Surfacing (1972) was only Margaret Atwood's second novel, but many of her hallmarks were evidently already in place: the concise marriage of page-turning plot and thoughtful, emotional-gut-punch themes; the poetically muscular prose style; above all, her facility at creating and sustaining tension mood. Fiction that engages the brain, the heart, and the pulse - and does it all so beautifully? You could say I'm a fan...
Surfacing is a short, sharp exploration of how past and present intersect - endlessly, damagingly - when a young woman returns home to the remote north of Quebec to search for her missing father. Alongside evocative glimpses of life on the edge of the wilderness and a masterclass in characterisation, Atwood uses the tale to examine the pitfalls of memory, the effects of modernity, the gulf between rural and urban life, and the legacy of the 1960s sexual revolution.
We never learn the narrator's name - a surface sign, it becomes clear, of a much deeper identity crisis (she's a brilliant study in the device of the unreliable narrator). She is accompanied on her trip by her partner, the unprepossessing Joe ("I'm in the back seat with the packsacks", she notes as they drive, "this one, Joe, is sitting beside me chewing gum and holding my hand, they both pass the time."), Joe's friend David, and his wife Anna ("my best friend, my best woman friend; I've known her two months").
The comments picked out here both come in the first few pages, and immediately point up the narrator's difficult emotional state - an extreme detachment and a complete inability to relate to others, which only become more pronounced as the story progresses. She observes, but cannot connect; sees, but with only limited understanding and engagement. Her inner voice is at once urgent and languid, falling over itself in under-punctuated breathlessness as it hastens to describe the events and surroundings, while barely able to muster a response to them:
It's a quick skit, Joe and I are the audience, but Joe is still off in the place inside himself where he spends most of his time and I'm at the stove turning the bacon, I can't watch them so they stop.
On some level, she is aware of this disconnect, aware that she should be feeling more ("The feeling I expected before but failed to have comes now, homesickness, for a place where I never lived"). In part, this is simply a case of nostalgia and its discontents; nothing is ever quite as it is remembered. A new, adult life in the city has altered her outlook, and thus the way that she perceives her old home. At the same time, modernity has begun to creep in, in various guises, draining the young blood away to the cities and bringing destructive tourists with no respect for the wilderness. Nevertheless, there is something about her memories - and, specifically, about her distance from them - that torments her:
But they've cheated, we're here too soon and I feel deprived of something, as though I can't really get here unless I've suffered. As though the first view of the lake, which we can see now, blue and cool as redemption, should be through tears and a haze of vomit.
Even here, in her second novel, many of the characteristics of Atwood's style are already in place. One of them is her interest in narrative technique, which she makes interesting use of as the narrator's mind comes under assault, and her past and present start to bleed into her. Another is Atwood's fascination with language, not merely as a vehicle for expression but as an entity in itself, one that can function as its own symbolism:
We stand there on either side of the fence, our faces petrified in well-intentioned curves, mouths wreathed in parentheses.
It is in their relationship to words, and communication more generally, that we are shown who the characters are:
Joe followed me out and watched as I spread the crumbs. He put his fingers on my arm, frowning at me, which may have meant he wanted to talk to me: speech to him was a task, a battle, words mustered behind his beard and issued one at a time, heavy and square like tanks.
One of the novel's major preoccupations is a consequence of its setting and its characters: the legacy of the 60s, and the attendant assumptions that what is now possible is also obligatory. The overriding feeling is that sexual liberation has emerged into a society not yet mature enough to deal with the ramifications. Repeatedly, the novel confronts us with the difficulty of disengaging sex from emotion - and from consequences.
Love without fear, sex without risk, that's what they wanted to be true; and they almost did it, I thought, they almost pulled it off, but as in magicians' tricks or burglaries half-success is failure and we're back to the other things.
Furthermore, sexual liberation is impossible without sexual equality. Women's bodies are, superficially at least, free; but women themselves remain lesser beings, ignored and undermined on almost every level but their bodies. Incipient feminism is diffused with ridicule (particularly by David) or, if necessary, held off by force. The narrator is discouraged by her teacher from pursuing an artistic career because "there have never been any important women artists"; her talents are channelled instead into illustration and design, and there is a clear sense that she is creatively frustrated, for all her success.
Even this is too much for Joe, who - unable to handle the fact that his partner gets greater financial reward from her artwork than he does from his - consoles his ego by creating 'superior' art (mangled pots that no-one buys). Female achievements in any area but the kitchen - however small - are perceived as a threat to masculinity, to be belitted or ignored. Even sailing in her family's canoe, something she has done since her childhood, the narrator must hold herself back for fear of showing up her lover:
I had to use a lot of energy just to keep us pointed straight, because Joe didn't know how to steer; also he wouldn't admit it, which made it harder.
The effects are, of course, devastating, source of both the novel's mystery and many of its finest moments. An intense - the final fifty pages or so in particular are completely mesmerising - and very satisfying read.