Monday, March 03, 2008

Odysseus and Telemachus Snuff the Maids

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 2 Number 3

Sometimes I love Margaret Atwood, and sometimes I loathe her. Kind of like how I feel about Madonna. Like or not, though, it must be admitted that she has a way with words.

The Penelopiad is hyped as a retelling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus' wife, a model of constancy and longsuffering. The reality is a bit different, though: the book is less a retelling and more a criticism. It's a revisionist biography of a rather conceited woman left alone, weaving an eternal shroud not so much out of cleverness itself, as out of the idea of her cleverness.

Atwood is a feminist - that's not news. What's unfortunate is that the baby has obviously been chucked straight out with the bathwater. Atwood's Penelope, stripped of the virtues with which Homer imbues her, doesn't even seem to love Odysseus. She's bored, and wants him back, but her main concern seems to be that she wants to be rescued from the suitors' depradations to her home and wealth. This is an ironic theme for a feminist writer to take.

It seems the character of Penelope was not really enough to keep Atwood interested. She has expanded her focus to include the twelve maids that Telemachus and Odysseus killed along with the suitors on their return to Ithaca. In fact, Atwood is so concerned with these maids and the motivation for their murder that she uses them as a classical chorus for the narrative. Amusingly, the chorus is a quirky blend of epic-style commentary and vaudeville chorus-line, sometimes reciting grave poetry and sometimes kicking their heels and singing

Here's a health to our Captain, so gallant and free,

Whether stuck on a rock or asleep 'neath a tree,

Or rolled in the arms of some nymph of the sea,

Which is where we would all like to be, man!

It's all wonderfully demented.

A few of the characters are well-drawn, if clearly caricatured. The maids are bland, on the whole, although Atwood gives them some lovely bits of poetry to say in their chorus-lines. Some of the old women are hilarious, and I quite enjoyed the scenes set in the afterlife, where Penelope now is and from whence she narrates the story.

The book is short. Huge chunks of time fall away unnoticed - twenty years pass in what seems like just a few pages. The character of Penelope really doesn't change at all throughout the book, except for early transitions from childhood to adulthood, and the development of a certain cynicism shortly after her marriage. It's too bad, because I feel that something remarkable could have been done with the story if the author had taken the time to flesh it out - dig a little deeper.

I was disappointed with Atwood's feminism in this book. I found it a little dated. I thought to myself at several points, "She hasn't come very far from her Handmaid's Tale days, has she?" I admit, though, that Chapter xxv - which acts as, but is not situated appropriately to actually be an epilogue - is genius: "The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture presented by The Maids". It's interesting and funny, sarcastic and faintly outraged, rather like The Mists of Avalon on speed.

Thus possibly our rape and subsequent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians.

Overall, this book felt rushed, and afterthought-ish. It is part of the Canongate Myth Series, a project focussed on rewriting ancient myths from a modern perspective, and my impression was that Atwood was simply getting her part of the job done.

As I said, I either love her books or loathe them. I marvel that one author can consistently polarise my reaction to her work, and I give her credit for having the ability to incite either my wholehearted admiration or my unmitigated disgust. In this case, I think I'll have to invent a new category. I guess you could call this category Unmet Potential, or Is Your Horse-flogging Arm Getting Tired, Margaret?


lizbon said...

Heh. My reaction to Atwood is far simpler than yours: I loathe her, full stop.

I did, however, enjoy this book review. It makes me wonder whether she's succumbing, somewhat, to the temptation for a successful, famous writer to just phone it in once in a while. Not having read it (and not planning to, for reasons made obvious in my first full sentence, above), I can't openly charge her with that. But you might be able to.

Shan said...

Nicely put. "phone it in once in a while".

kate said...

As usual a great book review, well thought out and presented.

I think my reaction to Atwood is more akin to yours than Lizbon's, but I wonder if some of that is because I studied her in Canadian Lit and so there is a certain affinity? That said, I haven't read her in a long time, and don't particularly have any desire to. Her work started to have a bleak/hard sameness about it that turned me off.

Your description of the final chapter sounds interesting, though.

Joyful Fox said...

O.K Shan,

Forget the blog, become a critic and review books.

Get paid for it. You're good!

Don't like Atwood, but appreciate the review.


Shan said...

Joyful Fox, if you know any magazine or newspaper editors, or whoever is in charge of these things, hook me up!

Kate - "bleak/hard sameness" is spot-on. But I am 100% behind The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

Dave Hingsburger said...

OK, I'll admit to being an Atwood fan. Her book 'Cats Eye' being amongst my favourite books. Although, I've never read her. I've always listened to her on tape (cd) in the car on long drives. Her style seems to lend itself to being read aloud (which is the biggest compliment I can give a writer). This book though seems to be part of the 'cutesy' movement of cleaning up classics for the modern (?) sensibility ... I never read that kind of book. Leave fairy tales alone, we don't really DON'T need a fresh perspective of Little Red Ridinghood.

Again, another great review.

Dave Hingsburger said...

And I so don't agree with Joyful Fox ... don't forget the blog, this is were we all, who are devoted you little 'Shan' moments come to be refreshed.

Tabatha said...

Yes, please continue to blog! Though I am getting a bit of a complex - golly you are brilliant! I love your reviews.


Shan said...

Dave - "cleaning up the classics", so right.

Tabatha, now I'm all confused and embarrassed.

Olga said...

The companion( if you want to look at it that way) to Hand maids tale is the book The Gate to Womens Country( I think) by Sherri Tipper( I think-been awhile,ok? ) She has written a few thought provoking stories, but to say I out right like them, meh. These women seem to be old school feminazi types. Well, to me anyhow.