J. Brooks Bouson’s Brutal Choreographies gets right to the heart of Margaret Atwood’s fiction. As Bouson’s title indicates, Atwood’s novels create a menacing dance, not the gentle, ecstatic pas de deux of popular and literary romantic fiction since the eighteenth century. In Bouson’s phrase, Atwood truly “puts blood on the wall” as she depicts women’s deep anxieties and fears, their passions and desires for revenge. All the while, Bouson perceives as unsettling, even brutalizing, to the reader Atwood’s unrelenting development of fictional counterparts. Concomitantly, she recognizes current societal trends or recent events, crisscrossed in form and content.
A chronological study of Atwood’s seven novels from The Edible Woman (1969) to Cat’s Eye (1988), Brutal Choreographies clarifies the relationships among the works by leading the reader through “a close analysis of their psychological and political concerns and preoccupations.” Bouson persistently emphasizes Atwood’s “family and romance dramas, her evolving story of the female self-in-crisis, her novelistic subversion of romantic love ideology, and her ongoing critique of gender and power politics.”
As the subtitle indicates, Bouson also focuses on the “oppositional strategies” of the novels, “their punitive plotting and their enactments of female revenge fantasies; their dialogic resistance to romantic discourse; and their self-conscious manipulation and sabotage of the romance plot and other traditional narrative forms and formulas.” Aware of Atwood’s command of the parodic novel tradition, Bouson illustrates how Atwood’s strategies place her readers in a feminist reading position.
In order to achieve this multilayered analysis, Bouson draws on Atwood’s fiction and non-fiction, on interviews, feminist theory, a wide range of popular and scholarly articles, and psychoanalytic studies. In effect, Bouson assumes the role of the involved interpreter delineated in her previous book, The Empathic Reader (1989). In that work, Bouson explains how the empathic reader, though absorbed in the protagonist’s world, maintains a critical stance between the subjective and the objective and from that position studies the text’s manipulative designs. This [End Page 870] psychoanalytic approach allows for shifting perspectives, permitting the critic to discern meaning as a part of method, design as vital to purpose.
Bouson extends her empathic analysis to include both author and texts. In the introduction, she describes the twentieth-century historical/literary context in which Atwood developed as a writer. Bouson also shows why Atwood has suffered attacks from male critics who resent her strong feminist voice and from some feminist critics who resent her refusal to voice a single favored feminist line.
Bouson shows the novels’ interrelatedness to the development of the women’s movement, their reflecting and reflecting on its oppositional nature. She points to the protofeminism of The Edible Woman (written before the women’s movement bloomed in North America but not published until 1969), the cultural feminism of Surfacing (1972), the cultural stereotyping of the female artist in Lady Oracle (1976), “the domestic and sexual warfare of Life Before Man (1979), the postfeminist and antifeminist backlash terrors of Bodily Harm (1981) and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and the analysis of the potential power politics of female relationships in Cat’s Eye (1988).”
Bouson reads the novels carefully, giving special attention to aspects of each that have evoked the most controversy and/or frustration. In examining The Edible Woman, for example, she notes especially the ending, which has produced a range of critical interpretations, including positive as well as negative analysis by Atwood herself. Bouson shows how Atwood’s oppositional strategies dismantle and demystify the marriage ideal by “laying bare . . . in the traditional romance scenario the painful objectification and self-diminishment of women in a male-defined order.” When the protagonist fashions the cake-woman, which scares off her suitors, she destroys the potential happy ending. On the other hand, by eating the cake herself, she takes a positive action—something previously impossible for her—overcomes her eating disorder, and destroys the image of woman as consumable item.