After years as a truck driver, half a century! (an exaggeration, I had a 15 year white collar gap in my 30s, 40s) I am a little bit intuitive, not the way natural drivers and mechanics are, but enough to often belatedly realise, feel when things are going wrong – the smells of burning grease, oil, electric wiring, the feel of unbalanced wheels, trailers swaying or sliding, vibrations from the engine or tailshaft, changes in the constant noises of the engine and the wind.
I drive by ear, changing gear with the rise and fall of the revs, choosing the right gear to hold my speed at a given volume of noise through towns or roadworks. Until this week anyway, when books and blogging unexpectedly intervened.
A year or so ago, no doubt enticed by free books, I opened an Audible account which subsequently morphed into one book plus occasional freebies for $16/month. And so I began accumulating a library which I could not access. Ok, which I could not cable and was too incompetent to bluetooth from my phone to my truck radio.
This week, wanting to read Cat’s Eye for MARM (which has co-hosts, so here and here) I downloaded it and went out and bought expensive noise cancelling headphones. Noise cancelling! I can feel the base rumble of the engine but I can’t hear at all the wind around the cabin, the constant woosh of the air over the engine beneath my feet, the high-revving of the motor. I’m deaf to my truck!
I have some excellent books in my Audible library but I’m going to have to space them out. Listening through headphones while remaining conscious of the truck requires far more concentration than just letting all the noise of the truck and the radio speakers wash over me, more concentration than I can manage for any length of time.
I’ve read a few Margaret Atwoods, The Handmaid’s Tale & The Testaments, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin (the cover is totally familiar but I don’t remember one word of the story). She’s a good writer though her SF lacks imagination compared with greats like Doris Lessing and Ursula Le Guin. I didn’t have any expectations of Cat’s Eye – except that it’s long – and I looked nothing up, prepared to allow the story to speak for itself.
The protagonist, Elaine, is 8 or 9 when WWII ends and is in her mid-fifties at the time of writing, so we can say she was born in say, 1936 which I’m guessing is roughly true of Atwood also, and the book is set in about 1990. The novel is framed as Elaine coming from Vancouver where she lives to Toronto where she grew up, for a retrospective of her paintings, but mostly consists of her coming of age, from grade school through to her mid twenties.
Elaine’s father is an entomologist. When she’s young, and later in school holidays the family, father, mother, Elaine and Steven, her older brother, travel the forests in their old Studebaker, collecting bugs, camping or staying in cheap motels. Then when she’s 8 father gets a job at the university and they buy a new, unfinished house in the Toronto suburbs.
Every now and again we duck back to the ‘present day’, to the week or so Elaine is spending in John, her artist ex-husband’s apartment (while he is away). They have a daughter and she has another daughter with her second husband. I get the impression that Atwood makes herself an artist rather than a writer because she likes to philosophize about painting but also because it is easier to talk about movements in painting than in writing.
But mostly we make our way through Elaine’s childhood, year by year, structured around the two or three girls with whom she is friends and around her brother. These children Carol, Grace, Cordelia, Steven, are ciphers – temporary constructs against whom she can contrast herself and her development, abandoned when they are no longer needed. Cleverly, Atwood tells each year in some detail, detail which the Elaine of a year or two later has often forgotten.
As she moves on from being Steven’s sister to Carol’s friend to Cordelia’s friend what we observe is her socialisation from tomboy to young woman. And it is this process of what makes a girl and then a woman that is the core of the book.
Right from the beginning Atwood makes it look as though this is the story of Elaine’s relationship with the darker (I don’t mean skin colour) Cordelia, but it is nothing of the sort. Cordelia is a year older, and one or two years ahead. Elaine is willingly submissive to her, until at last Cordelia forces her to descend from the bridge over the ravine on the way home from school, abandons her when she falls through the ice into the creek and nearly dies of hypothermia. Cordelia goes off to a different school, Elaine starts high school, and then Atwood brings Cordelia back, in the same year as Elaine, makes Elaine the confident one, because that suits her narrative.
Later, Cordelia drops out of sight for years, Steven is sent off to California, Carol and Grace are long gone. Elaine studies Art History, goes from virgin to two days a week lover of her drawing teacher, another relationship involving submission, starts going out with John. The drawing teacher’s other two day a week student/lover gets pregnant and has a messy illegal abortion. Cordelia reappears, briefly, in a mental home. Elaine refuses to help or even visit her after the first time. The story stretches on for a while, but the coming of age is done and the rest is just filler.
I enjoy coming of ages and I enjoyed this one. I enjoyed too ‘living’ in Canada for a while, especially 40s, 50s Toronto, though I expect I would have enjoyed it more if I were familiar with the areas she’s writing about. I find Atwood to be a fine writer but only a so-so story teller and so it was here.
Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, first pub. 1988. Audiobook read by Laurel Lefkow, 2013. 15 hrs 17 min.
Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
Joan D Vinge, The Snow Queen
Christos Tsialkos, Merciless Gods
Joy Ellis, Their Lost Daughters
Charlotte Bronte, The Professor
Thomas Keneally, The Pact
Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe
Richard Flanagan, Death of a River Guide
HG Wells, The Science Fiction Collection
F Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamzov
Andy Weir, The Martian
William Gibson, Agency
Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
James Joyce, Ulysses
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
GG Marquez, Love in the Time Of Cholera
F Dostoyevsky, Crime & Punishment
George Eliot, Middlemarch
M Lucashenko, Too Much Lip
Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
Samuel Delaney, Dhalgren
Some of these I have read since buying the audiobook, some I own but won’t get the chance to read anytime soon and would like to listen to again, and a couple I wouldn’t have chosen but got for free. And Melanie, The Snow Queen will be next.