Leah Stewart is the author of the novels Husband and Wife, The Myth of You and Me, and Body of a Girl, and the recipient of a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship. She teaches at the University of Cincinnati and blogs at Leah Stewart. Here Leah writes about Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye.
Leah Stewart on Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
I first read Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye seven or eight years ago, when I was working on my own book about an intense female friendship. Looking for models, I was in search of other treatments of the subject, and a friend recommended Cat's Eye. I'd read some of Atwood's poems in college and her novels had been on my to-read list for years, but this was my first prolonged experience of her work, and, in the way you do with a writer, I fell in love.
I could go on and on about the structures of Atwood's novels, which perform the magic trick of being incredibly complicated and yet managing not to seem so. The book I was writing moved between past and present, as does Cat's Eye, and I was so impressed by her handling of the transitions that I made a detailed outline of the novel, going so far as to note how many pages she spent in the present before moving back to the past. But what impressed me even more on that first read, and still both impresses and moves me, is Atwood's genius for emotional and psychological engagement.
Cat's Eye is the story of a painter, a grown woman with grown children, who returns to the city where she grew up for a retrospective of her work. There, she wrestles with memories of her childhood, especially those having to do with her former friend Cordelia, to whom she was once intensely close, and who left an enormous scar on her psyche.
Atwood engages this intimate, personal and interior drama with as much intensity as she engages the question of whether the title character of Alias Grace (the other book I considered writing about) committed a vicious murder. She not only understands how high the emotional stakes are for a young girl overtaken by a toxic friendship, she communicates that intensity to the reader. This is an impressive feat. It's far easier to persuade readers that, say, a kidnapped child or an apocalypse is of great importance than it is to persuade them of the importance of an overwhelming friendship, or of how long the effects of that friendship can linger. Imagine you're thirteen and the girl you adulate gives you a dirty look in the hall. It feels like your world has shattered. Now imagine you hear about this happening to someone you don't know. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't seem to matter much. To make such things matter in a novel is to make the reader not just observe the character or want to know what happens to her but live in her mind, feel what she feels. Anyone who's ever tried to write a piece of fiction knows what a daunting task that is.
The haunting intensity of Cat's Eye is all the more indicative of Atwood's skill in that she generates it out of everyday life. In her hands the everyday is as full of mystery and danger as it actually is. After I was in a car wreck, I remember driving on the highway and being struck by the dangerous absurdity of hurtling through space in a metal box among hundreds of other metal boxes, all narrowly avoiding collision. This is what reading Cat's Eye is like. Atwood shows you what you've stopped seeing in the world, what you've chosen not to pay attention to in order to make it through your day. It's at once deeply unsettling and exhilarating.
In this novel as in her others, Atwood doesn't just reveal a bleak world and then step back to observe it, shaking her head in despair. She insists on engagement, confrontation, realization, the strength that arises from facing the worst and pressing on, the loveliness as well as the sadness of human mystery. The world in Atwood's hands is beautiful and awful in equal measure. There are points of view that give us a banal, constant, and inescapable darkness, common and incurable as the cold, in which connections are always missed and much of life is a muted unhappiness. (I'm thinking, for instance, of the guiding sensibilities of the television shows The Sopranos and Mad Men.) And then there are sensibilities like Atwood's, in which that darkness achieves the grandeur of myth, and so calls forth an equally grand bravery in those who face it, acts of courage both physical and interior. Whether they're battling a corrupt system or, as in Cat's Eye, their own feelings of inadequacy and failure, Atwood's women are warriors.
The paragraphs that end Cat's Eye would be at home in an epic tale of good versus evil, replete with the brandishing of swords, and the fact that Atwood has earned them in this story of confronting the scars of childhood is proof enough of her genius.
Now it's full night, clear, moonless and filled with stars, which are not eternal as was once thought, which are not where we think they are. If they were sounds, they would be echoes, of something that happened millions of years ago: a word made of numbers. Echoes of light, shining out of the midst of nothing.
It's old light, and there's not much of it. But it's enough to see by.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]