Monday, September 10, 2012

Surfacing: The Early Genius of Margaret Atwood

Surfacing. I've long heard about this early Margaret Atwood novel, a landmark in contemporary literary fiction; feminist fiction; Canadian nationalist fiction. As I began my exploration of this award-winning author's work seven years ago with The Handmaid's Tale, followed by Cat's Eye, and then an odd choice, the underrated Bodily Harm, I knew that eventually I would make my way to 1972's Surfacing, the title of which fellow Canadian Sarah McLachlan echoed on her 1997 album.

Every so often, a novel is so powerful, evocative, confusing, or possibly a combination of all three, that you finish it in a sort of daze, not wanting to move on, and oddly unable to truly process what you've read.  Surfacing provided such an experience for me. Twenty-four hours later, I'm still thinking about the book; its indelible atmosphere hovered on the edges of my brain throughout the day. I know I shall not soon forget it.

There is so much jammed into Atwood's sophomore novel (the well-reviewed The Edible Woman had come out three years earlier) that a book review could only hope to skim the basics. Issues of national pride, the environment, feminism, sexual relationships, parent-child bonds, abortion, dreams and memory all take their pride of place in this tour de force. Somehow, perhaps because she's a genius, Atwood allows each issue to rise naturally from the storyline and characters, never seeming heavy handed to this reader.

Surfacing has its dreamlike moments, but it's not an abstract or puzzling novel, at least not as a whole. In fact, there is a fairly straightforward, captivating plot. The narrator, a nameless woman in her twenties, is searching for her father, who has disappeared from the island off of Quebec where she grew up. She has returned to this childhood home with her lover, Joe, and two friends, a married couple by the names of Anna
and David. The storyline follows the group's search through the island's forests and surrounding lakes, interspersed with activities like fishing, blueberry picking, and late night card games. Atwood's writing is detailed and observant, her singular style already showing itself in this early effort. Although original and unique as all of her novels are, one can see her honing her craft and can't help but think of how this style will appear again, magnified and expanded, in 1988's Cat's Eye.

Surfacing moves ahead at a determined pace, never dragging, and its major plot point is eventually resolved. There are subplots, including the narrator's mysterious past with a husband and child she abandoned, or at least that's what she tells us at first. Atwood's narrators often seem mysterious, slightly aloof and at times almost emotionless. This one is even more of a removed figure, given Atwood's decision not to name her, but she is never less than a very real composite of a living, breathing human being. There is a deep tragedy in her past, and as she searches for her missing father, she also searches within herself, ultimately finding more than she bargained for.

To me, Margaret Atwood's fiction has a sinister feel, sometimes overt, sometimes more subtle. Hints of danger lurk beneath the surface, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally, as in the narrator's experience while diving deep into a lake to search for symbolic paintings on a long buried rock cliff. As the four friends explore the island, searching in vain for the narrator's father, you feel as though someone is watching them, possibly ready to strike at any moment. Scenes involving their canoes passing those of other tourists, the "fascist Yank pigs" (according to David, whose Canadian pride manifests itself in an arrogant, confrontational manner) are imbued with a quiet dread. When they come across a dead heron (I will not divulge the details), it's one of the most striking passages in the novel, and allows the narrator to share her views on animals and their value (or lack thereof) to the twentieth century world.
There is so much I could write about this novel. I don't want to give anything away. I came to this book expecting to like it very much, and I have walked away in awe. While very much of its time (not a bad thing), the novel deals with timeless themes and seems relevant in 2012. I hope to read it again in my lifetime.  Some books leave permanent marks, and Surfacing is one of those books for me. Margaret Atwood has impressed me four times, and I can't wait to read the rest of her work. She is, as goes without saying, one of our most important living authors. I highly recommend this novel.