The Canadian Bush

The August 16 /23 Times Literary Supplement arrived, the top half of the cover visible under the plastic sleeve, and one immediately recognized, merely from the eyes peering out from just above the fold, the mandarin gaze of Margaret Atwood. A curiously Chinese face, like Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s. What the suave prime minister and the preternaturally clever entomologist’s daughter also shared was an attitude toward the Canadian wilderness. The politician and the doyenne of Canadian letters alike called into being, as it were, by Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality,” an implicit frontier thesis, ironical, detached, elitist, so very different from the American one, for people who disliked and mistrusted the United States and were disliked and mistrusted in return. Perhaps not so much even a frontier thesis—the frontier in the American sense is a process of repeated renewal and self-invention—rather a wilderness thesis, a bush thesis, a narrative of clinging to the edges of forbidden zones.

Pierre Trudeau’s birchbark canoe

Behind the cover the TLS printed a gushing review of Maddaddam, the third in Atwood’s dystopian fantasy trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake.

I am no more likely to read this new book than I was most of her other books. Picking each of them up as they appeared, occasionally buying one, dipping at random, reading paragraphs here and there, I found myself arrested by sentences. The ones I chanced to light upon by this method all seemed to have the same qualities: long, wordy, striving toward the aphoristic, the quotable, the smart—but pedestrian, tone-deaf. Then this thing: a hook or catch or fillip in mid-sentence for which I tried to think of a name, something not quite rising to irony. Sardonic? Sarcastic? Smart-aleck, maybe. The Atwood voice is smart-aleck, the Atwood sentence a smart-aleck sentence.  The prospect of a whole book made up of such sentences wore one down even to think about.

Guiltily, as Atwood became an institution, someone everyone read or claimed to have read. One could not be immune to her glamour, her sheer power as a public personality. I saw her once, on a Delta flight from Toronto to Dallas. We were the only two in the boarding lounge that day. The plane was otherwise empty. I told the flight attendant she had a famous Canadian writer on board, not knowing what else to do. Atwood was met on arrival by a committee of young women, English majors from Southern Methodist. I felt relieved of a responsibility, as if one had been trapped in an elevator with royalty.

The one exception to my non-reading of Margaret Atwood happened during an extended stay in Wales some years ago. I was writing the novel that became Luggas Wood and I had signed on to a creative writing course—an experience which figures in the novel. Penny and I went along to some sessions of a reading group in a local pub. They were tough critics; they didn’t like Andrea Levy’s Small Island, then just published. One of the books they all said they had liked, however, was Cat’s Eye. We borrowed a copy from the Monmouthshire lending library.

A Canadian painter finds a forgotten talisman, a cat’s eye, among the marbles she and her brother had played with as children, and remembers . . . well . . . everything. That is what I remember about the novel, the sensation of total recall of the objects and textures of childhood. My childhood too, it should be said—Atwood and I are the same age. Memory without imagination or forgiveness or even real anger. A synthetic quality. Complaints and nostalgias for childhood in all their specificity and rancour and tediousness. Self-pity, fear of death, disappointment, a certain morbid preoccupation with the body. We are invited, for the sake of this glum journey, to make allowances, accept the clichés and lazy diction and the flat voice, stretching across eternities of self-regard and banality and pointless documentary realism. A form of authenticity. A trip into the Canadian bush.