Friday, 10 March 2006

Review: Surfacing, Margaret Atwood (1972)

A few men work on railway maintenance, one freight train a day; a couple of families run the stores, the small one where they used to speak English, the other where they wouldn’t. The rest process the tourists, businessmen in plaid shirts still creased from the cellophane packages, and wives, if they come, who sit in two’s on the screened blackfly-proof porches of the single-room cabins and complain to each other while the men play at fishing.

The character’s ennui plays itself out in the narrative. She is the sole point of focalisation and the narrative visits her past frequently, adding its disappointments to those of the present. In chapter 2 we learn that she’s come up to find her father, who has disappeared. Her mother died earlier of a brain illness. She came up with Anna and David because she has no car of her own. Joe seems to be her boyfriend. The four of them get along, and that’s about it. They eventually get on each others' nerves so thoroughly that it precipitates a rapid change in the main character’s state of mind, leading to the finale. We never learn her name, a fact which strengthens her ties to the narrative.

Atwood doesn’t push the story too fast, but the pace is brisk. She has a novel way of using commas to extend the sentence, give it a twist in its tail. These commas are almost equivalent to full-stops, but because they’re not they increase the velocity of the delivery.

Evans starts the motor and we churn out slowly. Summer cottages beginning to sprout here, they spread like measles, it must be the paved road.

And again:

The feeling I expected before but failed to have comes now, homesickness, for a place where I never lived, I’m far enough away; then the village shrinks, optical illusion, and we’re around a point of land, it’s behind us.

She employs this figure compulsively, to turn another trick out of a train of thought, and to add new insights without breaking stride. Atwood likes a fast pace.

They’re on an island in a lake in Canada. They extend their stay from two days to a week. Small events tend to build the tension. You’re not sure, at a certain point, what will happen. It’s a waiting game. And while they wait the memories return. There’s a lot of emotional back-and-forth:

  “What’s wrong?” I said to him finally, putting down my brush, giving up.
  “Nothing,” he said. He took the cover off the butter dish and started carving holes in the butter with his forefinger.
  I should have realized much earlier what was happening. I should have got out of it when we were still in the city. It was unfair of me to stay with him, he’d become used to it, hooked on it, but I didn’t realize that and neither did he. When you can’t tell the difference between your own pleasure and your pain then you’re an addict. I did that, I fed him unlimited supplies of nothing, he wasn’t ready for it, it was too strong for him, he had to fill it up, like people isolated in a blank room who see patterns.

The past comes alive and the present is filled with anxiety and fear, infected by the past. No one seems able to be happy: there’s a veneer of contentment and then the discovery of a chasm just beyond it, like the rock where the ancient paintings cannot be found. Disappointment lurks like a debt that cannot ever be paid.

It was the sixth day, I had to find out; it would be my last chance, tomorrow Evans was coming to take us back. My brain was rushing, covering over the bad things and filling the empty spaces with an embroidery of calculations and numbers, I needed to finish, I had never finished anything. To be exact, to condense myself to a pinpoint, impaling a fact, a certainty.

1 comment:

Judy Krueger said...

Nice review. It brought back memories of reading Surfacing. I have read all of Atwood's novels. She never disappoints.