Surfacing, Margaret Atwood

November is both Margaret Atwood Reading Month (BIP) and AusReading Month (Brona). But, a week or so ago, it suddenly popped into my head that the month was already under way. So I started reading the book I had set aside for Brona, and, audiobooks being so to speak like signs on a freeway flashing past, I borrowed and listened to Surfacing, which I now must review before it is lost behind the barely glimpsed images of all the subsequent signs, or in this case, a guy-SF space opera.

What is really embarrassing is that all this went on while I was writing the actual date on work stuff every day; and more importantly, I completely overlooked a batch of birthdays coming up at the end of October which required book buying and interstate postage and will now therefore be late.

Yes, I know, I could write today (13 Oct) and hold off till November but I will be desperate for a something to post well before then.

Margaret Atwood (1939- ) is of course Canadian. BIP describes her as the first Canadian author to gain international recognition, as the writer who made Canada a valid subject for writing. I am completely ignorant when it comes to Canadian writing, so that is an argument into which I will not venture any further than to say Canada – or frozen North America anyway – was the setting for a number of boys own type books I owned and read in the 1950s.

Last year for MARM I read Cat’s Eye (1988), deliberately not looking up any explanatory material, including Atwood’s year of birth, until after I had written it up. This year I know a little more, so I will attempt to provide some context.

Atwood’s father was a botanist and the family – MA has an older brother and younger sister – appears to have lived and travelled a great deal in Canada’s forests. Her first vocation was as a poet, though interestingly in both Cat’s Eye and Surfacing her protagonist is a painter or illustrator.

She describes her first novel The Edible Woman (1969) as a work of protofeminism, ie. as predating Women’s Lib. As is frequently the case with Literary Fiction, her early works – judging by the summaries – are all explorations of her own coming of age, early adulthood and relationships, the theme to which she returns, aged nearly 50, in Cat’s Eye. And although I have read her better known fiction, A Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace etc., I am glad I have come to Cat’s Eye and now Surfacing (1972) for a closer look at her.

Surfacing begins with a road trip. The female protagonist, unnamed; the guy she lives with, Joe; her current bestie, Anna; and Anna’s husband David, are all in their late twenties, in David’s old car and as best I can make out, in Quebec, or maybe further west, in Ontario, north of the Great Lakes. Anyway, they’re in Canada, making for a lakeside village in the pine forests where ‘she’ is known, where she grew up on an otherwise uninhabited island out in the lake, where her father is now missing presumed dead.

A local boatman takes them out to the island. They occupy her childhood home, a log cabin without power or running water, in a damp, cold, densely treed wilderness. It might be summer, Anna sunbathes, but for an Australian this is winter, and the winters she remembers, with snow up to the eaves, are just unimaginable.

I use Google Books to get a quote. It’s describing Joe in the car –

From the side he’s like the buffalo on the u.s. nickel, shaggy and blunt-snouted, with small clenched eyes and the defiant but insane look of a species once dominant, now threatened with extinction. That’s how he thinks of himself too: deposed, unjustly. Secretly he would like them to set up a kind of park for him, like a bird sanctuary. Beautiful Joe.

He feels me watching him and lets go of my hand.

David has a grant to make an arty film. Joe, an artist in clay, is his cameraman. They have a hired camera and a limited amount of film. She will show them around. Anna is along for the ride.

On the island, initially for the weekend, then for a week, she is the only one at home – camping, kayaking, fishing – and must take the lead. Apart from day to day living, very little happens. She is afraid that her father will reappear, driven mad by loneliness, her mother long since dead, her brother a geologist in the Outback, presumably Australia, and she too long absent.

There is a Lord of the Flies vibe. Gradually the little party falls apart. Her back story includes marriage and a child, both seemingly abandoned. Joe is convenient but unimportant. He, feeling her slipping away, wants more, and sulks when rebuffed. For a while She and Anna exchange confidences, interestingly, they have both tried the pill and stopped taking it. David asserts his new-age guyness, forcing Anna to pose naked, and then when she gravitates towards Joe, puts the word on ‘her’. She evades him, but he follows her into the bush, “You know you wanted me to.”

Throughout, there are Canadians chopping down trees, damming the lake to make moving the logs easier, and Americans in fast, loud boats who think Canada is their private hunting reserve. “David says ‘Bloody fascist pig Yanks,’ as though he’s commenting on the weather.”

Slowly her own mental condition deteriorates. The week comes to an end, they leave, she stays. For a day she’s naked in the snow. It’s not clear why the story ends as it does.

Surfacing is excellently written. Atwood was clearly a talented literary writer right from the beginning. Here she is exploring not so much feminism as women’s new relation to men; men’s uncertainty about how much of their old roles they are going to have to give up in the brand-new world of the Sixties.

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Margaret Atwood, Surfacing, first pub. 1972. Audiobook read by Kim Handysides, published in Australia by Bolinda. 7 hours.

28 thoughts on “Surfacing, Margaret Atwood

  1. I have this on my Kindle so might dig it out for a read but November is so busy with Novellas in November, German Lit Month and Brona’s Australian Reading month, I’m not sure I will have the time.

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    • I’m glad I have no friends pushing me towards Novellas and German Lit. Brona’s month at least plays to my strengths (well, to my predominate reading). I recommend Surfacing though, whenever you have time. I much prefer Atwood’s coming-of-age writing to her general fiction.

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      • I think novellas are my favourite form of book, to be honest. I have a little stack here ready to go. Some of those are German, so I’ll be killing two birds with one stone!

        I haven’t read a huge amount of Atwood and to sure how/why I came to buy this one, other than someone must have recommended it to me at some point.

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      • Mine was a library (audio) book. I just took the earliest of all they had available. If I have to pay for audiobooks I choose the longest – more bang for the buck. I have at least a couple over 30 hours.

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      • Yes, I can do Brona without really doing it, which makes me feel guilty, but I will just use whatever Aussie book’s I read that month, which will include one for my reading group I know already.

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  2. I know I must have read this, as I own an 80s Virago edition. But I really don’t remember it! I’m doing Novellas, Auslit and Nonfiction November, handily their Venn diagrams overlap nicely though there’s nothing that’s all three!

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  3. Whewweee, you are kicking off MARM before I’ve even brushed off the intro post. Heheh Colour me impressed. Do you follow the Virago Modern Classics imprint in general, or only when/if it overlaps with early Australian women writers? I can’t remember seeing photographs of those covers on your posts, but I’m sure it’s similar to what I’ve noticed about the Canadian writers they’ve included along the way, that there are so many more local versions of those titles, so could be you just didn’t read those editions. Anyway, Lennie Goodings’ memoir, from last year I believe, A Bite of the Apple, does a good job of highlighting Atwood’s importance (better than I) in helping to establish that imprint in the UK and to draw attention to the her-story of women writers who had “come before” as well as pulling in younger readers drawn to her style as new and different. There definitely were other writers in the 1960s here in Canada (and contributors from earlier in the century too) but Atwood and Michael Ondaatje stormed the prizelists, paved the road for many writers to come. I appreciate your willingness to continue reading for MARM, even though not all your experiences have felt equally rewarding for you as a reader. 🙂

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  4. I don’t expect to enjoy everything I read, but I do hope to learn something (or at least to have an excuse for more biting comments). I’m sorry I wasn’t organised enough to hold this back – though it has earned MARM a little extra publicity via Brona – but I do have another MA for Nov (week 3 maybe).
    My Viragos are mostly English, though I think I have their Miles Franklin, Some Everyday Folk & Dawn

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  5. I have to confess that I’ve never much liked Atwood – which feels like sacrilege for a book blogger to say, especially given that I am otherwise a science fiction lover – though I am basing that only on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Robber Bride, and I do have some that I still want to read. One of my friends absolutely loves Oryx and Crake, so that’s still on my list. Every time I see people’s posts for Margaret Atwood Reading Month, I think that I should give her another try…

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    • I enjoyed Alias Grace for the way we’re unsure if the narrator is lying, but then I found Cat’s Eye a total slog because I just couldn’t see where the plot was going or why. I’ve read and taught Oryx and Crake, and though it is part of a trilogy, you really can read the first book and stop. I ended up listening to the last two books to get a larger sense of the world Atwood created. I also read a short story collection of hers I enjoyed. I think if she’s going to write something that isn’t plot driven, she does it better in a shorter form. If she’s got a plot behind strong characters, even her rather long novels are wonderful.

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      • My rating of Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace are just about the reverse of yours. And the reason for that might be in your final lines. I’ve never cared much about story, my concerns in reading are writing, character development with story/narrative a distant third. I’m glad you taught Atwood, I guess she qualifies as almost American. Oryx and Crake I haven’t read yet, but I’m sure I’ll get there in some subsequent MARM.

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    • (Lou) I don’t rate Atwood as an SF writer at all. I suppose I am pleased that she has made SF topics mainstream but I found The Handmaid’s Tale pretty unoriginal. I’ll keep reading Atwood because I enjoy the discussion it generates; because BIP and Naomi (Consumed by Ink) in particular give her writing a context – which you don’t always get with foreign writers; and because I am finding her self-exploratory writing, autofiction, I guess, really interesting.

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  6. And non-fiction month and novella month, I think! I can’t do it all! Maybe an atwood short story. I have a few in my TBR!

    Surfacing is one of the earlier Atwoods I haven’t read. Wouldn’t you say that “exploring … women’s new relation to men; men’s uncertainty about how much of their old roles they are going to have to give up in the brand-new world of the Sixties” part of what feminism was about in that wave?

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    • I’m a guy, and in the 60s/early 70s I was dubious about women’s lib. Not because I thought it was wrong, but because I thought it a project to ameliorate capitalism, when my real/only objective was socialism. I can see now that male socialists were just as much in need of being women’s libbed as male capitalists.

      What I was trying to say in that final sentence was that Atwood was describing men’s struggle to come to terms with the demands of women’s lib, rather than making or giving reasons for the demands.

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      • Yes, and that was a big issue for some as you now know. They realised that the men, in fighting for this more important goal to them completely missed that the way they were treating women was part of the problem.

        And re your last point… Fine but I see that as part of a feminist discussion, a different angle, and I thought you were not seeing it as that?

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  7. Yay, Margaret Atwood! Surfacing is one I read so long ago that I can barely remember it, but you have me tempted to pick it up rather than the poetry collection I have picked out. Why not both, you say? Hmm… we’ll see…

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