- Margaret Atwood: Essays on Her Works
The essays in this volume analyze, one by one, Margaret Atwood's ten novels to date. (An eleventh novel, The Year of the Flood, was due to appear in the autumn of 2009.) Ten essays, nine of which have appeared in essay collections or journals between 1987 and 2002, plus one new essay on The Blind Assassin and a new interview with Atwood herself make for a retrospective volume on the novel form. Indeed, it would have made sense for this volume to announce more markedly its emphasis on Atwood's work in this particular genre, but the volume is subtitled Essays on Her Works, and the editor's introduction does not delve to any significant degree into the specific question of Atwood's long-standing relationship with the novel. It's a shame; given Atwood's long-time fascination with the form and its history (evinced by the fact that even a volume that she has written ostensibly on the subject of economics, Payback: The Shadow Side of Debt, is not so much about economics as it is about the metaphors of debt and indebtedness in the Victorian novels she knows so intimately). [End Page 502]
The editor's rationale for bringing these essays together is partly one of convenience (though a search I conducted through my university library revealed that I could gain access to almost all of the book's contents with very little difficulty) and one of context: he argues that this sequence of ten essays, each one devoted to a specific Atwood novel, arranged chronologically according to the novels' date of publication, allows the reader to 'follow the various stages in the "novelistic" evolution of Atwood's craft.' But does it? The novel-by-novel approach does yield some occasional comparisons, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, but the effect is more atomistic than contextual. There are fine moments here, to be sure: reading Gayle Green's 1987 essay on The Edible Woman takes us back in time in order to remind us how the criticism of Atwood's novel could and did serve as a sounding board for the exciting mid-eighties discovery of French feminisms on the part of North American feminist critics. A related strength of the volume is its focus on essays with fairly explicit theoretical groundings - a welcome change from many recent essays and conference papers on Atwood that seem to rehearse, time and again, the same sorts of explication du texte, with Atwood's writings serving as some sort of secular scripture that need only be parsed and critically reheated and served. A welcome change in this respect is Jennifer Murray's 'Questioning the Triple Goddess: Myth and Meaning in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride,' which does not satisfy itself with merely explicating the Gravesian triple goddess paradigm in Atwood's novel but takes the further step of suggesting that, had Atwood played a bit more with the application of the structures of the myth in the novel, particularly its conclusion (wherein the dastardly Zenia plunges, conveniently, to her splashy death in the fountain below her hotel balcony), the novel would have been stronger for it. This is a serious and engaging critical response, whether one agrees with it or not.
The interview that closes the collection is, like all interviews I can recall ever having read with Atwood, lively, acutely perceptive, and witty. To cap a collection of essays on the novels, though, it would have made sense to interview Atwood specifically on the subject of writing in this genre. Like the collection itself, the interview tends towards the general, even though the opportunity presented itself to fashion something much more critically focused.
Lorraine York, Department of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University