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An Evening with Margaret Atwood

June 10, 2020

With the recent publication of her newest book, Dearly: New Poems, my thoughts have turned to the night five years ago when Margaret Atwood came to town. Here is something I wrote the day after her appearance that February.

“Who is Fuck?” Margaret Atwood reads from her novel, The Year of the Flood. Those asking the question are the Crakers, a band of genetically engineered innocents who address each other with the honorific “Oh.” They are curious about the identity of the one called “Fuck” to whom Jimmy speaks when he stands alone on the beach. Jimmy believes he is one of the last human beings left alive after a plague. “Oh, fuck!” he yells each night as he looks out over the sea. “Oh, fuck!” and the Crakers believe he is addressing someone invisible. “Who is Fuck?” they ask, and that’s when the audience here to see Atwood cracks up.

I am here with four friends, and I wonder how they are responding to the free and frequent use of the word “fuck.” These are not true f-bombs; they are necessary to exemplify both Jimmy’s anguish and frustration and the impossible curiosity and innocence of the Crakers. My companions at the theater are older than I am, and are mannerly to a fault. At least one of us can only be described as prim. We arrived separately and were unable to find seats next to each other, so I do not know if this particular friend is laughing as hard as the rest of the audience.

My friends and I are part of a book club that will soon will be reading Atwood’s Alias Grace. Her appearance here in our little university town is fortuitous. We hope that seeing and listening to her will enhance our appreciation of the novel, or at least of its author. Although we don’t hear anything about Alias Grace, which was published in 1996, we are nevertheless rewarded by a glimpse of Atwood as an author and expert public speaker.

When I first suggested that we read Alias Grace, Jean immediately asked, “What is it about?” I was flummoxed – why not just read a book to find out what it’s “about?” How do you quickly sum up a book that’s 482 pages long? I opted for the sensational. “Well, it’s based on a true story about a sixteen-year-old murderess.” Jean leaned in closer. I went on, “the interesting part is that much of the book is written in first person from the girl’s point of view, and the reader needs to deal with an unreliable narrator. There’s a third-person narrator, too, from another character’s point of view, and we don’t know whether to trust him, either . . .” I trailed off. I’ve never been good at summarizing the aboutness of a novel. Jean nodded slowly, looking a little baffled.

A few minutes later, Mary Alice, who had been chatting with Debbie and Connie when Jean had asked her question, posed the same question: “What is Alias Grace about?” I sighed and replied, “Well, it’s kind of complicated. The narrative time is different from the story’s time.” “Oh, dear,” Mary Alice frowned. “I like books that are easy to follow. They’re so much easier to read, don’t you think?” I shrugged a little, and nodded vaguely. “I like a little challenge,” I ventured, hoping Mary Alice would at least sample the book. “Sometimes it’s good to exercise the brain,” I added. Debbie and Connie agreed.

I mentioned that I still had the copy of the book I’d used as an undergrad, and I said that I was thrilled to find how marked up it was. “Lots of notes and underlining,” I said, feeling pleased. I thought the notations would come in handy when it came time to discuss the book the following month. Connie looked concerned.  “I haven’t had to read that closely since college. I’m not sure I can still read that way.” The discussion then turned to the relative merits of various electronic reading devices, and I was off the hook.

Prior to Atwood’s reading from The Year of the Flood, there was an interview by a professor from the English department at the university. Atwood was in good form, her every response to the professor’s questions sharp and irreverent. The audience hung on her every word, and we were rewarded by Atwood’s insight as well as her wit. It was the reading, however, that brought down the house.

It will be a month before I can ask my friends what they thought of Atwood’s talk and reading. I am curious to learn if they were as entertained as I was, and whether they enjoyed seeing the author behind the book we will be discussing at book club.

February 3, 2015


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