To Teach and Delight

  • J. Brooks Bouson
    Margaret Atwood: The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake. Continuum
Reviewed by Danette DiMarco

As part of the Continuum Studies in Contemporary North American Fiction, J. Brooks Bouson’s edited collection includes essays considering female villainy, male violence against women, female self-sacrifice, genre crossings, narrative multiplicity, and scientific and corporate violence against the natural world.

Bouson, who identifies Atwood as “part trickster, illusionist, and con artist” and an “author-ethicist with a finely honed sense of moral responsibility,” has selected essays of scope and depth that showcase the interesting interpretive possibilities available to readers engaging in close examinations of Atwood’s works. The essays—nested in a three-part structure with one section devoted to each novel—confirm Atwood’s ability “to teach and delight,” “for to [her] a text is ‘alive’ if it can not only grow but ‘change’ through its interactions with readers.”

Part 1, The Robber Bride, considers Zenia’s shifting significance. Bouson explains this cohesive choice in the context of Atwood’s own vision of Zenia, a “psychic projection” of the novel’s main female characters Tony, Charis, and Roz. Sharon R. Wilson identifies Zenia as “a magical realist character,” another indication of how the technique, narrative mode, and genre has “permeated” Atwood’s works, although this fact is “largely ignored by critics.” Hilde Staels describes Zenia as a “female trickster” and “trickster artist.” Zenia transgresses gender boundaries established by the dominant culture and serves as a manifestation of Atwood’s own parodic genre crossings to “liberate literary genres from rigidified conventions.” Laurie Vickroy, meanwhile, understands Zenia as a necessary “symbolic challenge” in the lives of the female trio who must confront her, and by extension their childhood traumas, to overcome “their urge for vengeance and destructive power.”

Part 2, The Blind Assassin, shifts critical exploration of “female badness” to “female goodness.” Fiona Tolan, recognizing Atwood’s “fractious relationship with feminism,” especially second-wave, rights-based feminism, argues that Iris’ narrative is fraught with tensions regarding sisterly collectivity and individualism. Magali Cornier Michael examines the complexity of Iris’ narrative as evidence of Iris’ multi-dimensionality. Iris’ appropriation of combined generic forms, once unavailable to a woman of her class in Canada in the earlier decades of the twentieth century, “form[s] a textual version” of her that will “be the multilayered self she can offer her granddaughter and the world.” This discussion of narrative depth broadens to include a proliferation of novelistic phototexts in Shuli Barzilai’s essay. Barzilai reveals the greater purpose for photographic ekphrasis in discussing the detective story and elegy. Phototexts serve as clues and resolution in the former and as remembrance in the latter.

The final section, Oryx and Crake, explores “humanist and posthumanist concerns.” The novel fictionalizes scientific and corporate violence done against the natural world. Reading Oryx and Crake through the lens of Atwood’s critical work Payback, Shannon Hengen calls attention to the “insurmountable debt to nature” that humans have accumulated. Atwood’s new cross-disciplinary discourse includes religious study, and although at odds with her past voice, it is an avenue back to “traditional wisdom” and provides an “ethical vocabulary” that science has erased. Karen Stein also critiques an out-of-balance scientific world, comparing Crake with Victor Frankenstein, and argues that as “trickster-scientist[s]” both lack empathy because of their faith in reason and science. Finally, Mark Bosco situates the novel squarely in an eschatological tradition of “oracular literary texts in Western culture” that raises questions about end times. It incites responses about the future by “impel[ling] the reader to act, to direct the future by transforming the here and now.”

This volume, like the author it discusses, teaches and delights while contributing to Atwood scholarship.

This review “To Teach and Delight” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 153-54.

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