Everything is post these days, as if we’re all just a footnote to something earlier that was real enough to have a name of its own.
~Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
Cat’s Eye is my first Atwood novel. At Blossom’s long ago, I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale because the cover looked exciting but I never got around to reading it. It still sits on my shelf along with a line of other books I haven’t read. Meanwhile Atwood remained in my head, and I devoured her short-stories and inflicted them on all my students.
In my B.A Optional English class one day, when the teacher was doing Journey to the interior, two boys made a fuss about Atwood’s ‘whining’ and how it killed them that she wasn’t making use of the Canadian literary landscape. And like most boys who make a fuss about women writers, they ended up mansplaining the teacher. I remember this painfully because over the past year, I have read a bit of Atwood and a lot of Munro. It hurts me that I cannot go back in time and laugh in those boys’ faces.
Based on a page I read of The Handmaid’s Tale I decided she wrote densely — of time, of people, and of a life that must be read at leisure or not at all. I kept consoling myself with her short-stories until I was ready.
I have sat quietly and watched many a failed friendship walk out on me to not have been hooked by Atwood and the ordinariness of her characters. At the outset, Cat’s Eye is a Künstlerroman that follows the life of narrator/protagonist Elaine Risley, a painter who comes back to her hometown for a retrospective. The story moves back and forth between Elaine’s present-day as a successful artist to when she was a little girl in post war Toronto.
Much of Elaine’s childhood is about her messy relationship with people who can only be described as friend-bullies. Even before the actual story has begun, Elaine mentions Cordelia – her bestie from high school and her bully from pre high school.
We all have a Cordelia in our lives. We have all been Cordelias in other people’s lives. Cordelia is your regular after school bully – part insecure, part brave and completely unhappy. Elaine quickly becomes a toy for Cordelia and her two other friends – Grace and Carol. They resent and at the same time like Elaine’s vulnerability. It gives them a primal pleasure to take advantage of her. Most of this is sexual. I think they all adore Cordelia but it is Elaine they really want to fuck. And they are either too shy or too ashamed of their own desires for her so what do they do? They torture her. They tell her she needs to be taught manners and how to walk. She cannot smirk without their permission, and she cannot say ‘I don’t know’ – something that she finds very safe to hide behind.
What makes Elaine ordinary is that she is a little of everything she sees and learns from. And since the things that make us the most ordinary are the things we hate the most about ourselves, we are quick to see ourselves in Elaine.
The novel slows down when she doesn’t go through a life makeover to brave out these bullies, as one may hope. She claims what is rightfully hers in the most deliberate way and this does not at all seem artificial or sudden or even impossible for the reader. By this point the reader has also had enough. Cordelia, Grace and Carol nearly kill Elaine once by letting her drown.
After this incident, Elaine ignores them and at one point, walks away from them. For anybody who’s had trouble saying no to people, this a moment worth waiting for in the book. Walking away requires pain and a wound that must remain unhealed for the longest time. And when Elaine does it, a little bit of me felt free.
Cordelia reminded me of the girl from my 4thstd tuition who pinned me to a wall to enact a sex scene she’d seen in a Hollywood movie. Cordelia was also the neighbor who climbed over the tall compound dividing my house from hers – only to come running to me to announce that her school had declared holiday the next day before mine had. When I told her I had a holiday too, she threw a fit and ran away.
Through a freak course of nature Elaine becomes a bully too. But not the kind that she was bullied by. She forgets everything they did to her, especially what Cordelia did to her and a little later, Cordelia and Elaine become best friends. By now, Elaine has no memory of what happened. I paused here, wondering if this is Elaine’s act before she pulls something nastier on Cordelia. Turns out it’s not an act. Elaine really has no memory of being bullied.
When Elaine speaks about her childhood, I am compelled to listen because it’s an adult’s voice that’s not fully adulted, looking back at its childhood self with kindness. It’s not a voice that is telling Elaine she shouldn’t have done this this and this. It is perhaps a rare thing to find an adult voice that is far too kind to its younger self and this kept me surprised throughout the novel. Much like Humbert Humbert who gives a guilt-ridden yet hungry voice-over to his adult desires for the pre-pubescent Lolita, the adult Elaine does the same with the child Elaine. Her narrative is often guilty but never unforgiving.
When she hangs out with Cordelia, Grace and Carol on what she calls ‘one of those normal days’ — meaning when they are not being bullies, she takes a chance at being ordinary. The girls are rolling down the hill and laughing. Elaine who joins the fun says, my laughter is a performance, a grab at the ordinary. Seconds later she ends up paying a heavy price for making an attempt at the ‘ordinary’.
When I imagined Elaine in love, I imagined her to fall hard. But with both Josef and Jon, her two lovers in Art College, she’s a careful lover. She gives but is always aware of how much they give in return. When she is pregnant and marries Jon, she is aware that it’s not going to be a happy marriage. In the beginning she thinks she is supposed to feel lucky when Jon proposes marriage without making a fuss. It’s the way we feel when we aren’t exactly head-over-heels with somebody but because we know that they, by default are absentee lovers, we assume that whatever little care they nod in our direction, it needs to be grabbed and treasured.
We are repeatedly told that love isn’t the main thing in men’s lives, and when they so much as pay a little attention to it, we consider it our fortune.
When Jon and Elaine are falling out of love, fighting and avoiding each other, she says –
We fight over our right to remain children. At first I do not win these fights, because of love. Or so I say to myself. If I were to win them, the order of the world would be changed, and I am not ready for that. So instead I lose the fights, and master different arts. I shrug, tighten my mouth in silent rebuke, turn my back in bed, and leave questions unanswered. I say, “Do it however you like,” provoking sullen fury from Jon.
When she falls out of love with Josef, she says –
I was unfair to him, of course, but where would I have been without unfairness? In thrall, in harness young women needed unfairness, it’s one of their few defenses. They need callousness, they need their ignorance. They walk in the dark, along the edges of high cliffs, humming to themselves, thinking themselves invulnerable.
So much of Elaine is a mountain of indecisiveness. But in moments – unaware that she’s doing this, she produces bursts of feminist wisdom. Something her art is often ‘accused’ of in her later years. Elaine the artist is just as unsure and hesitant as Elaine the mother, Elaine the lover and even Elaine the friend. As a sister however, Elaine seemed more like a version of herself she cherished.
Elaine – broken and recovering from a bad bout of love, says –
Love blurs your vision; but after it recedes, you can see more clearly than ever. It’s like the tide going out, revealing whatever’s been thrown away and sunk: broken bottles, old gloves, rusting pop cans, nibbled fishbodies, and bones. This is the kind of thing you see if you sit in the darkness with open eyes, not knowing the future. The ruin you’ve made.
When you have finished reading Cat’s Eye, you will look back and find odd shapes from your own childhood sitting in little ruins. This will make you happy. If anything, Cat’s Eye has the power to make you believe in ghosts. All of my former Cordelia-ghosts are sitting next to me and staring even as I type this. They have come back alive and though I will never know what to say to them, I am not afraid of them anymore.