Year with Short Novels: Diving into Atwood’s Surfacing
Surfacing By Margaret Atwood
Original publication 1972
Currently in print through Anchor
This article is part of a series which delves into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton[at]live.com.
Margaret Atwood’s astonishing, elemental second novel, Surfacing, unfolds along dangerous, eggshell-thin boundaries. After years away, an illustrator in her late 20s returns to the remote Quebec island where she grew up. She makes the trip to search for her naturalist father, who has gone missing. Her laconic boyfriend Joe and friends David and Anna accompany her. During the drive up, when they pass the bullet-pocked province border, she realizes the childhood roads she knew have been replaced with new ones. The presence of her friends casts a menacing shadow. “I’ve driven in the same car with them before,” she explains forebodingly, “but on this road it doesn’t seem right, either the three of them are in the wrong place or I am.”
A local fisherman ferries them across the spidery reaches of lake to the unnamed narrator’s family cabin. Once there it occurs to her that “it’s the first time all day (and for a long time, for years) we have been out of the reach of motors.” The narrator’s search for her father and the suspense of not knowing if he’s dead or alive provide narrative momentum. But the deeper narrative tension comes from what happens to the characters on the island as the pull of civilization weakens. The 1972 novel unfolds in the protagonist’s unsparingly aware consciousness.
The slipstream of the unnamed narrator’s dark precision carries the novel. Joe, her boyfriend, reminds her of “the buffalo on the U.S. nickel, shaggy and blunt-snouted, with small clenched eyes and the defiant but insane look of a species once dominant, now threatened with extinction.” Waking in the family cabin, her ears fill with crowded swells of birdsong, the first time in years she’s awoken to nature rather than the rush of city traffic. “They sing for the same reason trucks honk, to proclaim their territories: a rudimentary language.”
The narrator’s removal from urban life to her childhood geography prompts a reckoning with the past. Long-disused pieces of knowledge stir, things the isolation of wood and lake taught her, like gutting fish and weeding gardens. The place dredges up memories of her brother’s merry, causal destructiveness, her mother’s resilience right until her death from cancer, and her father’s cool rationality: “If you tell your children God doesn’t exist they will be forced to believe you are the god, but what happens when they find out you are human after all, you have to grow old and die?” She is forced to face not only her fear of losing her father, but her fears of what she has lost in the years since she fled the island. Memories of a recent, unwanted abortion and an imploded affair come in with the cold night air and murky waters. She realizes she no longer feels the usual responses of joy and pain.
But she can still think. Between the terrain of the overgrown forest and icy lake, things shift and become disfigured as the narrator attempts to reassemble them. Divisions between nature and civilization refuse to hold. At one point, the narrator, certain her father is dead, prepares to make arrangements. But, reconsidering, she suspects he has gone insane, turned half-animal, and is hiding in the forest. She senses “watching eyes, his presence lurking just behind the green leafscreen, ready to pounce or take flight, he wasn’t predictable.” At night, standing outside and feeling breezes, she imagines she always felt safe in nature, unlike in the stuffy city. And then she remembers the dread of hearing sudden rustling in the bushes or shining a feeble flashlight up a pitch-dark path.
In Surfacing, the demarcations are always changing. Whatever seemed true may well be reversed. At the beginning of the book, the narrator looks up to Anna and David for having a strong marriage. During the course of their stay on the island David’s taunting infidelity becomes apparent. The narrator realizes Anna is afraid to let him see her without make-up because of the insults he’ll lob at her.
To call the narrators’ reversals of conscience unreliable understates the case Hovering around 200 pages, Surfacing is short and intense, packed with images and unexpected revelation. In the course of the novel’s assertions and erasures of language and instinct, personality and wilderness, Atwood concocts a madly potent allegory of the rift between a mechanized, modern world of autonomy and the old animalism that lurks just beneath.
The lake is a constant presence. But, alternately icy and placid, hiding shadowy depths and fatal undertows, the waters refuses to act as single symbol. The lake is a conduit to youthful memories but, returning, she can overlay them with adult ruthlessness. She takes Joe, Anna, and David fishing, steering as the shore recedes. Streaky clouds spread over the sky and she watches a blue heron flap overhead. After a long spell of waiting in the waters, her friends still haven’t caught anything. She takes a leopard frog from a little jar and hooks it on the line for David while the amphibian squeaks. Frog bait is “still magic;” a fish bites. David ignores her advice to hold the line tight and almost loses the fish, which lands in the canoe. The narrator hands him a knife to kill it but he misses. She grabs it from him and smashes the fish’s skull. She remembers that, as a little girl, she was too squeamish to either hook the frog or kill the fish.
The waters in Surfacing break divisions, inundating the narrator with what’s being repressed. In the most powerful scene, which the title echoes, the narrator dives into a part of the lake that’s seeped inland, opening out near a rock face. With obsessive conviction, she is pursuing the rock paintings her father was documenting when he disappeared. Following a map he left behind, she goes to search for the paintings, taking the canoe out and diving off the side alone toward the blurred facsimile of herself she sees on the water’s surface: “My spine whipped, I hit the water and kicked myself down, sliding through the lake strata, gray to darker gray, cool to cold.” Nothing. She comes up when her lungs begin “to clutch.” She dives again and strains her eyes trying to make out forms. Then, “Air gave out, I broke surface.”
Her assured run-on sentences propel the novel, lending the work a spent and strangely urgent lyricism. Diving the next time, she goes deep. Elated by her free-floating limbs, she forgets to look for the cliff and painting:
It was there but it wasn’t a painting, it wasn’t on the rock. It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest level where there was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs. It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead.
I turned, fear gushing out of my mouth in silver, panic closing my throat, the scream kept in and choking me. The green canoe was far above me, radiating around it, a beacon, safety.
But there was not one canoe, there were two, the canoe had twinned or I was seeing double. My hand came out of the water and gripped the gunwale, then my head; water ran from my nose. I gulped breath, stomach and lungs contracting, my hair sticky like weeds, the lake was horrible, it was filled with death, it was touching me.
Air flows back into her lungs. The twinned canoe was not an illusion; her boyfriend Joe has followed her out. She ignores him and sinks down into the bottom of her canoe. As water drips off, she remains mentally submerged in the deathly lake bottom, thinking of how her brother nearly drowned as a child:
[B]ut it couldn’t be him, he had not drowned after all, he was elsewhere. Then I recognized it: it wasn’t ever my brother I’d been remembering, that had been a disguise.
I knew when it was….it had huge jelly eyes and fins instead of hands, fish gills, I couldn’t let it out, it was dead already, it had drowned in air. It was there when I woke up, suspended in air above me like a chalice, an evil grail and I thought, Whatever it is, part of myself or a separate creature, I killed it. It wasn’t a child but it could have been one, I didn’t allow it…
…They scraped it into a bucket and threw it wherever they throw them, it was traveling through the sewers by the time I woke, back to the sea, I stretched my hand up to it and it vanished.
She plunges into a suppressed memory of her abortion. The shabby front room of a house that smelled of lemon polish and the “non-nurse,” “her face powdered with solicitude.” After, she stinks of “salt and antiseptic, they had planted death in me like a seed.” Her married lover, who she was with before Joe, arrives to pick her up. He watches her face in the mirror of his car, “hands on the wheel, tough, better this way.”
That is the break, when she vows never to return home again. Her parents, from an age “where everyone got married and had a family” will not be able to understand the rational brutality of what she did. Meanwhile, she knows her generation fears exactly the naturalism her parents represent. When she and Joe climb out of the canoes, Joe, blunderingly tender, wants to make sure she is all right She touches his arm, becoming receptive after being cold to him earlier: “My hand touched his arm. Hand touched arm. Language divides us into fragments, I wanted to be whole.”
He kisses her; it escalates. The hot flush of animal desire spreads in her. She softens, finds herself thinking sex will be an elemental portal for him, as the lake was for her. But when he undresses the sight of his skin reminds her of something. She suddenly senses a killer in him. Worse, she knows he’s oblivious to his latent and heavy human destructiveness, “his own capacity for death.” She doesn’t want him in her.
“Don’t,” I said, he was lowering himself down on me, “I don’t want you to.”
“What’s wrong with you?” he said, angry; then he was pinning me, hands manacles, teeth against my lips, censoring me, he was shoving against me, his body insistent as one side of an argument.
I slid my arm between us, against his throat, windpipe, and pried his head away. “I’ll get pregnant,” I said, “it’s the right time.” It was the truth, it stopped him: flesh making more flesh, miracle, that frightens all of them.”
In the space of six pages, Atwood goes from the cold plunge into the lake, down into a terrifyingly vivid memory of the abortion, to a near-rape. Her lover’s callousness haunts her. She believes he used her reason to shatter her fertility. “He said it wasn’t a person, only an animal…I could have said No but I didn’t; that made me one of them too, a killer.” Then, in the present, she leverages the same fears of childbirth in Joe to drive him away. The wry, unflinching poetry of her descriptions makes her seem a kind of existential heroine, self-aware and unafraid.
Or are her words only a way of treading water? Her explanations bring their own distortions. Past events become magnified in her consciousness. In the first half of the novel, she refers vaguely to a child she left and to the husband she wrote back to her parents about, whose ring she still wears. But the descriptions shift around, revealing the child to be the fetus cancelled by her lover, who gave her the ring to make it easier for them to get into hotels. Narrating fills in the empty space left by long-ossified emotions. She portrays not how things are but how they feel. An abortion conflates with motherhood and with murder; a lover, someone else’s husband, becomes her own.
In the narrator’s rendering, the fatal flaw of her generation is their attempt to pretend their scientific tweaking with human nature can force internal realities into line with rational ideals. Instead, the gulf between high intentions and base human nature opens up space for casual cruelty. “Love without fear, sex without risk, that’s what they wanted to be true.” On the island, such theories combust.
Her friends, she thinks, “are halfway to machines.” She watches impassively as David tortures Anna, ordering her to strip so he can film her for the specious art film he is making. He taunts her about being fat, needing to share the wealth of her body. Then he grabs and throws her over his shoulder while she cries and tries to hit him. She wrests free, strips and, still crying, runs into the lake. After Anna emerges and flees to the cabin, the narrator comes up and surprises David by being “impersonal as a wall” when he expects her to condemn him. “[L]isten, I know what you’re thinking,” he says, almost pleading, “but I’m all for the equality of women; she just doesn’t happen to be equal and that’s not my fault, is it?”
Later, the narrator finds a blue heron, shot and strung up on a tree by hunters for petty sport. She thinks of the holocaust, the ultimate expression of modern evil, mechanization yoked to vicious killing. She likens it to her abortion: “blood on my hands…The trouble some people have being German, I thought, I have being human.”
The story begins as a dark and vivid portrayal of the splits opened by society’s increasing divorce from the natural world, the dissonance between rational consciousness and animalism. Unsettling but intractable, or so it seems. Then, in the last portion of the novel, Atwood doubles back and the novel segues into the surreal and inevitable. The narrator gets news about her father. She has sex with Joe and fantasizes about giving birth in the forest: that her child will surface from the lake, she will bite the umbilical cord off with her teeth, and watch the earth absorb the blood spilled by her womb. Just as her friends prepare to leave for the mainland, the city, she bolts into the forest.
Spending the night alone, she undergoes a strange reverse evolution. In the cabin, she strips off her clothes, then avoids the building’s shelter, and shuns the tools in the shed. Ultimately, she even cringes from paths. Master of comma splice and semi-colon, at one point punctuation drops completely from her sentences. Reduced to animal sensation, she is initiated into the rites of the forest.
The novel ends uneasily. She emerges from the woods, prepared to go back to a rational, urban world where ideas are defined “by their absence; and love by its failures, power by its loss….” Her detachment has been burned away by the forest and she is ready to trust again. She will commit to Joe. Atwood implies the narrator really is pregnant.
Against the powers loosed by the primeval island and her own consciousness, the hope offered by this resolution is meager but real. The narrator readies herself to tread a thin path of light surrounded by darkness and clamor on all sides. Being consumed by those forces is expected but untenable, and so she will balance reason with feeling to the best of her abilities. It’s her only option. As she explains, “logic is a wall, I built it, on the other side is terror.”
Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.