Book Review: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

6 Mar

This semester, I’m teaching a course on American literature which seeks to challenge what that term actually means and how we can define “American Lit” as something which is multi-national, multi-cultural, and infinitely larger.  After all, we live in the Americas; technically speaking, Canadians are Americans in this sense of the term.  That’s why I’m here talking about Surfacing by Margaret Atwood and not As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.

Though only loosely fantastic, Atwoods Surfacing is a complex, character-driven feminist tale about relationships, patriarchy, nationalism, and the human psyche.  It follows an unnamed narrator who returns with her friends to her childhood home to search for her missing father, who she assumes has either died or run off into the woods.  As she tries to piece together her father’s last days from the clues left in his cabin, she is confronted with her friends’ abusive marriage, her recent and distant past, and the crippling expectations of post-WW2 society (and the changes brought on by the Quiet Revolution in 1960s Quebec).  Though not intended as horror, Surfacing explores its themes with a sense of impending terror, such that the final moments, which I won’t discuss in any detail here, are profoundly fantastic, with the character drama forming the root of an exploding, terror-driven tree.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Though I define this book as feminist in form — a definition I suspect Atwood would gladly accept — I should also clarify that it is not necessarily a literary manifesto of sorts.  The narrator is, in many respects, quite unlikable, and Atwood has been upfront about the fact that one should not take this book as a feminism she advocates, but one of a sea of possibilities.  The narrator presents herself as coldly distant and frequently engages in behaviors that are, from the perspective of the reader, seemingly manipulative.  The setup, though, is a kind of literary trick, as the details of the narrator’s life draw into sharp focus the real issue here:  it is not that the narrator is cold, but rather that she has intentionally distanced herself from a culture to which she no longer wishes to be a part.  The development of this theme is slow and deliberate.  Here, the relationships are established and exposed for their artificiality and conformity.  The narrator may never become fully likable, but she certainly starts to make sense as the people around her engage in behaviors that expose their own contradictions and reveal to the narrator that her distance is justified.  This is one of the novel’s strengths and flaws.  Surfacing uses its characters for extensive metaphors, but that cold distance also means the narrator becomes distanced from the reader and the people surrounding her become almost like caricatures.  Perhaps this was intentional, but I did find that it limited the effectiveness of some of the more emotional components of the novel, such as the narrator’s struggle with pregnancy and her perspective on reproductive rights.

That said, the novel’s thematic concerns are perhaps its strongest components.  Though the use of “Americans” in Surfacing is likely to annoy actual Americans, once you realize that they are being used as an extended metaphor about imperialism and the massive social changes that was occurring during the Quiet Revolution — or, for that matter, the long exploration of Canadian identity throughout the novel — it makes sense why America becomes a kind of cultural bogeyman.  In an era of American dominance on the global sphere, they are the most easily recognizable of cultural symbols for the period.  I appreciated the deceptive simplicity of this particular metaphor, particularly as it provided an outlet for my educational interest in Canadian literature as “American Literature.”  It is also this theme which facilitates the suffocating sensation found in the final moments — a feeling of endless dread, of isolationism and resistance.

Likewise, Surfacing benefits from a kind of brooding symbolism which leads us, if not smoothly, then certainly with a forceful disposition to a conclusion that is, as I mentioned, fantastic in its brand of psychological terror.  The “Americans” thing is also part of this symbology, but the novel also provides natural (life, death, landscape, nature) elements as symbols of both the narrative’s direction towards the establishment of a “form” of Canadian identity (rooted in something definitely “not Western” or “not American”) and the conflict between what the narrator perceives as life as it should be and the rapid-fire destructiveness of the modern world (from which she seemingly has escaped).  There’s a compelling connection to be made here to Margaret Laurence’s “The Loons” (another great work of Canadian literature), which explores many of the same issues.  Sometimes, these symbols are a little too “in your face,” but they are more often than not helpful extensions of the narrator’s mindset and provide a necessary clarity of their own.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Surfacing.  The best books are those that force you to think:  about your culture, about people, about the social landscape, etc.  Surfacing is that kind of book, and one I think readers who appreciate brooding realism or a complex feminist narrative will enjoy.

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Note:  I really wanted to use some quotes in this review, but my copy of Surfacing has apparently grown legs and disappeared into the abyss of my apartment.  Larry Nolen will be greatly disappointed, I’m sure.

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