Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (Popular Library, 1972)
availability: in print
This is a book that wanted to be IMPORTANT. It's full of ideas that are important, anyway. Problem is, the characters therein seem as if they're there in order to advance the ideas, instead of the characters driving the novel and the ideas being introduced incidentally to the characters. This, of course, violates the one supremely inviolable rule of literature: the medium, to borrow slightly inaccurately from Mr. McLuhan, is the message. When the message (the theme) overwhelm the medium (the novel, which at its heart must contain at least some kind of conjunetion of plot and character), the work suffers. It is true of music, it is true of art, but most of all it is true of the novel, for a novel whose main goal is to put forth an idea, rather than to give the reader characters with whom s/he can sympathize, is necessarily doomed to fail.
This is not to say that said symapthetic (or antipathetic, certainly) characters cannot advance ideas; sure they can. But for a character to advance an idea in an effective manner, the character MUST be someone that the reader finds believable; otherwise; the novel stops being a novel and becomes a polemic. And that is exactly what we have here: four characters in search of an exit (or, perhaps, an author). None of them is sympathetic; none is well-drawn; none has enough depth to couch the ideas and beliefs that Atwood wants to give them, because their depth lies in those ideas, and it doesn't-- it can't-- work that way.
The main thing that kept me reading, was of course, the Deep Dark Secret(TM). The DDS, in this novel, is held by the main character, a collegiate woman who is in a loveless relationship, divorced and drifting, who goes to search for her missing father in the northern Canadian wilderness. She takes along her boyfriend and another couple with whom said boyfriend is making an experimental film.
There is much about this, reading the above and placing it in its proper timeline, the commands comparison with Don DeLillo's first novel, Americana, published three years previous. Both detail a piece of time in the career of filmmakers; both are obsessed with nationality and how it is seen by outsiders; both have important ideas about life they wish to convey through their subjects. Reading the two side-by-side cannot help but expose the flaws in Surfacing, as DeLillo succeedson every level where Atwood fails; his characters are rich, sympathetic, rather odd creatures who we can't help but enjoy, from opening scene to final downward spiral (and the fact that we feel guilty for enjoying the various minor disasters so much is part of DeLillo's talent); in Surfacing, we're given ideas first, then characters to drive them. We can't enjoy the main character's descent into madness, but we cannot feel distressed by it, either; it simply is.
All that said, the book does have a few redeeming qualities. After an extremely slow beginning, Atwood's writing picks up after the quartet decide to spend a week farther at the remote cabin, and the DDS itself, which comes to us as an onionesque mystery, with layer after layer being peeled off to reveal the rotten center, is quite skillfully handled. In the hands of a more sympathetic character, the climactic scenes of this novel and the quite well-written ending would have been, as the cover
blazons, "shattering." Unfortunately, they aren't, and instead they fall flat. Marvel at the technical skill of the mystery construction, because it's the only thing that will keep you reading.
If I hadn't heard exclusively wonderful things about some of Atwood's other novels, especially The Handmaid's Tale, this would be my last try, but I'll make another attmept in the hope that she improved with time. * 1/2