Margaret Atwood, 1988
the fortieth book in the visitor
I read this book last spring but am only getting around to writing about it now that the fall semester of my teacher credentialing program has ended (and while I should be doing my lesson planning for spring semester). Perhaps ironically, given that I’m going through the process of qualifying to teach literature, I’ve read very little fiction over the past few months; most of what little time I’ve had to read has of necessity been directed toward pedagogy textbooks. One of the most interesting of these was not actually assigned in any of my six classes—I found it lying on a table in my mentor teacher’s classroom and read it on the train over the course of the next couple of days. That book was called Critical Encounters in Secondary English, and in it author Deborah Appleman calls for high school teachers to broaden the approaches to literature they present to students to include interpretive lenses more commonly found at the collegiate level: feminism, Marxism, deconstruction, etc. To those who reply that literary theory would go way over the heads of most high school students, Appleman points out that high school teachers already present their students with literary theory—they just don’t call it that, and may not even be aware of the theoretical underpinnings of their own teaching. But in fact recent years have seen a sea change in the theory behind classroom practice. Consider these lines from Hamlet (1.3), in which Laertes urges his sister Ophelia not to succumb to Hamlet’s romantic overtures:
[…] Perhaps he loves you now,
A standard exercise in a traditional high school classroom would be to do a close reading of these lines, starting by ascertaining their literal meaning. Laertes tells Ophelia that Hamlet may genuinely love her now, but since Hamlet is a prince, he can’t choose his own bride. The future of Denmark might depend on averting a war or sealing an alliance by arranging an advantageous royal marriage, and so Hamlet’s feelings for a courtier’s daughter, even if they are real, are irrelevant. In this context, the word “yielding” means assent, and the “body” in question is the Danish nation, or at least its government. And yet it’s no accident that in a speech in which Laertes is trying to convince Ophelia not to give up her virginity to Hamlet, the phrase “the yielding of that body” is right there on the page. The way that the language works on multiple levels is super interesting! Or at least, it’s interesting to me and to the sort of people who become English teachers. But it does not necessarily enthrall students. So around the time I graduated high school myself, some of your hipper teachers started to mix things up by explicitly drawing connections between literary texts and students’ own lives. In the case of the passage above, the discussion question of the day might be, “Have you ever been pressured not to date someone?” This sort of thing may seem like the furthest thing from literary theory, Appleman writes, but there is a name for it—it’s reader‐response criticism. It emerged in the 1960s as a direct challenge to the formalist close‐reading approach illustrated above, which had dominated at the collegiate level since the 1930s and which remains the prevailing method in high schools. This old‑fashioned approach also has a name: New Criticism.
This raised an obvious question back when I was studying literary theory as an undergrad: if all this new theory, from reader‐response to poststructuralism to cultural studies, is a response to New Criticism, then… what was the Old Criticism? The answers I got to this question at the time were surprisingly handwavey, but once the Internet became a thing and it became exponentially easier to pursue these sorts of inquiries, I learned that back in the day there were three dominant forms of literary analysis that were more or less swept away by the rise of New Criticism. One was philology, which attempted to deepen understanding of a work by digging into the etymologies its words and resolve discrepancies among differing versions (such as the quarto and folio editions of Shakespeare). Another has been called aestheticism, romanticism, or just plain literary appreciation, that is, the attempt to celebrate the greatness of a work by demonstrating how the author’s techniques create passages of ineffable beauty. And then there was biographical criticism, which remains in such disfavor that in the instructions for the final project in my curriculum class—collaborating with a partner (hi Kylie!) to craft a unit lasting at least four weeks—the professor wrote, in boldface, “DO NOT begin your unit with a biography of the author” and “DO NOT begin your unit with a history of the time in which it was written”, and then, in all caps, “I DO NOT EXPECT TO SEE A UNIT THAT INCLUDES A SHAKESPEARE PLAY BEGIN WITH ‘THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.’”
Cat’s Eye, written by a forest entomologist’s daughter who went on to an accomplished career in the arts, is about a forest entomologist’s daughter who goes on to an accomplished career in the arts. Her name is Elaine Risley. That is, the character’s name is Elaine Risley. The author’s name is Margaret Atwood. Because this book is by Margaret Atwood, and it begins like this—
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once.
—I kept waiting for the sci‑fi part to start. It turns out that there is no sci‑fi part. This is a totally standard Künstlerroman, because after the Germans came up with a word for “coming‑of‑age novel about an artist” the anglophones didn’t bother to come up with one of their own. As always when I read a book that is essentially a fictional memoir in which nothing really extraordinary happens—when the protagonist could have been picked out of the phone book—I found it hard not to speculate that the author’s investment in telling this story is that it is to a great extent her own. And it turns out that Cat’s Eye is, in large part, a meditation on the autobiographical nature of art.
That’s not all there is to it. Much of the book takes a close look at the distinctive ways that girls bully each other both in childhood and adolescence. It’s also one of those Pattern 24 stories I like so much, where setting plays a big role: it’s not about growing up, it’s about growing up in mid‑20th‐century Canada. But that just brings me right back to the book’s central theme—not a particularly revolutionary one, what with Freud already being a thing, but better rendered here than in Freud: that we never do fully grow up, that part of us is always, as Elaine puts it, “nine years old forever”. The world as we come to understand it in childhood remains the world that part of us still lives in no matter how things change, and whatever anxieties then consumed us we continue to work through for the rest of our lives—through our art, if we’re artists. Here’s how Elaine responds to an “upsettingly young” interviewer who asks her to talk about her generation of woman artists:
“What generation is that?”
“The seventies, I suppose,” she says. “That’s when the women’s—that’s when you started getting attention.”
“The seventies isn’t my generation,” I say.
She smiles. “Well,” she says, “what is?”
“The forties?” This is archaeology as far as she’s concerned. “But you couldn’t have been…”
“That was when I grew up,” I say.
“Oh right,” she says. “You mean it was formative. Can you talk about the ways, how it reflects in your work?”
“The colours,” I say. “A lot of my colours are forties colours.” I’m softening up. At least she doesn’t say like and you know all the time. “The war. There are people who remember the war and people who don’t. There’s a cut‑off point, there’s a difference.”
“You mean the Viet Nam War?” she says.
“No,” I say coldly. “The Second World War.” She looks a bit scared, as if I’ve just resurrected from the dead, and incompletely at that. She didn’t know I was that old.
I can see how this passage could be a turnoff: “grumpy author writes book about how these dayglo‐haired whippersnappers ask bad interview questions” does not sound like a compelling read. But speaking as a grumpy author, I found it pretty relatable. I totally get how “How did you choose your palette for this painting?” is an interesting question to answer and “Say something about your generation of artists” is not. (For one thing, it’s not even a question.) Making art is an exercise in continuous problem‐solving, a tree of choices and sub‐choices ranging from “What is the theme of this story?” to “Should I add another comma to the fifteenth sentence on page 342?” that can take years to traverse. It’s very absorbing if you’re into that sort of thing. When I was asked to give a talk about interactive fiction at UC Santa Cruz a few years ago, the topic I chose was how I designed the magic system for Endless, Nameless—because that is an interesting story. But back when people used to ask me for interviews, they never asked about that, or how I designed the golf courses in Textfire Golf, or how Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret found its way into Narcolepsy. Instead, they would ask things like “How does the latest interactive fiction compare to the latest graphical adventure games?” and “How is interactive fiction treated by the mainstream games press?” and “Will interactive fiction ever be commercially viable again?” to which my answers were the verbal equivalent of shrug emoticons. Those are questions to ask a trade journalist, not an author, or at least not this author. At least the fact that I am not female spared me the questions about how I balance my work with my family life.
But even more than the disconnect between Elaine and the interviewer, I was struck by that between Elaine and Charna, her contact at the gallery doing a career retrospective about her. We have spent the past few hundred pages learning about the people who have haunted Elaine’s mental landscape since she was a child, and here they are in her paintings surrounded by the symbols Elaine associates with them… and what does Charna make of this sacred autobiographical iconography? “A jeu d’esprit which takes on the Group of Seven and reconstructs their vision of landscape in the light of contemporary experiment and postmodern pastiche.” “Risley continues her disconcerting deconstruction of perceived gender and its relationship to perceived power, especially in respect to numinous imagery.” Elaine has an older brother, Stephen; they are not particularly close, but he was more ally than rival when they were kids. As an adult, he becomes an accomplished physicist whose life is cut short when he is randomly killed by hijackers, thrown off the plane to his death to prove that they are serious. Here is how Elaine describes the painting she does in his honor:
The third picture is called One Wing. I painted it for my brother, after his death.
It’s a triptych. There are two smaller, flanking side panels. In one is a World War Two airplane, in the style of a cigarette card; in the other is a large pale‑green luna moth. In the larger, central panel, a man is falling from the sky. That he is falling and not flying is clear from his position, which is almost upside‑down, slantwise to the few clouds; nevertheless he appears calm. He is wearing a World War Two RCAF uniform. He has no parachute. In his hand is a child’s wooden sword.
This is the kind of thing we do, to assuage pain.
Charna thinks it’s a statement about men, and the juvenile nature of war.
This is heartbreaking. Here Elaine is trying to pay tribute to her murdered brother by sharing with the world what he meant to her, and ain’t nobody care. They turn her painting into a track on which to run their own hobbyhorses. Of course, one could argue that this is inevitable. Elaine isn’t telling her audience straight out about the role Stephen played in her life, the way she tells us; what she shares is cryptic. Viewers can only interact with the work before them, and so naturally what they come away with will be the interaction of that work with their own minds, not with the mind that produced it. Now jump out a level. In the same book in which her narrator makes the case for autobiography as the key to the meaning of a work, Margaret Atwood makes a point of declaring in the indicia that “This is a work of fiction. Although its form is that of an autobiography, it is not one.” Then she doubles down: “The opinions expressed are those of the characters and should not be confused with the author’s.” And so, with the author’s life off limits and only the book to interact with, here I am running my own hobbyhorses over it—the hobbyhorses of someone who wrote a novel that reads like an autobiography but is not one, in which the opinions expressed are those of the characters and not to be confused with the author’s… and yet one in which basically every line carries some kind of personal meaning.
Again, one could argue all of that, and I can’t really disagree with any of it. But I also can’t disagree with this:
A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person—perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.
That’s from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, a book that I have called the foundation stone of my brain. It was published in 1980, or about fifty years after academia dismissed the notion that writing could have this kind of power. But I think the passage holds up pretty well (though the tree is now optional). See, I don’t know why Margaret Atwood wrote Cat’s Eye. But I wrote my book in hopes of making the sorts of connections that Carl Sagan describes. I’d spent my life wondering whether anyone out there was on the same page as me, so I figured that the logical way to find out would be to write that page. To say something to the world at large and see whether anyone replied, hey, that spoke to me! But such a project depends on a framework in which, bracketing the connections between narrators and narratees, and between implied authors and implied readers, are connections between real authors and real readers—yet the chief project of literary scholarship from the New Criticism onward has been to erase creators from our own work. The field has been dominated by theorists proclaiming the death of the author (in articles with their names on them), attempting to sever the connection between one mind and another in favor of a solipsistic connection between a reader and an object. So it’s no wonder that Elaine ends up feeling superfluous, even suicidal. “I can no longer control these paintings, or tell them what to mean,” she reflects. “Whatever energy they have came out of me. I’m what’s left over.” Similarly, modern education is supposed to be about giving students the space to construct their own meanings, not directing them towards any meanings the teacher has identified, and certainly not granting any privilege to that incidental afterthought, the author. And so it is that when you teach the works that William Shakespeare painstakingly scratched out on parchment with a quill pen, mourning his son, carrying on feuds, trying to transmute his life and times into words, the one forbidden topic of discussion is the life and times of William Shakespeare.
(But when your future employment depends on getting a good grade in a class, it is best not to disobey instructions in boldface and all caps. So Kylie and I began our Hamlet unit with a screening of the movie “Skwerl”.)