Friday, December 17, 2010

Book #34: Atavistic Atwood

"What impressed him that time, he even mentioned it later, cool he called it, was the way I took off my clothes and put them on again later very smoothly as if I were feeling no emotion.  But I really wasn't."  -Margaret Atwood, Surfacing

A few days ago, when I was at my favourite used bookstore, I stumbled across Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing. When it was published in 1972, Atwood was elevated to a new level of literary recognition for her caustic portrait of the Canadian wilderness and the wilderness within one woman’s tormented mind (establishing Atwood’s longstanding fascination with the seamy side of nature). But what I remember most vividly about this old novel – from when I plucked it off my mother’s bookshelf and first read it at age twelve – are the sex scenes. These were my clandestine thrills as an awkward, curious pre-teen – to pull an “adult” novel off my mom’s shelf, one day Atwood, the next day Danielle Steel. The high and the low occupied a level plane on her shelf, but I quickly discovered my own preference for the darkness and power games and animal-like perversion that characterize Atwood’s best novels.

These memories stirred at the back of my mind, as I began rereading Surfacing, reacquainting myself with the boorish quality of the nameless narrator’s lover, Joe. He’s not a bad guy. More skillful in bed than most, and good looking in a rugged way, if you go for a cross between a buffalo and a bear. She and Joe explore the extremes of their relationship during a week long trip to the remote island where she grew up – her crazy father has vanished there. Her search for her father is the ostensible purpose of the visit, but it soon becomes clear that the real purpose is to explore the cryptic nature of her own sexuality. Who is she? Why does she feel such malaise and lack of desire, even as she goes through the motions of seduction and falling in love? What is this mysterious “amputation” within herself she keeps referring to?

Reading Atwood becomes a form of self-exploration. There have been times when I’ve felt so depressed that my own world seemed to be folding back into the atavistic world Atwood depicts so beautifully, where bare animal survival seems a struggle. A few years ago, I found myself trapped in a career I thought I would love but ended up hating, living in a town of 5000 that, although picturesque on the surface, became reminiscent of a Lars von Trier film. I identified all too well with the Atwood narrator and the primitive, archetypal world she conveys so well. The bone numbing cold seeped in on me, and my libido curled inward and died.

But just when rejuvenation seems impossible in Atwood’s novels, nature shows her softer side. The wilderness works in sudden, mysterious ways to reveal unforeseen possibilities. And it’s for these subtle, always ambiguous moments of change and awakened desire that I love reading Atwood.

Hmmm…. Just the inspiration I need to start writing Chapter Nine.

Photo from: here


Naomi said...

Your mother's book shelf sounds like mine - a hodge podge of pulp fiction, classics and favourites like Jane Austen. Good luck with the final chapters of your book but enjoy some holiday dinners with family and friends!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

My bookshelf is also a hodge podge - I'm trying to reorganize the books into some kind of system that basically consists of my own whimsy....


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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.