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Surfacing – Margaret Atwood

May 9, 2011

When I last wrote about Surfacing, it did not appear that I was the biggest fan of what Margaret Atwood accomplished with it. I was at page 70 at that point – the novel was still figuring itself out. It didn’t seem to have anything stick long enough to matter. That changed soon after page 70; around page 80. Page 80 was when I started caring about the protagonist and narrator, a powerful female character with an incredible intelligence but a penchant for paranoia.

I also wrote last that this novel seemed to have captured 1970s Canadiana in a single, self-contained story. I still stand by that, and perhaps would say that this is its greatest detriment, but it serves as much as a historical document as it does a literary one. And, admittedly, as a Canadian nationalist, I quite enjoyed the symbolism that it used to raise concerns of national identity.

Surfacing is about a group of friends who leave the urban safety of Toronto to the just-over-the-Quebec-border of wilderness, lakes, and silence in search of the protagonist’s missing father. It starts with a world of logic, and quickly descends into a natural mystery, viewing the natural world with reverence and fear just as it has always been viewed and always deserved to be viewed. The protagonist’s three friends, Anna, David, and Joe, are all urban-dwellers. They are lost in the wilderness without a guide, but they take each temporary success at conquering the wilderness as a sign of their true Canadianism.

And that, I think, is the central theme of this novel – Canadianism. And a very 1970s concept of Canada; the one proliferated in magazines like Canadian Geographic and not Chatelaine. It is about the encroaching power boats of the Americans, their baseball, their killing of the environment for personal gain. It is not a pretty picture, and ultimately you realize, with the protagonist, that the Canada we all imagine existing – the wilderness, trees, rocks, the shield, the lakes, the mystery of the ancient and the unfamiliar – is all to be drowned in the rising tide of American culture. And that we have to accept that, and give in.

Depressing, is it not?

The cast of characters are ultimately more enjoyable to watch than the protagonist. They are classic archetypes thrown out of their element – the anti-feminist but progressive nationalist of David, the loving and desperate Joe (and it is amazing to watch the protagonist move away from this archetype in her flashbacks to her current inhuman person), and the materialist Anna using anything she can to maintain a sense of power and control over her husband, David. Other characters that pop in are minor but support the themes of feminism or Canadianism, or environmentalism. All of which Atwood presents as essentially Canadian, but essentially struggling in a modern world.

Unfortunately, you can’t find yourself caring for the narrator enough to love the story. All the elements are here – her flashbacks to her husband and child, her brother and mother and father and growing up in the wilderness and then the playground once she moved to the city with her mother and the realization that it is the city that is dangerous rather than the wilderness – the technique is quite impeccable. But you still don’t care about her at all. So, when she descends into madness at the end, and the language becomes inconsistent and delirious and beleaguered, you don’t care – you are confused, but you also know what is happening though you don’t know why it is happening. Atwood trying to show the mystery of the wilderness and how it affects humanity, and the loss of logic as a valuable thing that no longer makes sense.

I also mentioned mentioned that this novel had an identity crisis – at first I thought this was thematic, though it is clear now that this was a means by which Atwood was portraying the depression of the protagonist. Everything connects and triggers memories and ideas, provides a reason for hate and a reason for love that is not good enough to still feel disdain and refuse to trust the people around her. I now would argue that the identity crisis that this novel faces is in the genre it is a part of; this is a psychological thriller that has been written in the drama genre. As a result, it is missing out on the suspense that could’ve developed and totally wrapped the reader into the story.

So then, why would I finish it? Well, first of all, I never doubt Atwood – and as you can see above, there is a great deal in this novel that is worth discussing, even if it is not the most enjoyable reading. This is the impressive genius of Atwood, visible even at this early stage of her career. The other reason is the writing – I absolutely loved this early-Atwood writing. It was experimental, almost stream of consciousness, but calculated for a careful character creation.

“You’re screwing around with me,” he said, till not looking at me. “All I want is a straight answer.”

“About what?” I said. Near the docker there were some water skippers, surface tension holding them up; the fragile shadows of the dents where their feet touched fell on the sand underwater, moving when they moved. His vulnerability embarrassed me, he could still feel, I should have been more careful with him.

“Do you love me, that’s all,” he said. “That’s the only thing that matters.”

It was the language again. I couldn’t use it because it wasn’t mine. He must have known what he meant but it was an imprecise word; the Eskmoes had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them, there ought to be as many for love.

“I want to,” I said. “I do in a way.” I hunted through my brain for any emotion that would coincide with what I’d said. I did want to, but it was like thinking God should exist and not being able to believe.

She writes well, doesn’t she.

Now, do I recommend this book? Yes, and no. I think that Atwood accomplished many impressive things with this book – her use of images and language and sentence structure, her way of creating themes and developing them with violence that disgusts and transforms some and amuses others. You acknowledge good people in this book, and you hate others – you get a good snapshot of Canadian identity in the 1970s, and you recognize parts of it in our identity now.

I will say that, having finished this book last night, I felt exhausted. I needed something different. Something without a depressed protagonist or something like that. Where is the happiness in Canadian fiction? We are all lonely, sad, depressed authors. Now it is my task to find something that inspires me rather than saddens me.

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