Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Disregarding plot character etc for a moment, this book succeeds as an amazing piece of descriptive writing. The rural Canadian village and island cabin of the nameless protagonist’s youth is well realized and vivid. The air feels wet, the mosquitoes buzz. I was equal parts eager to visit, and creeped out by the place. There is a sinister bent that runs through the novel’s setting.

The plot is simple: Late 20s, unreliable narrator returns to her childhood home with her pathetic friends in search of the missing father she has not seen in many years. The setup is reminiscent of Winter’s Bone (the movie, never read the book), but the plot is secondary to the main character’s increasing confusion/disillusionment with her city life and friends and delusive reflection on her ex-husband. Also madness. A disproportionate amount of books I have read by a woman about a woman seem to involve madness.

I spent a significant chunk of this book thinking the protagonist was too smart to hang around these stupid men. The last fourth or so of the book clears this up a little, or makes it more believable as the narrator unravels, but no one is particularly sympathetic in this book and her boyfriend and the accompanying couple are terrible, to themselves and each other. It’s clever because it feels vaguely over the top yet they are still believable and useful to the societal and gender issues key to the books thematic exploration. But anyway, it’s not just thematic. Plot wise, the main character needs to be a victim before she can self-actualize and realize that purposely making herself powerless is just an excuse she uses to pretend her actions can’t hurt anyone.

That’s the key takeaway from the novel, I think; not that running away from a banal, self-and-other destructive society to a primal, unspoiled retreat would be swell, but that the latter is a pointless gesture and probably not much less (if any) harmful than the former. And as evidenced by the “stupid Americans” of the novel, the latter does not exist anyway.

This is the second Atwood novel I have read. The Handmaid’s Tale was the first, and I wasn’t blown away there. I liked Surfacing much more and thought the writing was excellent. Atwood’s detached, cold writing really shines here with her detached, cold protagonist in her detached, cold setting.

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The Vorrh by B. Catling

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Alan Moore loves this book. His praise is all over the front and back covers and it begins with a few page introduction where he raves about how fantastic the Vorrh is — how it is the best fantasy novel of this century thus far, how it enlivens a stale genre full of wizards and dragons, how superbly written it is, etc etc. These sort of introductions are always problematic, especially for unproven novels, as they heighten expectations and when they don’t live up to them, you feel let down rather than surprised a book you never heard of was actually pretty good. The Vorrh isn’t bad, but it’s not nearly as excellent or groundbreaking as Moore claims and fantasy hasn’t been merely about wizards and dragons in a very long time though it is frustratingly limited at times.

The Vorrh is a massive, primal forest in Africa (unfortunately described as a single monolithic entity and not a large multi-culture continent here) that apparently originates in Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa and may or may not contain the Garden of Eden amongst other things. The novel itself follows several disparate threads / characters that slowly begin to converge within the titular forest during the middle and last thirds of the novel, though they do not come fully together and some threads barely meet at all all.

I don’t mind this sort of structure, a great plot is not essential, and some of my favorite novels follow it. It does require two things however:

1. An author who is a skilled craftsperson at the prose-level. They can write.

2. Compelling and interesting characters that the reader enjoys following even if the overarching plot is sparse.

For the first requirement, Catling largely succeeds. His writing isn’t quite the caliber Alan Moore describes, but it is still better-than-genre-average and he does creeping horror very well. The best parts of the book include a side-story involving stillborn babies and the doctor who first diagnosed anorexia. The descriptions of The Vorrh itself are also stellar. Additionally, the book has that difficult to analyze page-turner quality. I read it pretty quick for a big, bulky 500 page novel.

The problem comes with number 2. None of the characters are particularly likeable. Some of this is by design. The real life photographer Edweard Muybridge is the best character, and also a total prick. But for the most part, none of them are very compelling. The cyclops, Ishmael, is the worst. He is bland as all hell, and his storyline is boring for a significant chunk of the book. The rest are largely forgettable and some of the fates they meet are sort of bewildering (not in the good way) or shrug-worthy.

On top of that, the women are all miserable characters and all the noteworthy ones have sex with the main male characters. And having sex with them is why they are important to the plot. In fact, the only real point-of-view women in the novel have sex with same male character. And the only black woman (remember this takes place in Africa…) who gets any characterization at all is both mute and like, savagely sexual.

So ultimately, it has its moments and isn’t terribly written but I’d only recommend it with major reservations. It’s part of a trilogy and I am not sure if I would read future installments.

Thanks to Green Apple Books in San Francisco for stocking this. Even if I did not love it, it was interesting and somewhat unique and it’s good to support independent presses.