There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Review: The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my honours class students were urged to explore various readings of The Odyssey and especially Penelope's place: Does Penelope know Odysseus when he returns in the disguise of a beggar? Both readings are possible, but perhaps the professor's leaning toward the affirmative was influenced by Atwood's Penelopiad. For a first-person telling, Penelope actually gets less on-stage speech than she does in the Odyssey. She's still notable for frequently dissolving into tears, and constantly lives in the insecure shade cast by her cousin Helen's beauty and allure. However, the novel certainly presents alternate readings to the patriarchal narrative of the Odyssey, such as the less supernatural possibilities of Odysseus' legend -- the Cyclops as one-eyed tavern keeper, the palace of Circe as an expensive whorehouse, or Odysseus' "underworld" as an "old cave full of bats". It's the variety of readings Atwood allows for that gives the work power: Penelope as narrator, and the twelve hanged maids as chorus, dance between making this a story of love or lust, female betrayal or solidarity.

Atwood's choice to have Penelope tell this story into modern times makes for some memorable moments, such as when she declares that spirits have "been able to infiltrate the new ethereal-wave system that now encircles the globe, and to travel around that way, looking out at the world through the flat, illuminated surfaces that serve as domestic shrines". Equally disturbing is "The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture, Presented by: The Maids". The argument for the slaughter of the maids as the displacement of the Great Mother cult by a patriarchal figure is interesting, but finishes off suggesting (as does the end of Atwood's Handmaid's Tale) that academia may be a way to not "have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol."

Altogether, this is a disturbingly ambiguous and hence brilliant work of strongly crafted intertextuality. It's not plot-based, and the chorus sections are more about artistry and construction of meanings than about formation of new story. Despite some ambivalence about intellectualism and the distancing power of readings, it's a highly intellectual work that will prove most satisfactory to those who have closely read The Odyssey. Because I give so many works four stars I was going to give this three, but I am forced to give it four and acknowledge that I hope to someday gain much by another and closer reading of this text in conjunction with The Odyssey.

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