Reviewed by Zachary Abram
Surfacing. McClelland and Stewart, 1994.
Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, first published in 1972, begins rather generically. The novel’s opening chapters have the earmarks of a conventional mystery story. An unnamed narrator returns to the place of her childhood, rural Quebec, after years away in order to search for her naturalist father, who has gone missing. She is traveling with a disagreeable married couple, David and Anna, and her live-in boyfriend, Joe, about whom the nicest thing she can say is “I’d rather have him around than not” (42). Eventually, the narrative of the missing father fades to the background and the interior life of the protagonist becomes the focus of the novel. The narrator’s search for her father prompts the surfacing of suppressed memories, a traumatic failed relationship, an abortion, et cetera. The group’s journey into northern Quebec echoes Conrad’s journey into the heart of darkness, except the “darkness” refers to the inner-demons of the self, which manifest themselves in a number of surprising ways. Notably, the novel is rife with images of stifled artists and encroaching American cultural hegemony.
Surfacing is parable-like in its structure, representing the pilgrimage of a sensitive woman to enlightenment in a remote setting. Atwood populates her novel with artists who are unable to create. The protagonist is an illustrator of children’s books who cannot make her drawings conform to the folk-tales she has been commissioned to illustrate. The drawings do not conform because, according to the narrator, Canada is not the country best suited for fairy tales: “This isn’t a country of princesses” (54). Her rustic upbringing, remembered ambivalently through flashbacks, results in an abiding pragmatism and a natural skepticism of fantasy. She is not taken in by fairy tale characters but rather annoyed by them because “the stories never revealed the essential things about them, such as… whether their towers or dungeons had bathrooms” (54). This skepticism anticipates a more general distrust of narrative in the novel.
The trip’s male participants, the laconic Joe and cruel David, endeavour to make an experimental film. The protagonist, however, so distrusts representational art that she exposes David and Joe’s film and drops it in the lake. With that act, and the gradual fading of the missing father to the narrative background, Atwood gestures towards one of the central concerns of Surfacing: incredulity toward Grand Narratives. Throughout the novel, artistic expression is stifled and traditional story telling is called into question, “From any rational point of view I am absurd; but there are no longer any rational points of view” (169). The failed quest to find a lost father is the central motif in Surfacing. The father’s elusive nature gives some indication as to Atwood’s opinion of central metaphors. If there is a centre, it certainly cannot hold. The father, as in a fairy tale, is only felt by his absence.
Surfacing can, at times, feel dated. It is the product of an era characterized by a renewed sense of Canadian nationalism. The narrator’s search for her father is haunted by the spectre of encroaching Americanism. The protagonist casts an accusatory eye south of the border and its “Bloody fascist pig yanks” (39). Americans are “like a virus, they get into the brain and take over the cells” (129). An American prospector makes an offer to the protagonist for her father’s land before he has been declared dead. This transaction is water over the dam as far as the narrator is concerned. Canada was sold long ago: “My country, sold or drowned, a reservoir; the people were sold along with the land and the animals” (132). Much of Surfacing takes on an elegiac tone. It is a lament for the inevitable erosion of Canadian values: “Americans, they’re what’s in store for us, what we are turning into” (129).
The novel ends with the narrator immersing herself in nature and hiding from her travelling companions, “Bushed, the trappers call it when you stay in the forest by yourself too long” (60). The only sacred thing in the novel is nature and the “American” violation of it is tantamount to blasphemy. The narrator’s immersion is meant to resist assimilation and victimhood; she vows, “This above all, to refuse to be a victim” (191). This statement could be read as the optimistic epiphany of the novel. In the woods, the narrator achieves some kind of self-definition. That happy ending, however, is hardly congruous with the rest of the novel, which questions whether a coherent identity is achievable. The reader, then, may be left wondering at the novel’s end whether anything has been resolved. The protagonist may have reconciled the disparate impulses of her character so that she can go forward. On the other hand, her “epiphany” may be ironic, meant to serve as a reminder that this world does not allow for self-definition.
At press time: Zachary Abram is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa. He is working toward a dissertation on representations of the Canadian soldier in Canadian war fiction. He is particularly interested in novels written by Canadian veterans in the post-war period. He has contributed to the Journal of Canadian Poetry.