- Atwood's Time:Hiding Art in Cat's Eye
Like most of Atwood's novels Cat's Eye has more than one face and tells more than one story, offering a text which by its very structure is open to several possible constructions. It is also deceptive in the way of other Atwood texts in that it offers a coherent surface in the realistic mode which, with its critical reflection of contemporary manners and its engagement with timely issues, appears to be sufficient in itself as reflection and criticism. Yet it carries marks that disturb the sufficiency of this reading and demand a returning and reconstruction of the text.
Elaine Risley, a successful, middle-aged painter, returning from Vancouver to Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her work, tells two stories: one of her stay in Toronto and the other of her past. The second, told in the interstices of the first, forms the main body of the narrative. In both stories the obsessive presence of Elaine's "best friend," Cordelia, identifies Elaine's relationship with her as the unifying motive of the two braided narratives. When the narrative of the past is absorbed into the narrative of present time at the end, Elaine leaves for Vancouver, apparently with the past behind her but with a sadness which comes from facing the absence of friendship. [End Page 513]
It is commonly recognized that Atwood's narrators belong to a family. They display an "armour" against affect and a distaste for the culture within which they exist; they isolate and estrange familiar features of mass culture, especially language, by their critical glance; and they tend in their utterance toward a condensation and finality often achieved through a trope. These features, slightly exaggerated as middle-aged habit and psychologically motivated by Elaine's history as a victimized child, become what Elaine's reviewer calls her crotchetiness. This familiar Atwood voice is, however, only one of a braid of "voices" or discourses carrying the narrative, although the easily recognized "character" of the voice imposes it, illusorily, as a unified and monologic narrator. In The Handmaid's Tale, too, Atwood had maintained the illusion of a unified narrator-character in Offred while actually distributing the narration into a dialogic exchange of heterogeneous voices, feminine and feminist, "low brow" and "high brow." In Cat's Eye she psychologizes the dialogue, creating a narrational braid with three discourses of the subject, two of which are voiced in the two segments of the narrative and one that is inscribed across both. The voice narrating the present is that of the middle-aged woman, critical of current fads and fashions, comic and sad in her remembrance of the body's aging, anxious about reception by younger people, yet amused, and filled with a sense of loss. The voice remembering the past, on the other hand, is free of affect, an uninflected medium for the coming into presence of people, objects, and situations that are past.
The two narrative voices may be further identified as being addressed and unaddressed. The first voice is social, engaged in a telling. Its tone may vary from the "oracular" opening ("Time is not a line but a dimension") to chatty social wit ("Among his other sterling qualities are cheap tickets to the Yucatan" ) and the most painful confession: "I can feel my throat tightening, a pain along the jawline. I've started to chew my fingers again" (9). Against the complex tonality of this voice the second voice narrating the past is almost toneless, an inner voice that we may call unaddressed because it is the rising of memory to consciousness. We might say that in the first voice Elaine speaks and in the second voice her past speaks to her.
Whereas the first voice is familiar, the second marks an important development in Atwood's fiction. Previously the dominant aspect of Atwood's novels has been a concern with "manners," that is the fashions, cultural signs, and modes of behavior specific to a social time. Appearing most successfully in The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle as comedy of manners, this concern, even in its comic mode, has...