Hag-Seed—Margaret Atwood

[I have written about the novel as I have read it, in three sections. So when I was writing about each section, I had read no further.]

29 January 2018
Parts 1 and 2
Margaret Atwood, presented with the challenge of re-imagining The Tempest, has come up with this. In the wrong hands, her chosen scenario would have been dreadful. Just think of it: a middle-aged actor-director, too busy to notice the signs of the impending coup, is escorted from the rehearsal room of his beloved theatre before he can take in what’s happening. He’s in the middle of directing what sounds like a self-indulgent production of the play—with himself, inevitably, in the role of Prospero—when… suddenly he isn’t. Along with all his other belongings piled up next to his rusting old car in the car-park is the cloak he’d had made. It sounds absurd, sewn out of the plush fabric skins of toy animals, their plastic eyes glittering.

The stage has always been his life, to the extent that nothing else matters. Almost. But… three years ago, his wife died after giving birth to their daughter Miranda. And now, Miranda is recently dead too, of meningitis, while her father was in a rehearsal room, probably the same one, with instructions not to be disturbed for anything. This second death has taken a real toll on him—he has a remarkable facility for imagining how his grief, and everything else about himself, must appear to other people—but he is sure that Miranda can live again through this once-in-a-lifetime production.

But he’ll never know, because before you know it—in fact, from day one of his self-imposed exile—he finds a hovel-like shack to live in, whose interior goes further back into the Ontario hillside than it protrudes out. This is his own version, we realise immediately—Atwood makes it easy for us—of Prospero’s cave. And he isn’t alone, because in the near-plausible fantasy universe of this novel, Miranda is there with him. He knows she isn’t really, but… he reads bedtime stories to her, loses more games of chess with her than he wins and, as time goes on, worries that her life is too bound by his own narrow horizons.

In other words, for all its veneer of whimsy, this is still a full-on Margaret Atwood novel. Almost. Felix, the ousted ‘Duke’—an alter-ego he gives himself early on in order to have dealings with the world whilst he has gone to ground, literally, for what soon turns into years—has been a self-aggrandising narcissist for so long even he can see why people think he is a fool. The narrative, third-person limited—not as limited as it might be in other writers’ hands—lets us know both why Felix is feeling so wounded and how he laid himself open to betrayal. He was always looking the other way. I say ‘was’ because the story of his deputy’s treachery is told in flashback. The novel opens twelve years after it—again, Atwood isn’t making it hard for the plight of Prospero to come to mind—and catching up with the back-story takes up most of Part 1. There’s psychological depth to the way Felix is able to look back on his own culpability. He was a preening coxcomb, often irascible—the sort of words, Atwood lets us know, that Felix himself would use—and he slowly comes to realise that something had to give.

It doesn’t make the deputy’s treachery in any way forgivable. It’s Felix’s own version we get, but the way ‘Tony’ simply erases him in a carefully-planned operation that takes only minutes to carry out really is the work of an ambitious snake. Whatever form Felix’s revenge on him is going to take—and in Part 2 we begin to see the opportunity that Fate and a clever author have thrown his way—Tony will deserve it. His ambition seems to know no bounds, and he’s wasted no time in climbing the political ladder. So, when the state justice minister is invited to see Felix’s prison-based theatre group—tell you later—it’s Tony and his co-conspirator Sal who will fall into Felix’s hands. You couldn’t make it up.

But that’s exactly what Atwood does, offering the reader just enough plausible detail to make the scenario acceptable, within the universe she’s created. There are bound to be irritations—the references to the play, including the Shakespeare-only ‘curse-words’ the actor-prisoners are allowed to use, embedded quotations suffusing it all, including both the third-person narrative and whatever Felix both says and thinks, sometimes make it seem too much like book-club fodder—but I’ll forgive Atwood anything. She tells it so well, and it’s as well-crafted as any thriller. She sets up little details she can call upon later and, no doubt, has laid some traps for unwary readers like me. And by the end of Part 2, Felix has his company of actors in place. This is the fourth play he’s produced in the local jail, each one performed as a video shown to the rest of the prison population at a gala screening. It’s all made possible by a woman who recognises him at his interview for a part-time teaching job there, that he applies for after nine years of his hermit-like existence. She used to love his work, and knows enough important people to allow him a certain amount of licence….

As I said, it’s semi-plausible fantasy. In Part 2 we see how the annual process of meeting this year’s volunteers happens, and… you don’t have to believe Atwood’s humane vision of the healing power of Shakespeare, because that’s not the point. If she has her 60-something former actor with his false name becoming such a natural with these criminals, well, isn’t that just like Prospero on his magic island? If she wants fairy-tale elements like an invisible daughter Felix knows nobody else can see, that’s fine. It isn’t magic realism, it’s an alternative reality that’s a little tongue-in-cheek—but has a foundation in a genuine sense of loss. Felix can be something of a joke, but he’s never only that.

30 January
Part 3
We knew before the end of Part 2 about Tony and Sal, always on the trail of a good photo-opportunity on their swift ascent from theatre to national politics, are to visit to the prison on the day of the show. We see Prospero—sorry, Felix, who has cast himself in the lead role—going through the process of getting the prisoners to work out what the play means. He decides that looking for prisoners and ‘jailers’ in the play is a good way in, and Atwood has a lot of literary fun creating the genuine-seeming arguments he has to come up with. How else is he going to convince them that Prospero isn’t the villain, that Caliban might have a valid-seeming case against him but is still a slimeball? Atwood won’t let this be merely a droll reworking of Shakespeare’s play, and manages to present some genuine insights into different possible interpretations. It convinces the prisoners anyway, and Felix is able to assemble his cast.

One of the prisoners, 8Handz, has enough technical skill for Felix to create an extra element, especially for the two visitors. They will have no idea, he says to himself, what they are letting themselves in for. For the first time, there will be a live performance going on at the same time as the video screening, performed for—guess who. And with them, too: this is going to be a highly interactive performance. 8Handz will be able to sort out the security measures and substitute CCTV filming. He’s in jail for hacking, and Team Ariel will be his gofers. 8Handz will also make a good Ariel, so he fits the bill perfectly. There are a lot of perfect fits in this story, but that’s fine.

By the end of Part 3, the day of the performance is looming. Felix has been able to recruit the actress Anne-Marie Greenland—she knows how to be icy when she needs to—who would have been his Miranda in the production of twelve years before. After some persuasion—as ever, Atwood never makes it seem too much like a done deal—she agrees to come in and take the part now. With the dance and other experience she has gained after dropping out of acting following the coup, she is, inevitably, perfect for the job. One of the ideas she encourages, in one of the empty rooms they use as a rehearsal room, is for Prospero’s long explanatory speech to Miranda to be replaced. With her help and that of his support team, the actor playing Antonio develops his own rap to replace it, with percussion background performed by other prisoners. Felix fears another coup—he’ll lose his longest speech, even if it’s a problematic one—but the substitute rap, presented to us verbatim, is too good for him to refuse. But the play’s the thing, not his own ego, he decides. Does he believe it? ‘Yes. No. Not really.’ New paragraph. ‘Yes.’ End of chapter.

But it’s by no means his only worry. A couple of weeks before the longed-for moment of Felix’s revenge, things still seem very ragged and, unless something’s being held back from us—it probably is—the details of how he will scare the living daylights out of Tony on the day are hazy. Costumes are important, props are important, lighting… anything else? I’m sure we’ll find out. On a shopping-trip that Atwood describes in some detail, which we’re used to by now, we see what he’s come up with. And something else we’re used to: the snowy obstacles that get in his way on any journey from his cave. Atwood has deliberately set the three-month process in the coldest part of the Canadian winter, and the grind of his car journeys adds to the struggle. If he is going to achieve any kind of redemption, Atwood makes it feel as though he will have earned it.

One last thing. The other Miranda, Felix’s imaginary daughter, is now aged fifteen. She has always been a model of patience and love, but she seems to have become more of her own person recently. There are no adolescent tantrums or sulks, but she is more determined about what she wants. Felix, of course, has been talking to her about the play, and has accidentally left open his copy of it while he’s been so busy. She has surreptitiously read it—and wants the role of Miranda. What can he do? He has to use all his fatherly tact to persuade her that it won’t be possible, not with those men and her lack of experience. (It’s almost possible to believe in the reality of this figment—but that’s the magic of Atwood, I guess.) He has a brainwave. She can be another Ariel, one that only he can see and hear. And she loves the idea. It will be another layer of reality, or unreality, for him to have to deal with. And remember that cloak that was unceremoniously stuffed in a bag when he was thrown out of the theatre twelve years before? He still has it, and when he tries it on for the first time since then, he feels its power. Kind of.

2 February
Parts 4 and 5, plus Epilogue
Long before the end, any qualms I had about this novel had disappeared. For me, Atwood creates a wry mirror-image of Shakespeare’s play, with every detail working itself out in a completely satisfying way. What are the chances of not a single thing going wrong with the plan? The undetectable lifting of the dignitaries’ security pagers by Felix’s tame pickpocket, and their equally undetectable replacement after it’s all over. The drugged non-alcoholic ginger ale in the green cups, not the blue cups (or whatever), so that two guests can become the subjects of Tony’s murderous plot. And additional guests, like the son of one of Ton’s co-conspirator who can be seamlessly imported into the action.

It’s been an important aspect of the jeopardy that Felix doesn’t know, week after week, precisely what form his revenge will take. But then, he doesn’t know about the kindly author choreographing all this, and just how kind she can be. He’s had to come up with a plan, but she works things so that, for instance, the scene in one of the rooms includes guests who are exact mirror images of the characters in The Tempest. As well as Tony and Sal there’s the chair of the Shakespeare festival, the well-meaning bore Lonnie Gordon, and another politician, Sebert Stanley. Sal and Stanley are rivals in an upcoming election, and Atwood has briefly let us inside Tony’s thought-stream so that we know that whichever one wins, he will benefit. But Stanley would be better, because Tony will owe him nothing….

So, as Sal and Gordon snore, knocked out by the potion, Tony/Alonso tries a ‘thought-experiment’ on Stanley/Sebastian. Wouldn’t it be great if Sal/Alfonso—and, regrettably, Gordon/Gonzalo—were found dead, poisoned or otherwise killed by the inmates during the ‘riot’ created to add to the guests’ disorientation? Felix was right—Tony always was an ambitious snake. It’s only the carefully orchestrated cacophony created by 8Handz that saves the sleepers by waking them up. It’s time for the next set piece as they are prepared for another scare when they eat grapes primed with just the right amount of a carefully-concocted hallucinogen. It’s good that the inmates have such useful contacts on the outside, and Felix had to go a long way out of his comfort zone to pick up his magic potions.

The smooth working of the plot doesn’t end there. Sal’s son, Freddie—the name’s close enough—is a very late addition to the party, and is now a part of the plot. His father has made a big thing, before they go into the closed performing space, of announcing how Freddie has had his fun, and needs to buckle down to work. He’s graduated from theatre school, and now he’s either going to do a law degree or he’ll get no more money from Sal. In the staged melee at the start of the performance, a shot is heard just after Freddie is spirited away into a different room. There, with Anne-Marie preparing him for a staging Miranda’s scene with Ferdinand, he proves to be not half bad, either as the play’s love interest or, perhaps, something similar in her own life. (The inmate playing Ferdinand, who imagined that he and Anne-Marie could become an item afterwards, never stood a chance anyway. She made that clear from the start.) So when the big revelation comes, that Freddie isn’t dead, it’s real. Sal is putty in Felix’s hands. The Epilogue—unlike Shakespeare’s play, as Atwood gleefully has the inmates pointing out—ties up all the loose ends, including Freddie and Anne-Marie’s. Later, they work together in theatre and… and that’s enough of them for now.

Tony’s murderous intentions—along with other tawdry details of his ambitious schemes—have been lovingly recorded by 8Handz. He will have to give up his political career to spend more time with his family, otherwise Felix will release the video recording, which (he says) is safely stored in the cloud out of harm’s way. Both he and Sal will have to shelve their draconian anti-prison education plans, and projects like Felix’s will receive funding for the next five years. Sal, so relieved to find that Freddie isn’t dead, promises to let him carry on with a life in the theatre. And so on. It’s all, as I might have said already, highly satisfying.

But Atwood doesn’t end it there. I wondered for a terrible moment whether it had all been Felix’s dream—if anybody could have got away with such a hackneyed plot-twist, she could—but no. Instead, we get Atwood’s spin on a different convention, the valedictory digest of the characters’ happy-ever-after lives. Or, in less deserving cases, not so happy. We get this in the Epilogue, and I’ll come back to that. But first…

…we get Part 5, in which she does things differently. In a nod to the supposed educational purpose of the project, Felix has Team Ariel, Team Caliban and the rest present their own versions of what might happen after the end of the play. Some stick with the feel-good fantasy mood. Others, like the harder-than-nails Caliban, want to make it real. Prospero, now stripped of his powers, would not have had a safe voyage home, because Alonso would have killed him and everybody else in his way. And he would have let Caliban rape Miranda before she was thrown overboard. It’s a typically layered presentation by Atwood, because the prisoners don’t only contemplate the characters’ future lives, but reveal their own mindsets as well. Only one of them is to get parole—appropriately, it’s 8Handz-Ariel whose early release is brought about by Felix-Prospero, in a deal with the politicians—but we’ve witnessed for ourselves the restorative power of Shakespeare on all of the players. Or most. They’ve been thinking about their own lives, and the reality or otherwise of what the play might have to say about retribution, imprisonment and forgiveness. What could be more satisfying for Atwood’s bookish target readership?

A complete set of other resolutions, that’s what, starting with those in Felix’s story. He’s got his revenge—the experience of real terror shook his enemies up a lot—but, far more importantly to him now, he’s neutralised their influence, apparently for good. So he’s out of his own prison, as he explains, obliquely, to the real prisoners. How many people are imprisoned in the play? he had asked at the start, and they had come up with eight. There’s another he’d said, and promised to tell them after the performance if nobody’s got it. The answer, of course, is Prospero, not only imprisoned by the audience, and needing their permission to be set free. He had also been in thrall to the workings of his own mind—by his lifelong turning-away from the people he should have been governing, and then by his obsessive brooding on the wrong done to him. Felix doesn’t need one of the prisoners to explain how Prospero brought it on himself, but it’s taken the experience of working with them to teach him how he had made exactly the same mistakes.

Atwood knows not only how to play the long game and make links between different layers of the narrative, but is also able to offer real psychological insights. This is how she can bring things together so well in these final pages. And she hasn’t finished yet. The way Felix is able to satisfy his daughter’s need to be a part of the play by making her into another Ariel works brilliantly. First, she becomes a magical, ethereal voice that even 8Handz, in techie mode, can somehow hear through the headphones. It adds to the fantastical sense of a plan, moving step by glitch-free step, to a gratifying conclusion. But second, it sets up the final step in the healing of Felix. He finally comes to realise that, all these years, what he’s needed to do is set her free. He’s done it for Ariel, for 8Handz, and now he does it for her.

Anything else? The woman who has been his fixer for nearly four years, Estelle—there have been enough references to the influence of the stars for us to get the link—has been playing a long game of her own. She has always fancied Felix, but he has never been ready. Then she offers him a paid-for cruise, and he accepts. And she will be going too. How does it go? A cruise with old people would feel like ‘a state of suspension somewhere on the road to death. But … what did he have to lose? The road to death is after all the road he’s on, so why not eat well during the journey?’ And, who knows, maybe Estelle will break him down in the end. (She does.) And when he gets his old job back, he turns it into a kind of emeritus position, with Estelle in the background and Freddie and Anne-Marie really in charge.

Perhaps that’s enough. Only Margaret Atwood, I think, could manage not only the clever links between the world of The Tempest and the satirical universe her characters inhabit, but also a genuine sense that a character with a real mind has been on a journey we care about. The Tempest has its problems, but ticks enough boxes to be satisfying. Hag-Seed uses the play as scaffolding to present a series of redemptive epiphanies, all of them hard-earned. For me, she does it at least as well as Shakespeare. To simply meet the literary challenge that had been commissioned was never going to be enough, and she made this the best novel she could. And it doesn’t get much better than that.