The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood

Written by Robert Wuetherick   

Thursday, 22 January 2009 22:23

Margaret Atwood's The edible woman (first published Toronto, August 1969; the edition I read was McClelland Bantam Inc., Seal Books, 1998, 363p.) is my first experience of reading one of her novels. (A book of criticism, Negotiating with the dead, read about a decade ago, was very impressive but didn't compel me to read further.) In the course of two glorious days I encountered her first novel, an exploration of some of the realities facing women delivered in a story that is laugh-out-loud funny, intimidatingly erudite, impressively constructed, and refreshingly nuanced -- and a compelling page-turner. (On Day One I got to p.21; on Day Two I sprinted to the end.)

One of the joys of first encountering a novel by a prolific author and discovering you LOVE what she does is the assurance that there are LOTS more titles awaiting your belated discovery. Life is sweet!

Plot Archetypes

A mind-stretching exercise to accompany novel-reading is to identify which plot type the author is employing. Northrop Frye, the great Canadian literary critic, once said that there are no new plots. (I can't quote where in his oeuvre he said this because the fortune cookie I got if from was silent on attribution. I have written to the bakery for more information. Stay tuned.)

To test Frye's contention, the plot detective turns to a very handy tome by Ronald B. Tobias, called 20 master plots (and how to build them) (Cinncinnati, OH, Writer's Digest Books, 1993). Intended to be a guide for aspiring screenwriters, the book informs us that there are two basic kinds of plot: those of Mind / Character and those of Body / Action. We have no trouble imagining where The edible woman's plot resides:  not for our Maggie are those Hollywood staples of helicopter gunships and heroines outrunning explosions. Instead, if I've correctly interpreted Tobias, The edible woman employs master plot 12, Transformation (p. 153--59).

Tobias provides some background: "We are always in the process of becoming who we are. . . . The plot of transformation deals with the process of change in the protagonist as she journeys through one of the many stages of life. The plot isolates a portion of the protagonist's life that represents the period of change, moving from one significant character state to another."

According to Tobias, something must happen to the protagonist to propel the change. In our novel, she receives a proposal of marriage.

The edible woman's plot

The story begins on the Friday of the Labour Day long weekend in an unnamed city that we gradually identify as Toronto.

Marian McAlpin, a recent Arts graduate, is unfulfilled in a dead-end job (she polishes the language on questionnaires used by a market-research firm), has a slovenly and irresponsible flatmate, Ainsley Tewce, equally underemployed, and a relationship, more studied than passionate, with a handsome and certain-to-be-successful lawyer, Peter Wollander.

Two men, one an old friend of Marian's recently returned from England (Leonard Slank) and the other a stranger she interviews while working overtime on Saturday (Duncan; he never gets a surname), change the direction of both women's lives.

The novel's focus is the nature of femininity and how it is revealed in the six months we are allowed into the characters' lives. (I'll leave it to others more daring than I am to label the archetypes Atwood has created. I don't want no burning crosses on my lawn!)

We meet, but don't really get to know, three of Marian's co-workers, Emmy, Lucy, and Millie, whom Ainsley derides as the Three Virgins, and a university dropout, Clara Bates (I didn't notice Atwood giving the co-workers surnames). Clara is overwhelmed and perplexed by her multiple pregnancies in quick succession (two children in hand, another imminently on the way). Then there's Ainsley, a predator who coldly and efficiently plots to become pregnant in a single encounter and to raise the child on her own. Marian herself is involved in a comfortable but unrewarding relationship with a good catch but alarmed by the strictures of the conventional life looming in her near future, and mystified by the bizarre way her body chooses to respond to her mental distress.

Of course I'm not going to reveal what happens, but I would like to convey a sense of why the experience of reading The edible woman was so rewarding, and then to cast a cold eye on a couple of its flaws.

The edible woman's Structure

Atwood easily convinces us of how thoroughly she's in control of her material. One example will have to suffice. (I'm not going to repeat the mistake of my first entry and go on past my welcome. No sir!)

Before the novel's first sentence we encounter a statement that is mystifying in its naked isolation. On an unnumbered forepage Atwood quotes a comment from The joy of cooking on preparing puff pastry: "The surface on which you work (preferably marble), the tools, the ingredients and your fingers should be chilled throughout the operation."

Bearing this passage in mind, we read on and note that Atwood, in carefully cadenced steps, employs cold fingers as a metaphor for Marian's misgivings about her relationships and her steely determination to resolve her doubts about the prospect of a marriage of stultifying conventionality. In anticipation of a meeting with Peter to explain her fleeing a cocktail party that he intended to use to show off his "catch," Marian, with grim focus, bakes a cake which, when she herself consumes it, will make a statment about where she has chosen to reside on the spectrum of femininity. (Read the novel to see how Ainsley, her roomate, interprets the act.) The reader is clearly in the hands, cold or otherwise, of someone in control of her craft and skilful enough to place it in the service of her art.

Yet Another Example of Control

Oh, all right! If you insist I'll give one more example of Atwood's control of her material, and how seemingly unrelated images are in fact deliberately placed to prepare us for a second, more meaningful, appearance.

What at first glance is a cringe-inducing anecdote about how Clara's feral toddler deals with his feces is later revealed to have been included simply to show how Marian settled upon yet one more technique for hiding her escalating revulsion at the food on her plate. Just magnificent!

A Neophyte's Missteps

Not as impresive, though, are the rare missteps made by this debut novelist.

First is the matter of names. In life and in the comsumption of literature I pay close attention to surnames, to what they mean and, in literature, why an author chose them. Perhaps this focus stems from learning at an advanced age that my own surname has a meaning. (One hundred points to any reader of this site who figures it out and emails me. Dictionaries are permitted.)

In The edible woman Atwood appears to have endowed her characters with surnames chosen either to amuse (the dietician is Mrs Withers), to display conventionality (Marian McAlpin, Peter Wollander), or to reveal that their bearers are unsympathetic (Mrs Grot, Ainsley Tewce, Leonard Slank, by all the gods!). The obviousness of this tripartite division and the clunkiness of the artistic choices she made are grating and distracting.

But I do forgive Atwood's nicknaming one of Peter's hunter friends Trigger. We red-blooded males bonding in the wilderness have been known to give us each other nicknames. Why, I myself was once known as Mountain Man, for reasons too sordid to go into in a family-rated website.

Coincidence in The edible woman

Questionable, too, is the novel's heavy dependence on kwinkiedinks (grownups use the term coincidences).

Much of the story's progress, and Atwood's ability to deliver her message, depends on the coincidence of key characters re-meeting after an initial chance encounter. That the novel's setting is Toronto is indisputable. Having characters live in Canada's largest city reduces the likelihood of subsequent chance encounters, but doesn't eliminate them. Toronto does pride itself on beng a city of neighbourhoods, and neighbours do run across one another, but for Atwood to depend so much on coincidence is worrisome.

Parting Shot

If Margaret Awood hasn't crossed your path before and if my protestations of enthusiasm have had any effect on you, run, don't walk, to Belgravia Books & Treasures to delve into our extensive holdings of her art. Her oeuvre of some 30 titles will doubtless contain much to enjoy.

Do I feel the least bit of unease that I have turned this entry into a shameless shill for Belgravia Books rather than maintaining an objective stance and eschewing The God of Commerce?

No.

Enjoy our Maggie's novels.

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Earlier entries follow. Warning: the one that follow is LONG! Enjoy!

For the first time, I've got something to add to this part of the site. Now, all those naysayers who wonder where my thoughts are, or whether I have any, may put their concerns to rest, for

ROBERT HAS A THOUGHT -- AT LAST!

And what it is, too. By Anne Elk. That's Anne, with a "e."

SPOILER ALERT! This entry concerns a novel I've just finished, and if you haven't read it and you wish to be surprised by who the two principal characters are, and why their paths crossed, and what happened, then perhaps you'll want to forego my thoughts, profound though they certainly are!, and read this passage once you've absorbed, and been moved by, the novel. 'Nuff said?

Here goes.

Julian Barnes, Arthur & George, 2005 (Vintage Canada Edition, 2006: yes, this is important to note, as will be evident shortly).

Art and Life

Can Life be made to conform to Art, or do Art and Life inhabit mutually exclusive spheres?

What happens when Art cannot be made to influence Life, and Life resists the blandishments of Art?

Imagine this scenario. Someone, we'll call him George, has a really, really good reason to want Art and Life not only to intersect, but for Art to correct multiple iniquities visited upon George by Life.

There's more.

What happens when a novelist, renowed throughout the English-speaking world for creating a detective capable of solving mysteries of the most intricate complexity, is presented with a real-life mystery, one on whose resolution depends the exoneration of an innocent man who has been imprisoned under the most egregious circumstances?

Further, readers of the novelist's stories know that his fictional detective is available for hire. Visitors, of high rank and low, journey to his lodings (at afictional address written to and visited to this day by fans intent on believing that Art and Life are one) to present what is bedevilling them.

The fictional detective, while listening intently to his visitor's stories, reads the caller as quickly and as easily as drivers read traffic signs (unless, of course, the driver is texting, in which case any cognizance of the outside world is necessarily limited), assesses whether he will undertake to help, and then, on the visitor's departure, reveals to his companion, a former British Army medical officer, what he has discerned of the supplicant's status and the prospect of success for the undertaking at hand.

If you have failed to guess that I am referring to Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and Dr Watson, do forgive me for being over-obtuse.

If we are to believe Julian Barnes, Conan Doyle (because this is the form of surname Barnes uses, I shall, too, even though printed reference books prefer the simple "Doyle"), in a soft-ball interview with The Strand, the magazine that initially published his detective stories, recounted how he wrote his stories: by conceiving first of the outcome, the solution, and then working back from there to create the story.

With an approach like this, all Art has to do is interact with Art.

Now, though, the creator of the world's most astute detective is himsself approached to solve a crime, and its lead-up, of many years' duration, without the advantage of first knowing the outcome. Cold turkey, as the expression has it. Walking the highwire without a net.

How the author of detective novels himself performs the role of detective is the subject of Arthur & George. Readers, well aware that Conan Doyle is possessed of all the skills he gave his fictional detective, sit back and relax and watch the game of cat and mouse begin.

But is our confidence merited? Will Conan Doyle succeed where, years before, a team of lawyers employed by George to plead his case so patently failed?

The challenges facing any investigator were acute and daunting. The case, spanning several years, involved poison-pen letters, threats, police harassment, animals apparently ritually mutilated, a preposterous arrest, a bungled investigation and a trial presided over by someone not trained in the law, the racism of late-Victorian society, a wrongful conviction -- the whole resulting in an innocent man, an upstanding member of the legal profession, no less, being sentenced to penal servitude, serving three years of the term, and being, with no explanation offered, released, unpardoned and uncompensated, and unable to resume his legal practice or earn a living.

The setting is England in the 1890s. The protagonist, to give him all his forenames, George Ernest Thompson, is the son of the Reverend Shapurji Edalji, vicar of the Church of England parish in Great Wyrley, near Manchester,  and his British wife, Charlotte.  Father is a Parsee, converted to Anglicanism to the extent of taking Holy Orders; mother is a Scot, with whose family resides the gift of the Great Wyrley living.

Blurbs are meant to sell books. One blurb on the Vintage Canada edition of this book, published by The Calgary Herald, breathlessly assures us that "Every line of this novel reveals Barnes's intelligent focus and his meticulous research." Well, the novel may well do so, but the result is often LONG stretches of tedium.

We are engaged by the many passages giving us the background to the crime, the investigation (by the police and by Conan Doyle), the cat-and-mouse interrogations Conan Doyle conducts with the pathologist, the chief constable, neighbours, former school friends and teachers, but many passages are Tedium (yes, written with a capital T).

I struggled to find a reason for reading the passages describing the setbacks in Conan Doyle's married life, the agonies he suffered over his love for Another Woman while his wife, an invalid, remained alive. Perhaps the reward for soldiering on and reading these sections was the insight I received into late-Victorian mores. Among them, if Barnes' interpretations of his sources is correct, is the impossibility of divorce (Conan Doyle, we learn on p. 239, loved his wife "as best a man can, given that he did not love her"), the social strictures on visiting and socializing with, and giving gifts to, the beloved he could not yet marry, and the absolute stricture on remarrying until a year had passed since his wife's death. Forebearance like this is utterly alien to our society!

A charming anecdote reveals the chasm that separates us from Victoria's subjects. At one point Barnes, to reveal the depths of Conan Doyle's moral rectitude and his adherence to his society's mores, recounts an episode in which Arthur, seeing a man smoking in the presence of a woman at a social gathering, pulls the pipe from his lips and crushes it on the floor with his heel. Now we understand why, at all those television and movie recreations of British upper-class dinner gatherings, the women, at meal's end, hoof it to the ladies' room. They don't all need to repair their war paint at the same time, or all use the conveniences at once. Now, thanks to Julian Barnes, we guess why this tradition exists: to give the men a chance to light up over port and nuts without, presumably, running the risk of having their smoking gear smashed by the righteous.

The Command of Language

Julian Barnes' craft, his command of language, is arresting and memorable. On p.3, a child's wanderings are attributed "the instinctive tourism of infancy."

Then, with utmost economy, he gives us no doubt about the gravitas of Conan Doyle's real-life secretary and amanuensis, Alfred Wood, a "fellow with the honest look of a pharmacist" (p. 51).

Or take the description of a member of Conan Doyle's mother's household, one Dr Bryan Waller, "supposed poet, incontrovertible lodger, and a fellow too damned at ease with the world" (p. 38).

In adolescence, Arthur himself experiences a setback, a rank injustice, and is advised to take his lumps like a man. Barnes informs us that Arthur "accepted the appeal to a manliness he had yet to inhabit" (p. 25).

For skill like this, we can forgive Barnes those passages that fail to ignite our awe.

The Self-Referential

Also amusing is Barnes' choosing to add a reference to his earlier writing. On p. 4, George, though a young child, is said to be able to follow the story of Noah's ark. Hah! Readers will do themselves a favour to read Julian Barnes' A history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters, and see therein all the ways the story of Noah's ark can meander through the millenia.

Then there is Barnes' description of a writer's dawning realization of the power his gift can bestow. On p. 13 Arthur, a storyteller even as a youngster at school, charms his fellow students into giving him extra food and money by discovering "the essential connection between narrative and reward," a connection Barnes himself must have realized at a very early age.

What Did I Learn?

I'm proud to report that while reading the novel I overcame my indolence about looking up unfamiliar words and actually ferretted out the meaning of several I met here for the first time. Let's test your own understanding of a couple of them.

If you heard a hostess during Victoria's reign debating whether to serve a guest brawn, would you know what she intended to put on the plate? (It's headcheese.)

Hornbeam. What's hornbeam? (A herbaceous plant with clusters of purple flowers.)

And coolth. I thought I had invented that word, but, no, Barnes too has latched onto it (p. 336, 5 lines from the bottom), and it means, of course, coolness.

Far niente gave me pause. None of the dictionaries I consulted would yield that secret. By context, we surmised it meant ease at having nothing to do. (All corrections of misunderstandings will be gratefully received.)

Manufacturing Flaws

But I'm pleased to report that when my indolence kept me from looking up an unfamiliar word I was rewarded for my forebearance. On page 24 we learn that Arthur and his mother's lodger are prepping Arthur for his university entrance examinations: "Together, they crammed the classics, aiming for the ierson bursary" (even as I input this text my computer is chastizing me for using such a bizarre word: "ierson" indeed!). I simply trusted that this was a word Julian Barnes knew and I did not, and, bowing to my characteristic indolence, I disdained to look u such a looney word. My indolence was rewarded ten lines later when the text discussed "the Grierson bursary." Grrrr, I muttered, how did THAT happen?

Then, much later on, I discover that this typesetting error is not an isolated occurrence. Hundreds of pages later, at p. 238, in the middle of the page, we read "summer. adually". The same occurs on p. 290, line 13: "adually." (I forgive all readers of this site for believing me compulsive.)

What is going on? Readers of today's machine-produced books, with their computerized typesetting and automated manufacturing processes, expect perfection, and whenever perfection is not delivered we're taken aback.

And the imperfections of this edition of Barnes's novel don't end with bizarre typesetting flaws. From p. 402, the text block is skewed on the page. A big deal? Of course not, but we're so accustomed to modern books being free of manufacturing errors that mistakes like these jump off the page.

Lessons?

When we watch a serious movie, listen to a symphony, view the paintings in a museum, read a thoughtful work of literature, are we consumers of art obliged to ponder and settle upon a Lesson to derive from the experience?  (For example, each time I hear the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10, do I learn, or deepen my understanding, of some Truth? ("Oooh but that Mr Stalin was a piece of work!")

If I am to derive a Lesson from encountering Arthur & George what would it be? I have some thoughts on this matter (after all, this part of our website is called Robert's Thoughts) but presenting them herewould be to deliver a spoiler, to paraphrase Bertie Wooster, of the first water.

So here's an invitation to anyone who reads this novel. Once you're done, and if you agree that Lessons lie embedded in works of art, do let me know your thoughts, whether through our site or when visiting our store.

The theme of injustices being meted out to innocent people who have run afoul of The Man is familiar to anyone who reads a newspaper or watches a movie (Clint Eastwood's The Changeling, the thrillers Rendition and Body of Lies are recent examples of the genre).

A Cross-Channel Mirror

George's experience was not an isolated one. The degree to which the story of George Edalji mirrors that of Alfred Dreyfus is nothing less than eerie. Read Adam Gopnik's article "Trial of the century" in The New Yorker of 28 Sept. 2009, pp. [72]--78, to marvel at how two near-identical stories playing out at almost the same time on each side of the Channel. Again, reluctance to offer details stems from unease at delivering spoilers.

A Personal Regret

Reading Arthur & George left me with a regret. A few years ago I had set aside to read, but ultimately abandoned, a biography of Conan Doyle, and now I wish I hadn't. While reading the novel I wondered whether I would have noticed the biography's passages discussing Conan Doyle's involvement in George's case, and what I would have taken away from the experience. The opportunity to test my perception and appreciation of a big picture is forever lost.

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Well, so much for my First Thought!

Feedback is welcome.

More will follow!