I recently purchased the novel Cat’s Eye on the basis of its $4.98 sale price and its author Margaret Atwood, whose novels The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale have captivated me with their universal themes and strange, otherworldly settings.
Cat’s Eye is not a science fiction book, but Atwood’s penchant for the wild and surreal shines through in her exploration of the central character’s consciousness, raising questions about the power of childhood imagination and adult memory, as well as the fluid, fleeting nature of identity.
Elaine Risley is a painter who reluctantly returns to her native city of Toronto to attend a retrospective of her work. Written from Elaine’s perspective but alternating between different incarnations of Elaine at different ages, the narrator is what an English teacher might call unreliable: young Elaine knows things that old Elaine has forgotten; old Elaine has the advantage of hindsight and the burden of more stubborn biases. Only the reader has full access to Elaine’s disassembled story.
The youngest version of Elaine is a tomboy, content to follow her older brother Stephen as the family treks through the forests of Northern Canada in their “boat-sized Studebaker,” guided by the caterpillar studies of her biologist father and defined by a milieu of motels, canned food, pine trees, and car trips. Her mother is outdoorsy and “wild.” From a young age, her brother broods about a fourth, time-space dimension and grows up to be a physicist.
Elaine’s reverence for her older brother is broadcast in endearingly childlike terms, i.e.,“‘his only weakness that I knows of is his tendency to get carsick,’” evoking the short-lived purity of childhood sibling friendship. Atwood also touches on the existential thoughts that children experience: when the family is living in an abandoned campground, Elaine adopts an outsider’s view of her parents: “‘I see my parents, in through the window, sitting beside the kerosene lamp, and they are like a faraway picture with a frame of blackness. It’s disquieting to look at them, in through the window, and know that they don’t know I can see them. It’s as if I don’t exist, or as if they don’t.’”
This gives way to a slightly older Elaine, wishing for “friends who will be girls, girl friends, [she] know[s] that these exist, having read about them in books…” The family settles down in Toronto, and Elaine is forced to navigate female friendships that prove baffling and cruel. Twin sets, household appliances, and exclusive lines at recess overtake and delineate her old, tomboy-ish world. The characters Carol, Grace, and Cordelia jointly attempt to “improve” Elaine, described with watchful, desperate immediacy by the young narrator:
“‘It’s one of her friendly days; she puts her arm through my arm, her other arm through Grace’s, and we march along the street, singing We don’t stop for anybody. I sing this too. Together we hop and slide. Some of the euphoria I once felt in falling snow comes back to me; I want to open my mouth and let the snow fall into it. I allow myself to laugh, like the others, trying it out. My laughter is a performance, a grab at the ordinary.’”
Elaine’s fastidious efforts toward social acceptance continue: she earnestly imitates her friend Grace’s religious zeal and submits to humiliating dares. This culminates in a near-death experience at the bottom of a steep ravine. The extent of their cruelty, and a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a cat’s eye, finally liberate her from the need to fit in.
The contrasting worlds of Elaine’s childhood — her nomadic family versus cruel, small town cliques — converge when Elaine becomes an artist. She gains admission into a drawing class on the basis of her sketches of plant and insect life. A few years later, she gains critical acclaim through surreal depictions of small town life, painting visual cues of the fear, bitterness, and contempt that she felt.
My favorite parts were the narration by the child version of Elaine. The earnestness and determination of her voice reminded me of the recent movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, and its heartbreaking, vulnerable, headstrong protagonist, how the minds of children are fertile grounds for storytelling.
[Photo: “DIY Margaret Atwood Mask,” Christos Tsirbas’ photostream]