Monday, March 6, 2017

National Women's Month: Julia Stein's essay "Margaret Atwood is the Leading Novelist in North America"

      The more I read Margaret Atwood, the more I think she’s North America’s leading novelist. Her early novels of the 1960s and 1970s established a feminist voice critical of her contemporary society in Canada.  Her first novel The Edible Woman describes a heroine, getting engaged to a male who believes in traditional gender roles, loses her appetite and her identity. In her next novel Surfacing the heroine, unable to conform to traditional women’s roles, has a nervous breakdown similar to Sylvia Plath’s heroine’s breakdown in her novel The Bell Jar but Canadian.
     During the 1980s Atwood wrote her breakout novel The Handmaid’s Tale when in the U.S. the Reagan government and the rising Christian fundamentalist attacked abortion and women’s rights. The novel is set not in Canada but in the United States, where a Christian theocratic dictatorship has taken over the country and renamed it Gilead, while Canada is the place her oppressed characters hope to escape to. The Handmaid’s Tale’s heroine is Ofred, whose job is to be the breeder producing children for the Commander, a high political figure married to a woman who can’t get pregnant.  The characters take part in sexual intrigue and rebellion as Ofred starts an affair with the chauffeur who is in a rebel group Mayday. The Handmaid’s Tale was a double breakthrough for Atwood.  The novel was widely adapted in a film, an opera, radio plays in England and Canada, and stage plays in England and the U.S., and a ballet etc helping Atwood gain an international audience.
Also Atwood left the realism of her earlier novels for an alternative future in The Handmaid’s Tale, which won the Arthur C. Clark Award for Best Science Fiction. Atwood has argued that her non-realistic novels aren’t science fiction but speculative fiction. Whatever the label, in  the U.S. and Canada after World War II women in increasing numbers created science fiction including feminist science fiction of the 1960-1980s with such well-known writers as Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, and Octavia Butler. Many like Atwood also created novels with utopias of gender equality or dystopias that critiqued North American society.
     A second breakthrough book Atwood wrote is The Blind Assassin which won the prestigious British Man Booker Prize in 2000 where she looks historically at Canadian women, society, and pulp science fiction. In this novel Atwood intertwines three stories.  . Iris tells of her life as an eighty-year old as well as a second story realistic story of the rise and decline of her family’s button factory in Ontario early in the first half 20th century.  Iris and her sister Laura, who come of age during the 1930s when the factory loses more and more money, both fall in love with Alex Thomas, rebel organizer of the union at their father’s factory and a writer of pulp science fiction. Iris describes how she accepts being sold off in marriage to a wealthier manufacturer to save the failing factory and how Laura writes a novel and then kills herself when quite young.
     This realistic story of the family and its factory is frequently interrupted by a tale of two lovers where the man spins out to his woman lover a speculative fiction story “The Blind Assassin”—supposedly Laura’s novel.  At the end Iris confesses she’s lied about who the author of “The Blind Assassin” is, lied about her marriage, and lied in her family/historical tale. Atwood has written a postmodernist tale looking at who tells the story, who lies when telling the story, and what difference the lies make.
     Atwood’s trilogy MaddAddam continues speculative fictions having thriller or adventure plots with sexual in intrigue where a small rebel groups trying to overthrow the power structure. Starting in Oryx and Crake published in 2003 and continuing in the next two novels of the MaddAddam Trilogy, Atwood creates an alternate 21s century world where large corporations have compounds for their wealthy scientists/executive employees and their families to live in while most of the population live in the wild untamed slums called Plebelands.  Oryx’s and Crake’s main character Snowman tells two stories:  the first story is his struggle to survive after the epidemic that kills most humans in the world and his friendship with the Crackers, a humanoid species his corporate scientist friend Crake invented and Oryx, the woman he loved, taught..  Snowman describes his problems in inventing a scripture about Crack and Oryx for the curious Crackers.  The second story Snowman’s tale intertwines with the first is of his actual friendship with Crake from childhood growing up in a corporate compound to being with him in another compound while Crake concocts the epidemic and the Crakers. Though the tale might seem dark, it enchants with Snowman attacked by huge pigs, an unusual sex life the gentle Crakers, and Snowman’s comic problems of inventing new religious Scripture.
    In the MaddAddam trilogy Atwood’s scientists create inventions just to increase corporate profits though they play havoc on a patients’ health or those like Crake play God with human lives. Atwood, whose father was an entomologist, says many of the scientific inventions she describes in Oryx and Crake and the subsequent two novels could easily occur in our world. Her speculative fictions are a critique of 21st century post-industrial society.  In her novels corporate scientists do gene splicing to create new species such as crossing genes between humans and pigs to create pigoons:   big, super smart pigs. Scientists in 2017 just created the same kind of gene splicing between pigs and humans, but Atwood would ask, “Is this invention needed?”
    The 2nd volume and 3rd volumes of Atwood’s trilogy deal with rebel groups dedicated to protecting the environment and people from corporate mayhem.   In the 2nd volume The Year of the Flood the heroine Toby, who is raped by her boss in a fast food job, finds refugee in God’s Gardeners, a peaceful ecological group who live in the plebeland and cultivate gardens on rooftops. In the 3rd volume MaddAddam takes place after the epidemic where Toby has survived and joins up with her friends in MaddAddam, a militant group led by Zeb that split off from God’s Gardeners.
     In the third novel Toby seems to tell two stories:  first she tells of a small group of MaddAddams people struggling after the epidemic.  She interrupts this story to tell of her lover Zeb’s adventures during his decades of rebellion. MaddAddam has a great love story between Toby and Zeb as well as a plot with cross-species friendships.  The MaddAddam people befriend the Crackers with Toby teaching a Cracker child to read who at the end seems to be writing the story/history. This 3rd novel asks a question:   is this 3rd novel a human story told by Toby or a post-human story told by a Craker? The Crakers are friends with the pigoons, the huge pigs. At one point Zeb leads his troops—humans, Crackers, and pigoons-- into battle where Atwood bends the adventure plot to look at how humans, humanoids, and pigoons after catastrophe start anew. Three human women even participate in Craker group sex getting pregnant.  The creation of new lives and new scriptures is strangely cheerful and hopeful.
     Atwood’s later big novels are like major 19th century novelists Dickens or Tolstoy. She writes compelling characters caught up in exciting plots that also look critically at their society and their history. Like both Dickens and Tolstoy she looks at how the huge inequality in society as crucial to the characters’ lives. Many of her heroes or heroines are orphans like Dickens’ main characters who have to make their way in a cruel world. Not content at looking at the future, Margaret Atwood, who as a child grew up loving to read myths, has created two recent novels rewriting of myths from the past. Her novel Penelopiad rewrites Penelope story in the Odyssey where Penelope’s maids are the heroines and not Penelope.     Penelope helps the male aristocrats butcher the maids-- again Atwood stands up for the underdog in rewriting of Penelope. Her latest novel Hag Seed is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest but In Atwood’s rewriting her Prospero character, a Duke who was overthrown and thrown out his realm, needs to be set free of his rage and wish for vengeance as well as learn humility.  Whether creating alternative futures or helping us to rethink past myths, Atwood has been writing some of the most innovative and exciting novels in North America.

© 2017 copyright Julia Stein

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Julia Stein’s has written five books of poems, edited two books of poetry, and is also co-author of the prose work Shooting Women:  Behind the Camera, Around the World (Intellect Press, 2015). she has been an arts journalist and literary critic for years.

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