Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why Margaret Atwood Should win the Nobel Prize in Literature

I came home last night after dinner with friends (at Plant, of course) and collapsed on my sofa, wanting nothing more than to watch something mindless on television.  So I flipped channels, landing first on 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s self-proclaimed "action movie with a guy who can't move," the story of Aron Rolston's ordeal trapped by a boulder that falls and pins his arm to the wall of a canyon in Robber's Roost, Utah. I've seen it, several times, so I flipped more, and caught the end of Sean Penn's Into the Wild, an adaptation of Jonathan Krakauer's biography of Christopher McCandless, the Emory University graduate who abandoned his family in 1990 and headed into Alaska, where he eventually died. 

McCandless's last self-portrait

I sat there watching for a minute, thinking the rather ungenerous thought that men get immortalized, their narratives becoming part of the mythology of masculine individualism, for doing some stupid, selfish shit.  Rolston went out on his own and told no one where he was heading; early in the film as he prepares to leave his house, his mother calls.  He listens as she leaves a message, asking him to call her.  He ignores it.  McCandless is even worse, as he cuts all contact with his family, leaving them worried and desperate to find him.

And then there's a pang of envy on my part as well: as a woman, I know that I'll never feel free enough to embrace such adventure, however misguided and stupid it may prove to be.  And I feel relatively certain that if I did, and if the results were the same, the narrative that would be told -- if any narrative was told at all -- would be much more lurid, more gruesome (if anything can be more gruesome than James Franco's portrayal of Rolston severing his arm to escape), more about the idiocy of placing oneself in harm's way and less about the spirit of individualism that makes heros of men who do just that.  

The tourniquet and dull knife Rolston used to sever his arm

By the time I got to HBO and Martin Scorsese’s portrait of George Harrison, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, I was just annoyed.  And this is not to say that I don't think Harrison deserves a biopic; my sense is that he does.  But by then I was just tired of the mythology of men, so I kept flipping.  What I landed on finally was a Dateline ID show, something about Canada; I caught the image of a rope on a bed and flashed immediately to the opening pages of Margaret Atwood's 1981 novel Bodily Harm, in which the narrator comes home to find police in her house, men who let her know that someone broke into her home: "we don't think he was a robber. . . .  He made himself a cup of Ovaltine" (5).  They then escort her into her bedroom and show her "a length of rope coiled neatly on the quilt.  It wasn't any special kind of rope, there was nothing lurid about it" (5). 

As it turns out, the Dateline show was about Russell Williams, the Canadian Air Force commander who was jailed in 2010 for rape and murder and some 80 other counts of breaking and entering and stealing women's underwear.  Williams confesses, on videotape, to police, in part, he says, because he is worried about his wife. 

Here's part of the confession.

I thought of Margaret Atwood's poem "Marrying the Hangman," that begins thus: 

She has been condemned to death by hanging.  A man
may escape this death by becoming the hangman, a 
woman by marrying the hangman.  

The women Williams killed: Marie-France Corneau and Jessica Lloyd

Atwood's assertion that women find themselves in the precarious position of depending on men to protect them from men is as much a part of my daily thought processes as is her claim that "men are afraid that women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid that men will kill them."  Atwood's words, her narratives, fictional characters, and politics are so much a part of my everyday existence that they form much of the fabric of my consciousness, indistinguishable, in many ways from my very sense of self.  And this has been the case since I first encountered her work in the form of her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, which I read in 1989.  I was in college; I wanted to be a novelist myself.  I read Atwood's work and realized that everything I wanted to say at that point in my life had been said by her already.  And had been said better than I ever could have said it.  Reading that novel destroyed me.  

Reading Atwood's work -- her novels, short stories, and poetry -- has always made me feel this way, that she's somehow already charted the territory that percolates in bits and pieces in the semi-conscious parts of my brain; her writing is by turns terrifying and prophetic, satirical and funny. Atwood plays with language, ever conscious of the power of words, both to create and destroy personhood, nature, and society.  In the poem "You Fit into Me," for example, she takes apart a seemingly innocent image, a clothing fastener, to reveal a disturbing duality:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye  

And Atwood's work is filled with this duality, with the problematic and imbalanced nature of relationships -- heterosexual, national, interspecies.  Her female characters are often initially complicit in their victimization, even as they ultimately cast off such a subject position.  As Atwood's unnamed narrator states at the end of Surfacing“this above all, to refuse to be a victim.  Unless I can do that, I can do nothing” (222). 

I have long wanted Atwood to win the Nobel Prize.  The sheer volume and scope of her writing, its variety, its quality, its prescience, its astute examination of gendered, national, and species based power politics, and its deconstruction, via both satire and scathing critique, of our contemporary world warrant her winning it.   

Perhaps more significantly, though, than even her subject matter, in writing Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Atwood in many ways articulates and, more importantly, authorizes, via a thematic analysis of Canadian literature (based on the inclusion of certain works and the exclusion of others), Canada’s national narrative.  In this work, Atwood states that the central theme in Canadian literature is survival and she locates in Canadian literature four “victim positions”—ranging from denying that one is a victim, to acknowledging that one is a victim, to becoming a creative non-victim. These victim positions, according to Atwood, are universal, “whether you are a victimized country, a victimized minority group, or a victimized individual” (46).  It is, therefore, not only through the trope of survival that Atwood reads Canadian literature and interprets Canadian national identity, but also through the trope of victimization.  Indeed,  in order to survive, one must first be a victim of something else.   

Atwood’s work not only established Canadian literature as the articulation of a survivalist mentality, but it also established Canadian literature as a legitimate entity; Atwood, I contend, "invented" Canadian literature.  As she remarks:
The few dedicated academic souls who had cultivated this neglected pumpkin patch over the meager years were affronted because a mere chit of a girl had appropriated a pumpkin they regarded as theirs, and those who had taken a firm stand on the non-existence of Canadian literature were affronted because I had pointed out that there was in fact a pumpkin to appropriate. (4)
As Atwood notes, teaching Canadian literature “is a political act” (21), and Survival conceives of such literature not only as a mirror for Canadian identity but also as a map, “a geography of the mind” (26). 

I'm currently teaching Atwood's Year of the Flood, her most recent work, and the second in a series of what will be three novels (the first being Oryx and Crake), that explores a potential apocalypse delivered in the form of the BlyssPlus pill, a pharmaceutical that delivers excellent sex and protects takers from STDs...that is, until it kills them.  The work, set sometime in the near future, includes much of what is already familiar -- genetically engineered animals and food, rampant global warming, viral internet pornography -- as it leads us to some logical and horrific conclusions about what might be probable.  As Toby, one of the God's Gardeners, a sect of vegan preapocalyptic hippies, notes, "how easy it is, treachery.  You just slide into it" (217).  After the world ends, so to speak, Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners, realizing that veganism may be impossible in the current moment, preaches to his flock, "which is more blest, to eat or be eaten?" (346), even as he entertains the idea that survival may, at some point, depend on cannibalism.

We're told by Ren, another of the survivors, that "Adam One used to say that people can believe two opposite things at the same time" (229), and I asked my students to speak about this idea.  There was silence, and then one offered, "it's like watching 'Toddlers and Tiaras.'  You know it's wrong, but you can't look away."  Good point.  And that's why I ended up watching a TV show about Russell Williams's victimization of women instead of any number of shows about the accomplishments of men.  Men are immortalized, and women are murdered; at least that's what last night's channel surfing showed me.  Men act stupid and become mythological heros; women get killed for leaving a window open...  A man comes in, with a coil of rope, and it's curtains.  And we all revel in the grotesque aftermath.

Atwood's writing acknowledges and then resists this reality; it always has.  Today, I'm happy, I guess, for Tomas Transtromer, whose work I don't know at all, but who, I have no doubt, deserves the Nobel as much as the next guy.  And I'm sorry for Atwood who, I feel certain, deserves it more.  As she says, "a word after a word after a word is power."  Maybe next year.

* And I realize that this post has next to nothing to do with veganism.  


  1. Here, here! Atwood has long deserved the Nobel, especially given that her wide variety of books shows she is a master in every genre.
    (And this post could easily be about veganism--Atwood has many of her characters in Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood eating soy-based "meat.")

  2. Hi Karma,
    Thanks for this! The reason I started writing this post is because I'm writing about both Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood from a vegan perspective. So I appreciate your comment re soy-based meat.
    All best,

  3. Ooh, I can't wait to hear more about the O&C and Flood piece. And I'm with you on how reading Atwood makes one realize that she's already said everything you wanted to say. Before you even knew you wanted to say it.
    PS While in Havana last week, I was talking to my friend who so graciously helped arrange things from that end, and I learned that he met Atwood and Gibson while they were in another part of Cuba doing some birdwatching. Apparently, they all keep in touch. I didn't bother hinting and flat out told him that he needed to arrange an event (whether a conference or a dinner) at which we could coincide. I could then live the rest of my life as a fulfilled woman. (Now I just have to find someone who knows Alice Munro.)
    PS II I only watched (or even became aware of) Into the Wild a year or so ago, and the entire time I kept having a hard time feeling for the protagonist because all of his actions were so selfish. I "get" that he needed to escape. But he made a lot of people suffer unnecessarily. So his parents were annoying dicks. Got it. But they love(d) him. As did other people.

  4. I LOVE Margaret Atwood. She's everything I want to be as a woman. I hope to grow as both a woman and a writer to be as intelligent as she is. This is a great post. I didn't truly notice that men do get recognition for stupid acts, well at least not with the films based on survival, since I am aware of guys doing stupid stuff on youtube and the popularity of the show JackAss. And yes, give her the freaking prize already! This woman's amazing.

  5. I concur both with your nomination for Atwood as Nobel Laureate and with your opinion that McCandless's actions were stupid and selfish. Why he has been immortalized and canonized by some for acting like a fool is beyond me.