Friday, June 15, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 17th post

I made a long trip from Vancouver to Austin, TX this past weekend (June 1-3), so I had a lot of time on the plane. I had just started rereading Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, and I wrapped that up on the way back (with a little time to start Carol Shields' story collection Various Miracles). I still enjoyed Cat's Eye, though it didn't grip me quite as much the last time around. Is that because I am a bit less interested in feminist takes on literature? Is it because I am marginally less interested in the lives of artists? I definitely did focus on different aspects of the novel this time around. Cat's Eye is basically about an artist (now located in Vancouver) thinking over her past growing up in Toronto and the traumas of childhood that helped shape her art. You almost get an exposition of all her major pieces. Many, though not all of the editions of this book, have a representation of what one of the pieces ("Unified Field Theory") probably looked like. (You almost wonder if Atwood should have gone that extra step and gotten someone to create all the art works she described, or if that would have robbed people from imagining them in their own minds.) Somewhat curiously, her relations with her parents and brother were very solid, but she was tormented by a small group of "friends." It goes into other aspects of her life as well, and might fairly be called a feminist take on the bildungsroman tradition. Perhaps my favorite part of the novel is how she describes the outskirts of Toronto getting more developed. Even I experienced this in my little hometown where the open field we crossed to get to school turned into a whole bunch of houses the last time I was back. There was a "huge" woods behind the school where we would explore for hours. I assume much of that is also developed. I also can't imagine my wife letting the kids wander around for hours on their own, even in relatively safe Vancouver.

I also happened to finally dig up the term paper I wrote on Cat's Eye for a Canadian lit. class.  It's definitely on the long side (20 pages).  If anyone is interested, I believe it can be accessed here: Cats_Eye.pdf

In general, I would still agree with most of the assessments in the paper, though I am sorry that I wasn't more specific up front about Stephen's relation to the main character, Elaine.  He is her older brother.  I noted one thing that I liked about the novel, that while it is written from first-person perspective, the interpretation of events shifts and the past gets cloudy (so this isn't an omniscient narrator by any means).  The time period shifts regularly, so we are back in the outskirts of Toronto in the 1940s, for instance, and not merely in the present with Elaine casting her mind back to 1940.  I thought this was particularly useful in watching her relationship with Cordelia unfold.  I was struck, then and particularly now, that while much of Elaine's life actually took place in Vancouver, all her mental energy (and 97% of the book's pages) are concentrated on Toronto.

I think this time around I was a bit more attuned to Elaine and her relationships, whereas the first go-around I was concentrating a bit more heavily on Toronto as a setting (and a setting that changed over time as the city continued to develop and it became much less rural on the outskirts).  I'm not really sure how much more I can add at the moment, particularly since I don't want to repeat what I wrote in the term paper.  Anyway, I was glad to reread the book, and I have moved on to Findley's Headhunter (for a totally different take on Toronto).

Actually, I have returned to add a few more comments.  Enough time has passed since the last time I read this book (dangerously close to 20 years ago) that I had forgotten a few key plot points.  Much of it came back to me relatively quickly, and I sometimes found myself anticipating events.  However, I had kind of repressed a bit about Stephen (perhaps because I identified with him more at that time), and it suddenly dawned on me where Atwood was going, and I was kind of unhappy all over again.  I wonder if I do reread the book a third time if I would succeed in forgetting again.  Anyway, it is interesting that the painting that generally graces the cover of the book itself links everything together -- the event depicted in the painting is one of the turning points of Elaine's young life (when she came close to dying in the frozen creek near her house) and the title "Unified Field Theory" is a bit of a nod in the direction of her brother's profession (physics).  While the parallel isn't exact, much of the book is prismatic and sort of reflects the vantage point of someone who could step outside time and see a person's entire life.  This is supposedly the vantage point of Dr. Manhattan (the naked blue guy in the Watchmen comic).  I think the one area Atwood is being just a bit too pat is how you see the early life experiences and how they are directly feeding into Elaine's later paintings (even if, in some cases, she no longer can recall the linkage).  Maybe if we did see the paintings it would be more apparent how these experience were translated and transmuted the way a creative person would go about it.  It's not a major criticism, but I would have thought she could have been a bit more subtle here.
Cat''s Eye


  1. I haven't read this book, I have seen it on my sister's bookshel. Perhaps one of these days. Thanks for sharing your comments.

    1. It is a long book but rewarding if you are patient. Still perhaps a book best read (for the first time) in one's 30s or 40s. FWIW, I like it better than Handmaid's Tale or The Edible Woman.

  2. I enjoyed reading about the different ways that you approached and experienced this novel in re-reading (and anticipating your next re-read). It's one that I have re-read myself (and last year I re-read The Handmaid's Tale, which it sounds like I enjoy more than you do) and coincidentally I've also been thinking about re-reading Headhunter.