FEATURE MARGARET ATWOOD
eldom has the outrageous splendour of villainy been so magniﬁcently realised in female form as in Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Robber Bride. Zenia, the eponymous scruple-free con-woman who returns from the dead to 1990 Toronto to torment three once-friends once more, is badness incarnate. A mercurial Machiavellian femme fatale who, ﬁrst time around, stole their men and their money, expertly exploited their weak spots, lied, manipulated. used, abused, discarded and moved on to her next victim. And now, ﬁve years after her supposed death, she’s back . . .
As you’d expect from Atwood, this is no straightforward moral fable — Zenia’s a wrong ’un, all right, but her power over Tony (Antonia), R02 and Charis depends, the novel suggests, on her embodiment of malevolent impulses lurking latent in each’s psyche. She is both their fears and their fantasies made ﬂesh, a slippery, beguiling mix of archetype and projection, wish-fulﬁlment and myth. ‘What is she doing here, on this side of the mirror?’ wonders Tony, appalled, when Zenia ﬁrst re- appears.
‘I don’t think the con-artist can get across your threshold unless you’re susceptible to what that person has to offer; there has to be a transaction in mind,’ says Atwood, widely regarded as Canada’s greatest living writer in the strength of novels such as The Handmaid ’s Tale and Cat’s Eye. ‘Zenia is our shadow. and as we know from reading E. T. A. Hoffmann, if
One of the novel’s many triumphs is the swiftness and thoroughness with which Atwood implicates us, the reader, in Zenia’s power, too: she is an irresistibly compelling ﬁgure, and as you read of her dastardly deeds, disapproval is tinged not only with admiring awe, but with irrepressible impish glee. The desire to explore the charisma of transgression. in fact, was one of Atwood’s starting-points for the novel. ‘We’ve been thinking on this for centuries,’ she says. ‘There’s Blake’s comment on how Milton was “of the Devil’s part” when he wrote Paradise Lost; in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae, the good brother is boring, the bad brother is a fascinating rascal and everybody loves him - why are these people attractive in ways that good people aren’t? In fact, with good people we always seem to want to ﬁnd out that they’re no better than they should be, whereas with bad people we’re always looking for the heart of gold, optimists that we are.’
Another motivation for writing was the sense that literary feminist right-on-ness had in recent years unfairly — and uninterestingly — excluded I women from thejuicy baddies’ parts. ‘Why 12 The List 22 October—4 November I993
you lose your shadow you also lose your soul.’ I should the range be restricted?’ Atwood asks.
about the magic of malevolence.
Margaret Atwood: a wickedly teasing, Angela Carter-esoue imagination.
‘Doesn’t it seem in a way very Victorian to expect women as individuals always to be better than men as individuals? And so I thought, we’re very keen on male outlaws, but what would a female outlaw be like? Since outlaws operate against the system, what sort of systems would a female outlaw operate against; if she was going to rob, steal and plunder, what would she steal, what would her methods of breaking and entering be?’
Zenia is an irresistibly compelling figure, and as you read of her dastardly deeds, disapproval is tinged not only with admiring awe, but with irrepressible impish glee.
Atwood’s ﬁctive approach to such questions is a rich, complex. painstakingly crafted blend of styles and techniques. The novel is ﬁrmly grounded in a vivid rendering of circumstantial detail: the material and emotional textures of her characters’ domestic and working lives, of their individual histories, are rendered with
Everybody loves a good baddie, and Margaret Atwood has certainly created a good one in her latest novel. But what’s the attraction? Sue Wilson spoke to the acclaimed Canadian author
ﬁne, dense precision; they live in a city which lives, breathes and bustles off the page. But the edges of this sturdy naturalism are refracted by a wickedly teasing, Angela Carter-esque imagination; allusions to myth, fairy-tale and magic echo through the tale, which is further complicated by multiple frames of reference — war is a pervasive presence (Tony is a military historian, the story spans the period of the Gulf War, all four women were Second World War babies); contemporary corporate capitalism plays a part, through the ﬁgure of millionaire businesswoman Roz; pagan and supernatural forces are invoked by Charis, a New Age devotee of ancient belief and ritual. All these (and many more) elements are layered to create up shifting, inter-reflecting planes of signiﬁcance and ambiguity.
‘l think rather than giving you something on a plate the book asks questions — “so what do you think of this, how would you have behaved, what would you have done; how do you behave, what do you do?” — so that the reader really has to participate, but they’re not given a hard and fast parable or summation or meaning at the end.’ Atwood says. ‘There’s a lot we don’t know, in life and in history — a case in point is the Thatcher memoirs; in the paper today they had what she said at the time about various people, and what she now says she was actually feeling at the time. What’s interesting is why somebody would reveal herself as such a liar, because essentially she’s saying, either I was lying then or I’m lying now — I don’t make this stuff out of nothing, it is the way many people behave. And not just people — even dogs get jealous, and animals are known to lie; a lot of it is survival-linked.’
The comparison between Atwood and Angela ?
Carter is an instructive one in several respects, not least in the similarity between media representations of the two writers: like Carter, Atwood has achieved unquestionable literary- heavyweight status, complete with awards, rave reviews and Booker nominations, but is still, thanks to her gender, her formidable intelligence, her wickedly shrewd perception and her mercurial feminist outlook, regarded as_ a somewhat dangerous ﬁgure.
‘I think what people ﬁnd dangerous is other people who know too much, whose motives and direction they don’t altogether trust, or who they don’t feel they can depend on not not to tell the truth about them.’ she says. ‘I have to say it is usually m-e-n who ﬁnd me dangerous in that kind of way, but it’s always bafﬂed me: I’m a pretty mild person, I’m a good neighbour, l mow the lawn — what is so frightening about me?’
7 The Robber Bride is published by Bloomsbury