Friday, March 22, 2013

6th Challenge - 18th review - Lady Oracle

I have to admit, I am fairly astounded that my review of Cat's Eye has passed 400 views (though perhaps more than a few my own before I figured out how to stop tracking my own views).  I bring this up because Atwood's early novel Lady Oracle has some interesting parallels with Cat's Eye, which I probably would have overlooked had I not reacquainted myself with the later novel, though it is in no sense a sequel.  Indeed, had I not read several of the intervening novels, I would definitely be wondering if Atwood was working through some traumatic experience, endlessly recycling the same material, much in the way that Saul Bellow kept coming back to troubled marriages and problematic ex-wives and conniving uncles.  I'll be on the lookout in her other work, but as far as I know, she only used this particular event in two books.  What I am referring to specifically is the outsider being picked on by a group of other girls (several years older in Lady Oracle, but closer in age in Cat's Eye), which then leads to a scene where the outsider is left behind in a scary ravine in Toronto's suburban fringes.  She is more or less abandoned (and comes close to drowning) in Cat's Eye, but the abuse is actually worse in Lady Oracle when she is tied to a trestle of some sort and the other girls flee.  Only the intervention of the neighbourhood's dirty old man (who had already exposed himself to Joan in the ravine on an earlier crossing) saves her possible death from exposure or some other unpleasant fate.

I think in both cases, Atwood rightly points out that the cruelty of little children, including girls, is often overlooked and sugar-coated.  I do think, not surprisingly, the tormentors are a bit more believable in the more mature work, Cat's Eye, than in Lady Oracle.  Another thing that Atwood gets right is that often (though certainly not always) the bullies manage to forget their awful behaviour and move on as if nothing had happened.  It simply wasn't meaningful or even memorable to them, whereas it might well eat away at the bullied.  (Not to get too political, but this seemed so true of Romney's inability to remember hazing a fellow-student who was suspected of being gay.  Romney could hardly credit that he had done such a thing and tried to minimize it.)  It is somewhat more unlikely in Lady Oracle that her chief tormentor reenters her life through acquaintances of her husband long down the road.  I thought it was slightly more realistic the way it was handled in Cat's Eye where her frenemy, Cordelia, comes back into her life the next school year on quite different terms and they are essentially on even footing and closer to being true friends.  I also thought it was quite realistic how eventually Cordelia becomes the left-behind friend as Elaine outgrows her.  (This has happened with my university friend, Todd, who ultimately just seemed trapped in the past in odd ways (somewhat ironic coming from me) and his troubles started to mount and I found I had less and less in common with him.  Obviously, it didn't help that we were several states apart and then I moved to Canada and he has apparently moved to Trinidad!)

But where the novels are significantly different is that Elaine's mother is a bit of a cypher (at least in my memory where the father is a much more interesting figure) though Elaine got along well with both her parents (a rarity in contemporary fiction!).  Still, Elaine did want her mother to fit in a bit more and be more conventional like her friends' mothers.  Many of these mothers are portrayed transformed in her adult artwork, suggesting in some ways they were a bit more influential on her than her own family (aside from her brother).  And Elaine does react negatively to one of the mothers -- a particularly religious one if I am not mistaken.  So the conflict is essentially outside the home with her "friends" and that one mother.

In contrast, in Lady Oracle, Joan's mother is a real nightmare and the main cause of anxiety in her childhood and early adulthood.  Her father is also a fairly interesting character but really does not do much to intervene and keep his daughter safe from emotional abuse and blackmail.  Joan basically only finds comfort in the company of her Aunt Lou.  Joan overeats and, curiously, is finally redirected down the path of getting in shape due to a bequest from her aunt.  This allows her to run away from home and escape her family.  I can't vouch for all the editions, but in the one I had, in an interview at the end, Atwood wanted to make it clear that she had not been overweight as a child and this was totally the product of her imagination.  She did a pretty good job in getting inside Joan's head, I thought, including some interesting comments on what it is like to be thin (and pretty) but having grown up fat.

SPOILERS AHEAD

The plot is somewhat in the same line as Cat's Eye.  The events in the novel conspire to keep forcing Joan into flashback mode, so that eventually you have her whole life story.  The events, however, are a bit more fantastical than getting ready for an artist's retrospective, as in Cat's Eye.  Joan makes it to England and ends up in desultory affair in London with an older Polish count.  He reveals that he makes money as romance novelist, and Joan ends up getting into the business.  She starts dating a somewhat inept radical agitator who is in London to stir up trouble.  There are certainly some parallels to the BBC series Citizen Smith, though it appears Lady Oracle appeared before the tv show.  I guess inept radicals were just comic fodder after the 60s had passed and the excesses of that decade became clearer.

Joan has to hurry back to Canada because her mother is dying. (She is at least that conventional.)  The boyfriend eventually follows and they are married.  He goes back to grad school and eventually becomes a lecturer (perhaps a professor) but his main aspirations hinge around publishing a radical journal with all the ridiculous in-fighting that that entails.  He definitely doesn't seem like a catch to me, and eventually Joan does seem to get bored of him.  She has continued to do well with the romance novels, and it is a bit of a running joke that we read part of the current novel she is working on.  But the plot gets raggeder as her life starts collapsing around her. 

She actually publishes some poetry under her own name (not her pen name), and she becomes an overnight success.  This leads to more tension in her marriage and she somehow ends up in an affair with an artist, who is frankly a loser.  She certainly has horrible taste in men, that is for sure.  Eventually, a reporter shows up and tries to blackmail her, and she basically snaps.  She repeats her flight from family response and stages her own death.  Then she takes off for Italy.

Perhaps it is not an enormous surprise that while the plot goes as plans, she bungles the follow through.  She goes to a village where people know her from a previous visit, and before too long she has to re-emerge into public life (at least in part to keep one of her co-conspirators from going to jail for her murder). I suppose instead of an "American tragedy" Atwood gives us a Canadian farce, particularly in how Joan nearly drowns for real.  I think anyone writing a scene where there is a drowning or mock drowning in a rented boat has to be paying some sort of homage to Dreiser. (The "Anxiety of Influence" and all that jazz...)

There are certainly some heavy themes running through the novel, particularly when she thinks back to her childhood.  What I have not conveyed, however, is that it really is a quite funny novel in many sections and quite readable.  I didn't fully believe in all of Joan's choices, and I certainly would have made different choices myself, but she was a very sympathetic character with an odd background.  She seemed fairly easily overwhelmed by life, and definitely had some trouble making a clear distinction between reality and fantasy.  I was a little troubled that Atwood left a few loose ends.  She never cleared up who was leaving dead animals on Joan's porch.  It certainly seemed likely to be the artist, though he swore he didn't do it, and Atwood doesn't provide enough details to know if this is true or not (and the other potential suspects also seem fairly unlikely).  Yet Atwood seems to indicate that this was a real threat and not just Joan's imagination boiling over.

The ending is sort of a suspended one.  Joan seems to think that upon her return to Canada, her life with her husband will be renewed and recharged and interesting again (she has totally broken things off with the artist), though he wasn't really worth the effort in my opinion.  It is a bit amusing that Joan has decided that the romance novels are bad for her psyche and that she will try science fiction from now on.  Roughly a decade after Lady Oracle, Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale, which is surely speculative fiction, though it is not nearly as funny as Lady Oracle (or even Cat's Eye for that matter, and Cat's Eye only has a relatively few funny sections to it).  I wonder if she had the germ of the idea for The Handmaid's Tale even back then or if it was just a fortuitous bit of inadvertent foreshadowing. 
Lady Oracle

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