Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

Journal: 059

Cat's Eye Audiobook | Margaret Atwood | Audible.co.uk

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.

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Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, first pub. 1988. Audiobook read by Laurel Lefkow, 2013. 15 hrs 17 min.

Audible Library

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.

30 thoughts on “Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

    • I am a bit tired of novels written ‘today’ where the protagonist keeps going back into the past. I guess the author is answering the question, how did I get here. I’d rather they just started at the beginning and worked through to the end.

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      • I completely agree. Starting in the present is a great way to make a novel drag. It’s a technique loved by many thriller authors, especially Ruth Ware, and right when she gets to the part where she’ll reveal what happened, she slooooooows everything down in the present, which is the timeline I do not care about.

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      • It is fascinating (and informative!) being involved in discussions with a Professor of writing technique. Will you ever return to the lecture theatre do you think?

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  1. You have lots of wonderful audio experiences ahead of you Bill, although I don’t know how Ulysses will go as a listening experience. Although just letting it wash over you in a flood of words could actually be best way to tackle it!

    “I find Atwood to be a fine writer but only a so-so story teller” resonated today. At work I was discussing with my young colleague which Atwood’s we have read (I have just started The Penelopiad for MARM and NovNov) but Atwood’s latest collection of poetry has also just turned up at work, Dearly. Between the two I’m having a delicious time with Atwood’s writing.
    But we were both saying that we had read The Blind Assassin and couldn’t remember anything about it, except that we remembered it fondly. Her other books we were much clearer on the story, so perhaps there are only some that feel rambly and forgettable?

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    • I’ve read Ulysses a couple of times but I thought it was worth spending two or three days listening to someone else read it.

      I’m sorry to say this during MARM, but I wonder what all the fuss is about with Atwood.

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      • Haha. Like it’s a dinner party and you feel you must whisper this wonderment in a corner near the tray of veggie pate smeared on slices of cucumber! As a single Canadian reader, I’ll try to answer, beginning with one reason being that she was one of first authors from Canada who gained (and sustained) international recognition. Until she was successful internationally, writers here were told/advised not to set their books in Canada because they would never sell/be published, so she played a key role in/out of Canada in terms of encouraging people to think of there being a “worthy” national literature here (although that’s a complicated matter, of course, such concepts resisting adequate definition). A second reason would be the contribution she made to feminist storytelling, the boost that her books gave to publishing houses like Virago in the U.K. for instance, sustaining their capacity to remain a feminist press and publish other, less profitable, writers/stories; she was key to Virago’s success (not sure if she’s still such a cornerstone in their books). Finally, I guess one should mention her support and publicizing of other writers (she was very active in the 60s and 70s in promoting writers whose works were not well known, notably indigenous and Québécois writers). But all of that is legacy-focussed, a history-book kind of answer, but perhaps not well known outside of Canada? Why would a single reader be fussed? That’s quite another question, I suppose. (I hope you were seriously pondering this, otherwise, this long response will only seem an annoyance! LOL)

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      • I was seriously pondering this, and I am delighted with your response (how did you know I like vegie – I am opposed to two gs in vegie – pate on cucumber?). More tomorrow, I am falling asleep.Talking to Toronto is harder than talking to the moon – the delay to the moon is only a few minutes, whereas the delay from WA to the East Coast is 12 hours (not counting daylight saving).

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      • My starting point with Atwood is that I’m annoyed that she doesn’t acknowledge whose shoulders she stands on when she writes SF. She makes it sound as though literary writers can knock out a bit of speculative fiction without even thinking about it, which is how The Handmaid’s Tale reads; well written, topical and in SF terms, unadventurous.
        That off my chest, I accept everything you say.
        There isn’t, I think, an Australian in exactly MA’s position. Partly I’m guessing, because Australian writers were until say the 1960s, part of the English industry whereas I’m guessing Canadians were trying to make an impression in the US. Probably the most analagous writer is Thomas Keneally, who is coincidentally the same age (roughly) and who appears to have given up being literary for being prolific. And of course we have Patrick White, who like most Nobel Laureates is completely unknown outside the book world.
        But we have never had a problem with setting novels in Australia, except with your neighbour, who re-sites them, but then in its ignorance it does that to everyone.
        Do we have a writer who more than others supports his/her fellows? Well Miles Franklin astonished everyone by leaving her mite to fund our most prestigious literary prize. And White, who was independently wealthy, used his Nobel money to fund an annual award for underappreciated authors – the first recipient being Christina Stead who both deserved and needed it.

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  2. I think that there’s a strong element of exploring how women self-sabotage and sabotage each other in this novel. It’s not just about girls being spiteful, it’s more emblematic than that IMO. If you look at the quotation in my review, down at the bottom when she’s in a department store where “the air is saturated with the stink of perfumes at war” that’s a metaphor for women being at war with each other, competing for male attention. And look how desperate she still is, in her mature years for that: “I’d use anything if it worked – slug juice, toad spit, eye of newt, anything at all to mummify myself, stop the drip drip of time, stay more or less the way I am.” She’s terrified of ageing and doesn’t think she’ll ever be like the two old ladies she sees who are so comfortable in their skins.
    See https://anzlitlovers.com/2009/12/31/cats-eye-by-margaret-atwood/

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    • I got the impression that the ‘friends’ were not so much adversaries as straw women against which Atwood contrasted Elaine as she developed. But I agree Elaine slipped into self sabotage whenever she felt unsure about a situation.

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  3. I read The Snow Queen a long time ago. But not all of it. The book was misbound, and missing a chunk of twenty or thirty pages in the middle. Perhaps I should try again, with a complete text. I vaguely remember enjoying what I read 😁

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  4. I’ve only read a few Atwoods (The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale) so can’t really comment on this one. From what I remember of the Robber Bride it was very much about what Lisa has just outlined: women competing with each other for men and self sabotage. I recall it being a rather enjoyable romp, if quite long winded, but the detail of the storyline has long since faded with memory. I recently picked up the Blind Assassin from the little free library which has popped up in my apartment building’s basement, but goodness knows when I will get around to reading it : it’s the size of a hefty brick!

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    • I’ll probably try another one, maybe even the Blind Assassin – I like listening to long books, and her writing is good. I haven’t discovered whether Cat’s Eye is autobiographical, but I was taken by her coming of age, whereas I was largely unimpressed by the story line of others of her novels.

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  5. This is one that I’m rereading for MARM. It’s been more than 20 years since I last read it (I’ll have to check my log) so I’m very curious to see what parts I find interesting in this reading, compared to my last. You make a fair point about contrasting her attention to crafting and the mechanics of creating a literary work with her attention to storytelling. I”m not sure that story is always a priority. Even though there always IS a story. One of the essays I read last night (written in 1987) was clear about the fact that she was really only a popular writer and commercially successful novelist until she published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, whereupon the critics took notice and people started to call her al literary writer. I’ve watched a few archived interviews recently, too, and been amazed at just how patronizing the tone of the interviewers is even though I don’t tend to think of that as being still so prominent in the ’80s. Maybe it’s more revolutionary than we are thinking, today in 2020, for her to have expected/invited critics and readers to accept a literary novel about a simple girls’ coming-of-age? Not just a “nice story” about being a girl/woman, but something for the prizelists? (But I’m still rereading, and, honestly, haven’t gotten all that far. The US news has been a serious distraction!)

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    • My theory is that ‘most’ literary novels are autobiographical – because literary writers are more interested in writing than they are in story-telling and it’s easier to tell their own story than to make one up, and therefore many, especially early, literary novels are coming-of-age.
      You are implying that a girl’s story is YA, or at risk of being YA, and so beneath notice and that may be a little bit true – I think for instance it came up in the reactions to Saving Francesca recently – and I think it is less likely to happen to a guy’s story. But there are plenty of esteemed young women’s stories which are not put down. Starting I guess with Sense & Sensibility.

      As we go on, LOL seems the only rational reaction to the Trump circus. Though I should not forget a quarter of a million needlessly dead.

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  6. Matthew loved the audiobook of The Martian – he has Audible and sometimes follows narrators through even when he’s not come across reviews etc of the book.

    As for Cat’s Eye, I read it in that 1980s edition (see Heaven-Ali’s post!) way back when, had a dim memory of a ravine and bullying but nothing else. Maybe time for a re-read!

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    • The Martian is actually one of the three or four books I’ve read since buying a copy on Audible. I enjoyed it and I probably should have written a review but it’s all gone now. I never follow narrators, I’m barely aware of them. Just once, I was listening to a book set in Somalia and I realised the reader was the same as for McCall-Smith’s Botswana books – which makes you wonder exactly what accent you are being fobbed off with.
      Yes, get with flow, read Cat’s Eye and think about the things Atwood thinks turns a young person into a young woman. Speaking as the father of daughters it’s an amazing process, but it’s pretty hit and miss whether anything one does makes a difference (I can see where I made a difference to morals and politics and reading, but to femininity? I don’t think so).

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  7. I’m glad Marcie got here before me so she could give you such a good response to your question of why MA is a big deal. I would not have given such a good one!
    As for Cat’s Eye, I haven’t read it in over 20 years so can’t really comment about what I thought of it, although I suspect I didn’t like it then as much as I would now. When I was younger, I would have been reading more for the story, not so much the other things. I do remember reading somewhere that Atwood made her character in Cat’s Eye an artist, because MA was interested in art too. I think she liked to draw a lot, and even designed a few of her own covers. Also, MA’s father was an entomologist, and he would take his family into the woods with him – so that part is autobiographical.
    I’m so glad that listening to Cat’s Eye didn’t result in any truck troubles that you weren’t able to hear over the narrator! Thanks for joining in! 🙂

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    • Let me respond from bottom to top. I’m glad too, though I did forget to change gears more than once or twice. I’d look down and the rev counter would be jammed against the red.
      I’ve just this minute looked up MA’s DOB – Nov.1939 so she wasn’t even 6 at the end of the War. I reckon that makes Elaine 2 or 3 years older. It felt like autobiographical fiction though – and she knows a lot about worms. The brief description of her life as an artist with other womens libbers sounded real too. Do you know Toronto’s new post-war suburbs? I’ve lived a lot of my life in shoddy housing – weatherboard and asbestos – built straight after the War.
      Is that a Marcie behind the tombstone? I was sure it was going to be Lucretia (until she attempted an M at Bingo). Her answers are great, and it’s time I went and dealt with them.

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      • Yes, it’s Marcie! 🙂
        And no, I don’t know much about Toronto’s post-war suburbs. I’ve only been to visit a couple of times. But Marcie lives there, so she might have the answer to that question, too!

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  8. I was worried this post was going to end up being about a truck catastrophe, something that set your current timetable way off kilter. I’m so glad it wasn’t that at all, thought I did like your description of intuitive driving by sound/feel.

    I’ve read quite a lot of Atwood, but none for some time. My least favourites are The robber bride and Cat’s eye (which latter many people love, so I have often thought I need to read it with a different mindset from the probably very tired one I had when I last read it.) For the record, I love The handmaid’s tale, Alias Grace, and The blind assassin.

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