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?