins to do the same to everything in the place. Plates are smashed, clothes attacked with scissors. And it’s soon clear to her that she needs to cleanse herself in other ways. She goes to the lake, lies down in the water fully clothed, and peels off all the wet layers one by one.

Her transformation into this altered state takes almost no time. On the page, her language becomes more fragmentary – not too much, presumably because Atwood never wants the meaning to become obscure – and at least four paragraphs on page 175 come to an end without full stops, or any punctuation at all. My goodness. The narrator is sure that she is protecting an unborn child, understands that she can no longer go through the gate in the fence, realises that she is only allowed to eat what has grown naturally. She’s soon hungry, obviously, and the hallucinations come. Not that she calls them any such thing. She sees her mother, then her father. She evades capture when five people come to search for her – as she presents it, she doesn’t recognise any of them – and doesn’t even recognise what language they speak. But the fur hasn’t started to grow yet, unfortunately, and most of the plants in the forest aren’t edible. Or not yet, as she puts it.

Barking mad? You decide. But then she begins to surface again. At the end of Chapter 25, with two short chapters to go, she realises that the footprints in the garden are not her father’s but her own. And, slowly, reality begins to intrude. She might or might not be pregnant. The summer will soon be over, and she will not be able to survive once it ends. She needs clothes to keep warm. She climbs back into the cabin through the window she broke earlier, sees herself in the mirror, ‘a creature neither animal nor human, furless, only a dirty blanket…’ and so on. She has regained enough insight to know that she does not in any way conform to ‘their definition of sanity.’ Oh dear. At least she puts some clothes on now, damaged as they are.

And then, a page from the end, Joe arrives. What to do? If there is an unborn child, she must let herself live. As she half-hides behind a tree, she contemplates a possible future with him. And, reader, it really is possible. First, in a credibility-stretching moment of realisation (to go, I suppose, with the implausible speed of her recovery from her total breakdown), she refers to her ‘love for him’. Then she acknowledges that she will have to change not only the way she engages with the world, but the way he does as well: ‘If I go with him we will have to talk…. For us it’s necessary, the intercession of words; and we will probably fail, sooner or later, more or less painfully. That’s normal.’ Atwood leaves it balanced. ‘I tense forward… though my feet do not move yet.’ And that’s how it is at the end, as Joe continues to call out her name, the one we’ve never been told: ‘he won’t wait much longer. But now he waits.’ And all around, the lake and the trees surround her, ‘asking and giving nothing.’ Good old lake. Good old trees.

So… what? The world is awful, Atwood seems to be saying, but any half-baked idea of a return to nature is no good either. What we have to do is face up to the challenges the world presents, not rejecting the tools and language at our command but using them to make things better: ‘For us it’s necessary, the intercession of words….’ What’s the worst that can happen? We fail. But there are worse things than failure, as Atwood’s narrator has discovered. There are idealised alternative worlds where gods intervene on our behalf because we’re doing the right thing. Or, at a less extreme level, there’s the route taken by narrator’s father – who, she finally insists, was utterly compromised because he financed his idyllic fantasy by working for the government. Even before the end of the novel, this fantasy is over. ‘No gods to help me now, they’re questionable once more, as theoretical as Jesus. They’ve receded, back to the past, inside the skull.’ We’ve made this mess – and I could be writing about After the Flood, published 37 years later – and it’s up to us to find our way out of it.

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