Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Blogger: Margaret Atwood and I

[There is an update at the end of the post!]

A Short Story.

"When we think of the past it's the beautiful things we pick out. 
We want to believe it was all like that."
from: The Handmaid's Tale

Take this roller coaster ride as an open letter. You see, I can't even remember the first time I heard your name. Perhaps a lecture, that seems likely, yes. Either way, it didn't remain unknown for long, I had underestimated the force of the avalanche that came with knowing that name. Then there it was: your book in the hands of a friend. Then, another friend. And yet another! There was one very specific week, I remember, that I had five different friends who were reading you! I thought wow! She must be great! But something changed... yes, it changed drastically because not only my friends couldn't tell me why they liked your work, but some of them harshly criticized me for not reading your books. And I grew angry, you know? During my years at the university I was taught to be able to come up with arguments, to prove that my opinion is not just there and you have to "deal with it". I also tried to recommend books to those friends of mines who were more open to discuss your works, but even their responses varied from "No!" to "Just read Atwood!", and finally "How can you not read Atwood?".
Their unwillingness to actually discuss things made me care less step by step. I reached a point where I would cringe when I heard your name, or rolled my eyes disapprovingly. "How can you not like Atwood?" they would ask me, while laughing, but it wasn't fun for me. I still couldn't quite put my hands on what my problem was. And when a teacher of mine advertised a whole seminar to discuss your works, I thought, why not? I'm not an expert! There is a set reading list, and for the first time if I had questions the answer wouldn't just be "Read!". So here we were, and I went in with an open mind. Remember that, please. I went in with an open mind!

"Longed for him. Got him. Shit."
from: "Very Short Stories", Wired, Nov. 2006

Stone Mattress, the short story, was the first one. Such depth, the whole story? Mesmerizing! I liked reading it, I truly did, and loved the layers! And then we spent 60 minutes discussing whether or not Verna was right to kill her rapist. OK, that's important too, but why 60 minutes? Here I was, looking forward to finally discussing your work, talk about the characters, the way you write, and again... none of that happened! And it wasn't even the teacher's fault, there was just too many of us and all of them eager to speak. I didn't mind that, later on as much as I did in the beginning, but we got from point A to B very slowly and I felt the same way I did before: No real answers to real questions.
I thought I was going to lose it. I was so mad. And then I thought, is this general? Does your work do this to people? They are either crazy about it or hate it and there is no in-between? The question was simple, was she right to do it or not? I said no. Everyone answering that question should've been the end of that argument, instead, everyone felt the need to keep on talking about that... OK. And perhaps the biggest problem was that it was made clear in the beginning that nobody will expect anything other than criticism from me, so even if I did try to be unbiased: it didn't live a long life.

"The Eskimo has fifty-two names for snow because it is important to them; 
there ought to be as many for love."
from: Surfacing

It still puzzles me how different my brain is from my classmates', because when I read This Is A Photograph of Me I could feel a Polaroid picture in my hands, taken of a frozen lake where a simple accident happened in a Canadian winter. Let me tell you that is not at all what the others saw! And all they said kept going further and further from my vision and I couldn't step in, I couldn't say, "Hey! Wait!". And even when I did manage to find something I could criticize - something I spend a lot of time on improving in my own works - like the dialogue in Death By Landscape, I was told "No, it's brilliant!".
I was on the verge of giving up. I had fun with Circe & Mud Poems because I've read that you watch Game Of Thrones, and the mythology behind that just brought the game to a whole other level. I started to take my mission to complete the course seriously. And while reading The Girl Without Hands I felt truly that perhaps I am not the only one out there who sometimes feels like they are in no way in control of their own faith. My enthusiasm quickly faded after reading Sunrise, but then there it was, like a gift from the gods: Isis in Darkness. I don't know how you did it, but every single word in that story was pure perfection! Richard? The main character? He was me. And I say that knowing that I am not a grown man who left his wife and doesn't care for his child. But his feelings, his heart, his foolishness? I got it all. Only two other authors before - David Lodge and Stephen King - had managed to come up with a protagonist that I could relate to so easily. This short story made its way into my heart like an arrow.
And the class started comparing him to Yvonne, the main character in Sunrise and I just--- NO! My brain shouted, I'm nothing like her! - I thought to myself. And I was very critical. Yvonne's approach to her life as an artist filled me with rage! And I might not have received awards or written the best novel of the 21st century, but I do think of myself as an artist and if I want to punch Yvonne in the face it's not because I have problems with your work! No, it's not because I am blinded by a premeditated wish to dislike any and all your works that might come may way! I remind you, I had an open mind. I remind you that I couldn't find anything wrong with Isis in Darkness, and as I read I imagined Florence Welch reading her poems to Richard and a sense of bliss ensued. I was Richard, I knew that, I was even proud of it, and I would debate anyone who said otherwise.

In the meantime I was taken out of the short stories and listened to a presentation by my best friend. She worked with your trilogy, Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and Maddaddam (2013), for her thesis. The presentation was wonderful, and I knew I should read this trilogy the moment I can. And then it happened: I realized what was my first problem when the sentence "The main character's rape--" was uttered and I just gave up. "OF COURSE SHE WAS RAPED! WTF MARGARET?" I shouted. In my head. Because if it wasn't my best friend out there on the podium trying to analyze your work, I don't know what would've happened.

"If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged."
from: Alias Grace

I was done.

No seriously, I was done. Why do you keep raping your protagonists? And I mean that both physically and mentally! It's not the actual rape that I have a problem with! That's the thing I have encountered in the first half of the semester: I never felt that you like the women you wrote about. Why is that? I wonder out loud if anyone had ever encountered this or is it just me? Was I wrong in supposing I could have an open mind about it all? They all suffer, go insane, they are damaged goods and not in a very inspiring way! And I can only tell from what I've read so far, but boy, it's so incredibly hard for me to identify with your protagonists! There is something wrong there - for me - let there be no mistake, this is just me! But the women? ... Is that why I liked Richard so much? I could endure his pain, he didn't make me mad, he was hurt too, yes, damaged goods like all the others, but I think you loved him. You made him something that your women lack. And I don't know what it is, god knows, if I did I wouldn't be here writing this in the first place! I do, however, feel that these women had suffered far more pain because of your pen, rather than the life they lived. (And I know you have a short story entitled Rape Fantasies, but to avoid this story turning into an angry rant I'm going to evoke salutary neglect on that one.)

"War is what happens when language fails."
from: The Robber Bride

The semester was not over yet. Next up was a series of poems, extracts from The Journals of Susan Moodie to be exact, and it all reminded me of "Landscape" by Florence And The Machine... I've found that strange, but this artist has come to my mind for the second time ever since I've been reading your works - and again due to poems - and she wasn't the only one. Music, lyrics especially kept sneaking up on me in my brain while reading and I would find myself singing. And then came the second short story where the main character was a man, George, in Wilderness Tips. A cunning fox, nevermind Hungarian, but still an exquisite character. I loved George. George made the women around him lovable as well, even the smallest of their quirks became charming, because he was a charmer! Second time a male character - despite being far from perfect - got to my heart in a matter of seconds.
Then I got to know two women and their mom, and while reading The Art of Cooking and Serving and The Boys At The Lab in my ears I could hear the lyrics "Things we lost to the flames / Things we'll never see again / All that we've amassed / Sits before us, shattered into ash." (by Bastille).
And then I realized what you do to me. It was a pleasent feeling, but if I read your work I could hear really music. And when I did, the story in front of me stayed with me. And it was strange, I'll admit, that every review I've read spoke of son, but I saw a daughter - perhaps because I saw myself - narrating the story of her sick father as he tells her about the The Labrador Fiasco. I can't tell you if the story ever said he or she, because I could never read it back. It was too real, like a picture from the future - my future - and I wasn't ready to see it yet. We also read Tricks with Mirrors, which very accurately reflected they way I let the ones I love use me - shamelessly to add - and I heard in my head "When we fall in love/ We're just falling/ In love with ourselves/ We're spiraling" (by Keane), not to mention the Variations on The Word Love, which for me had a very painful tone. Painful, yes, but something I could write myself and then You Made Your Escape and at first I felt that sense of relief when you realize that you are no longer in love, no longer have that unsatiable desire toward someone, who doesn't love you back and-- wait. "(...) nothing/ remembers you but the bruises/ on my thighs and the inside of my skull." ... This is about rape, isn't it? Goddamn it Margaret! NOT AGAIN! It was going so well for the two of us, we didn't fight anymore, we even found our common tone. What happened, I wonder, is it the fear that makes you write about it, or simply the notion that you can? Did you grow up knowing that such taboo should be talked about instead of being swept under the rug? It would be easy to tell me to avoid stories of yours with such content, but how can I? They are everywhere! Or is that the message perhaps? I don't know.

You are no fairy tale, let me tell you that!

Having had an inside look I know what it is about your style that just simply wasn't meant for me. But having written so many things, I'm not afraid to say that I will surely encounter more of your work that I will like. The Dead Hand Loves You is open here by my side right now, and I'm in chapter three in The Handmaid's Tale. However, having started writing this story I couldn't help but wish to dig deeper. I just... I had to know what was it that made it so easy for me to hate you blindly.
Then I got it. And it's stupid, you know? I feel like such a fool for not seeing it. I write myself - and all of them - all of my friends that one summer had my books. I gave it to them. I entrusted them with my work. Some people think it's easy, because I'm outgoing and have a blog and so on. It's not. Stephen King once said that "Fear is the root of all bad writing", and he wasn't lying. You said it in a way yourself in The Blind Assassin "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read". So when I pour my heart out in my work I have to be strong enough to give it to someone else to get some feedback. Because I need the criticism, I know I do, every artist does! And that summer... that summer they all had one book in their hands. All yours. None mine.

"As with all knowledge, once you knew it, 
you couldn't imagine how it was that you hadn't known it before."
from: The Year of the Flood

I'm not sorry for having learned about you, because unlike some professors at my university from other departments who like to pretend they know every author and their every work, I at least had an actual insight. I can now participate in discussions, know where to look for your work, and who to talk to. You have inspired me, I'll admit that proudly, and I will work even harder than before. I will read more from you - might keep it to myself to avoid getting enraged in senseless conversations with people who can't recognize the depth of certain stories - because I can learn from them. As I reach the end of this very story, allow me to quote one last time Mr. King:"If you don't have time to read, you don't have time and the tools to write. Simple as that." And I take that sentence to heart.
_ _ _

And if you, reader, have reached the end of this story, you'll recognize that sometimes we can be hurt by the smallest of things and not realize it. The only thing to do is to try and find the source of that pain - that's the only way to make it stop! And if you just take the amount of work I put into this one story (with the clearly Googled, but very well positioned quotes), maybe you, dear reader, won't tell me off from now on for reading something other than Margaret Atwood.

"I would rather dance as a ballerina, though faultily, than as a flawless clown."
from: Lady Oracle

PS: Can we all agree that if they made a movie out of your life, the actress who portrays you should be Rhea Perlman? Thank you.
_ _ _ _ _

UPDATE (2017.08.10)
I have since realized another mistake my friends made in introducing her... they should have started with an interview, instead of something she wrote. I have begun reading a comic book she was the author of, Angel Catbird, which came out last year, followed by two more additions in 2017. The comic starts with a letter from her and I just laughed and noticed my eyes tearing up and simply put: wanting more. I have spent all summer re-reading her novels and poems and I need to say a lot has changed in my approach to reading her work. Of course, I remember every critique I had and I mostly still have all of them. Nonetheless, when I pick up anything she wrote there is an honest smile on my face and I look forward to reading it. I will stand by everything I wrote up here because it was a journey. Atwood... she reminds me of someone I love, well, loved very much. Reading anything from her simply caused those memories to come back and they hurt like nothing before. But the comic... I have found the comic on my own and it is something I have of Margaret Atwood's that is mine solely with no bad or sad memories attached to it. And that said, it is one of the best graphic novels I had the fortune to read. I recommend it whole heartedly to everyone. 

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