Surfacing

Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (1972)

What it’s about: North Quebec, the early 1970s. The unnamed narrator, a woman in her late 20s, takes a road trip to her childhood home in Northern Quebec, with her lover Joe and her friends Anna and David, in an attempt to find the narrator’s reclusive father, who has gone missing. They take a boat to the remote island where the narrator grew up, and stay in the lakeside cabin that was once their family home. David and Joe are making an experimental film, called Random Samples, and they praise what they see as the unspoiled nature of Northern life. The journey triggers memories from the narrator’s childhood: a elder brother who drowned before she was born, her mother who died young from cancer, her younger brother who is a mineral prospector for a multinational company, her father, who appears to have vanished without trace, and the narrator’s recent divorce and abandoning of her young child. Over the course of a few days, they explore the island, noting the erosion of the environment from logging, dam-building and the tourist trade. The narrator reveals that she is unhappy with Joe, whom she does not love, though he asks her to marry him. Anna is also miserable with David, who is sexist, emotionally manipulative and serially unfaithful, and who forces Anna to pose nude while he films her for his movie. The narrator finds a map of the lake that her father marked with an X, and goes diving at the point he marked, triggering a sustained memory of an illegal abortion arranged for her by her married ex-lover. David tries to persuade her to have sex with him, and Anna admits that she and Joe have slept together. A police boat arrives on the island, reporting that they have recovered the body of the narrator’s father, who drowned with a camera around his neck. The night before the group’s departure, the narrator and Joe have sex outside. David suggests that he film the narrator and Joe having sex. The narrator destroys David’s film and hides in the forest as the boat comes to take them back to the mainland. When the others have gone, the narrator returns to the cabin and destroys and burns everything inside. She lives outside in the woods, existing on wild berries and mushrooms, imagining the child growing inside her, and seeing visions of her mother, her father, and and imagined group of men who come to find her. After some days, she returns to the cabin, puts on clothes and resolves to return to the city. Joe returns to the island and calls for her. The narrator hesitates, unsure of whether to trust him and return to her old life.

Why it’s a classic: Surfacing was Margaret Atwood’s second novel, published after four volumes of poetry and her debut novel The Edible Woman, and the novel that established her as a major voice in Canadian literature. In some ways, Surfacing is a curious selection for a classic, as it’s been eclipsed by the massive success of her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a terrifying dystopic vision of a futuristic America in the grip of a religious dictatorship, in which fertile women are enslaved and forced to bear children for the regime’s leaders. Never out of print since its first publication, The Handmaid’s Tale has found another wave of popularity via a recent TV adaptation, the #metoo movement, and President Trump apparently using it as a guidebook for rolling back women’s rights in America. At 79, Atwood has become the feminist prophet we’ve always known her to be, though thankfully more people seem to be paying attention to her.

Surfacing is, in its own quiet and understated way, just as devastating a read, laying out all the themes for which Atwood has since become famous: her focus on female experience, especially within hostile male-dominated cultures; her intense interest in and reverence for the natural world, and her concerns over its degradation; and the idea of silence and madness as forms of escape for women in repressive societies. For contemporary readers, Surfacing is a neat snapshot of gender warfare in the early stages of second-wave feminism: the narrator lives in a state of emotional isolation, struggling with feelings of guilt and shame around her divorce, abortion and the abandonment of her child. She describes her marriage as “like jumping off a cliff. That was the feeling I had all the time… in the air, going down, waiting for the smash the bottom” and her resulting divorce “like an amputationyou survive but there’s less of you“. Of her abortion she says “I’d carried that death around inside me, layering it over, a cyst, a tumour, black pearl.” Even the contraceptive pill, which was meant to usher in a new generation of “love without fear, sex without risk“, has been abandoned due to health scares about blood clots. In David, Atwood creates a razor-sharp portrait of an unreconstructed 1970s chauvinist pig, and the book takes several well-aimed swipes at a fashionable type of Lefty bohemianism: “He’s enjoying himself, he thinks this is reality,” she says of David’s arrival on the island: “a marginal economy and grizzled elderly men, it’s straight out of Depression photo essays.” As the group dynamic unravels, she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her friends’ good intentions: “Saving the world, everyone wants to; men think they can do it with guns, women with their bodies, love conquers all, conquers love all, mirages raised by words.” Even the filmmaking project becomes a tool of male commodification, a reduction of the world to “something picturesque or bizarre, something they could utilize“.

Surfacing is also her most blatantly Canadian novel, expressing an ambivalence about small-town rural life that needs to be escaped from but somehow also protected, and tracing the tensions between Anglo-Canadians and the burgeoning French Quebecois independence movement of the 1970s. There’s also a healthy distrust of American cultural imperialism, which gives the book much of its humour. Americans are the comic villains of the novel, dropping cigars carelessly in the lake, complaining about the lack of fish for their sports holiday, and eventually becoming the bogeymen who haunt the narrator’s paranoid fantasies. It’s a fascinating read in the light of her later work in The Handmaid’s Tale, in which America reverts to its Puritan origins and becomes a terrifyingly destructive world force.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet of wild raspberries and lamb’s lettuce. I loved every moment of Surfacing, a book that packs an enormous emotional punch into an economical 251 pages. It’s somehow a relief to step back from the huge enthusiasm for The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel The Testaments (published earlier this month) and experience an earlier iteration of Atwood’s voice, before she was the literary giant she is today. Everything about Surfacing is perfectly pitched: it’s a tragedy in three acts about a woman’s emotional disintegration, but told with such clarity, insight and lack of sentiment so that even this unreliable narrator remains vivid and compelling. Atwood’s genius lies in taking a bland social realist setting – four friends escaping the city for a long weekend in the wilds – and infusing it with chords of deep emotional discord, till it erupts into chaos that’s reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but considerably more sympathetic to its female characters. Having recently read The Sheltering Sky, another story of a woman’s descent into madness in a hostile landscape, it’s fair to say that Atwood’s is the more persuasive version.

Atwood’s writing is astonishingly observant and self-aware, tracking every detail of the landscape and her protagonist’s thoughts with forensic precision. For Atwood, landscape is both an emotional correlative of her narrator’s distress, and its own character, a majestic and menacing “other” that the narrator approaches cautiously and with respect. A childhood spent in the wilderness with emotionally distanced parents has made the narrator guarded, secretive and cautious, yet we watch her with admiration as she skilfully navigates life in the wild, making fires, catching fish, tending to her father’s vegetable garden, canoeing across the lake and diving in search of ancient cave drawings. For all its dangers, this is a world of staggering beauty in which the narrator briefly finds peace: “Loon voices in the distance; bats flitter past us, dipping over the water surface, flat calm now, the shore things, white-grey rocks and dead trees, doubling themselves in the dark mirror. Around us the illusion of infinite space or of no space, ourselves and the obscure shore which it seems we could touch, the water between an absence. The canoe’s reflection floats with us, the paddles twin in the lake. It’s like moving on air, nothing beneath us holding us up; suspended, we drift home.” 

For most of the story, though, she lives in a state of contempt for the senseless pollution of other humans. From the opening pages, the island is suffused with images of decay and destruction. An unnamed disease “spreading up from the south” kills the white birch trees. Bullet holes in a road sign “grow by a kind of inner logic or infection, like mould or boils”; summer cottages “sprout like measles“. Trees cut down for timber grow “swollen edges around the wounds, scar tissue.” The other characters are frequently rendered as their own form of endangered species. The hapless Joe is “like the buffalo on the U.S. nickel, shaggy and blunt-snouted, with small clenched eyes and the defiant but insane look of a species once dominant, now threatened with extinction“, while Anna’s cries during sex with David are “not a word but pure pain, clear as water, an animal’s at the moment the trap closes.” The narrator’s distress at the senseless killing of a heron becomes, like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross, a totem of impending disaster, and a trigger for her to take radical change in her own life.

Atwood describes her character’s descent into madness with insight and a lack of judgment, creating an unsettling ambiguity. From the opening, it’s clear that we may be in the presence of an unreliable narrator: “I have to be more careful about my memories, I have to be sure they’re my own and not the memories of other people telling me what I felt, how I acted, what I said: if the events are wrong the feelings I remember about them will be wrong too, I’ll start inventing them and there will be no way of correcting it, the ones who could help are gone.” Yet her narrative voice is so knowledgeable and persuasive that everything she describes feels totally plausible. Even her descent into paranoia seems like a rational response to everything she’s suffered. The baffling final section of Surfacing raises more questions than it answers. Has the narrator gone batshit crazy and is this some kind of death-wish, or is this a rational response to the dangers of the world and her desire to live without the repressive influence of others? (“Madness is only an amplification of what you already are,” the narrator comments).

By the final pages, the narrator seems cured of her own madness and poised on the brink of returning to a “normal” urban life. Is this a surrender to the power of social forces, or an opportunity for her to begin again and re-map the boundaries of her life? Atwood’s refusal to tell us what to think is makes Surfacing most memorable, and most deserving of being named a classic, rendered in prose of astonishing beauty and insight.

Quotable Quote: “I’m not sure when I began to suspect the truth, about myself and about them, what I was and what they were turning into. Part of it arrived swift as flags, as mushrooms, unfurling and sudden growth, but it was there in me, the evidence, only needing to be deciphered. From where I am now it seems as if I’ve always known, everything, time is compressed like the fist I close on my knee in the darkening bedroom, I hold inside it the clues and solutions and the power for what I must do now.”

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