The Whiteness of Bones
As a novelist, Margaret Atwood never seems out of control. Whatever rage or disappointment may smolder underneath, the surfaces of her fiction are unusually cool and dry. The daughter of an entomologist, she must have absorbed from an early age the high value attached to precision, detachment, and honesty in the investigation of the living and the dissection of the dead. At the same time, she seems to have been powerfully struck by the discrepancy between an allegiance to such virtues and the messiness of ordinary life. Formidably intelligent and observant, she has focused her unblinking scrutiny upon the habits, the attitudes, and especially the self-deceptions of the North American—specifically, Anglo-Canadian—middle class and its bohemian offshoots during the past few decades. She skewers the pretensions of bad art and bad faith when she encounters them. Inevitably, she has participated in the controversies over feminism, though she is not a reflexive feminist. In her most widely read but least typical novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), she created a chilling dystopia drawn from the religious revivalism and antifemale backlash that she perceived, or feared, in the United States of the Reagan era.
Now, in her seventh and longest novel, Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood has returned to the Canadian world in which she grew up. It is an intensely personal novel, much of which reads like barely mediated autobiography. There is no real plot—only a situation that provides the excuse for a search into the past. A fiftyish painter of some reputation, Elaine Risley, returns to her native Toronto after living for a number of years with her second husband in Vancouver. The occasion is a retrospective of her work at a gallery called Sub-Versions in a formerly rundown section of the city that is fast being “reclaimed.” As Elaine goes about the preparations for her opening, she finds herself thinking about her closest childhood friend (and enemy), a girl called Cordelia. The childhood memories quickly take over the novel, reducing the action in the present to occasional interruptions of a slow, chronological unfolding of the past.
The earliest of Elaine’s memories are of the north, woods, where she and her brother Stephen led a happy, nomadic life in the 1940s while her father, an entomologist, conducted his research on tent caterpillars. Margaret Atwood has always excelled in her descriptions of outdoor life, and this section contains some of the most precise and evocative writing in Cat’s Eye.
He hits the tree trunk with the back of his ax. The tree shakes; leaves and twigs and caterpillars patter down, bouncing off his gray felt hat, hitting the tarpaulin. Stephen and I crouch, picking up the caterpillars, which are blue-striped, and velvety and cool, like the muzzles of dogs. We put them into the collecting bottles filled with pale alcohol. We watch them twist and sink.
My father looks at the harvest of caterpillars as if he’s grown them himself. He examines the chewed leaves. “A beautiful infestation,” he says. He’s joyful, he’s younger than I am now.
The alcohol smell is on my fingers, cold and remote, piercing, like a steel pin going in. It smells like white enamel basins. When I look up at the stars in the nighttime, cold and white and sharp, I think they must smell like that.
But the nomadic life must end, the children must go to school, and so the Risley family moves to Toronto, into a newly built suburban house. Elaine, who until the age of eight has never had girlfriends, now finds that she has three—Carol, Grace, and, preeminently, Cordelia.
I can think of no other recent novel in which the sheer dailiness of girlhood is recorded so minutely as in Cat’s Eye. The tortures that Cordelia and her two cohorts inflict upon the hapless Elaine provide the main action, such as it is. Margaret Atwood acutely analyzes the fluctuations in Elaine’s feelings toward her tormentors. Cordelia is an expertly drawn little villainess—arrogant, manipulative, and inventive in her cruelty. As the girls move into the high-school years, the tables are turned, and Cordelia is revealed to be suicidally neurotic and needy, pathetically dependent on the friendship of the now reluctant Elaine. Vindictiveness—honestly faced—is mingled with wistfulness for the friendship that might have been. Will the now middle-aged Cordelia (Elaine wonders) show up at the gallery?
All of these events are convincingly rendered, but in the course of following the ups and downs and reversals of the relationships, the reader is nearly overwhelmed by the mass of documentation. A social historian of the next century could find no better source for what middle-class children in Toronto—or, for that matter, most of the northern and midwestern United States—wore, ate, sang, or played with during the 1940s and 1950s. He would learn how houses were decorated and precisely how the furnishings reflected the smallest gradations in social status; he would learn about their churchgoing (or lack of it) and the rituals of Sunday dinner. Margaret Atwood in the guise of Elaine records this detail with a deadpan amusement that the reader is invited to share.
Cordelia’s family does not eat boiled eggs mushed up in a bowl but out of egg cups. Each egg cup has an initial on it, one for each person in the family. There are napkin rings too, also with initials. I have never heard of an egg cup before and I can tell Grace hasn’t either, by the way she keeps silent about it. Carol says uncertainly that she has them at home.
I must confess that, despite my admiration for the lucidity of the prose and the unimpeachable accuracy of the detail, this long central section of the novel seemed sluggish to the point of dullness. But the novel gains interest once Elaine moves into young adulthood and begins her career as a painter. Her observations on the efforts of feminists to appropriate her are direct and acerbic:
A number of these women are lesbians, newly declared or changing over. This is at the same time courageous and demanded. According to some, it’s the only equal relationship possible, for women. You are not genuine otherwise.
I am ashamed of my own reluctance, my lack of desire; but the truth is that I would be terrified to get into bed with a woman. Women collect grievances, hold grudges and change shape. They pass hard, legitimate judgments, unlike the purblind guesses of men, fogged with romanticism and ignorance and bias and wish. Women know too much, they can neither be deceived nor trusted. I can understand why men are afraid of them, as they are frequently accused of being.
The commentary throughout is never less than intelligent. Parts of Cat’s Eye are moving as well—especially those involving Elaine’s relationship with her doomed brother Stephen and with her elderly mother. But though constantly referred to, the central relationship with Cordelia is never adequately dramatized—chiefly, I think, because the author succumbs to the lure of total recall and, instead of shaping her material, allows it to diffuse itself in ultimately self-indulgent detail.
When I think of the women in Saul Bellow’s novels, a vivid composite figure flashes before my eye. She is likely to be big-boned, full-breasted, with gorgeous legs and an extravagant mane of hair. Something of a bimbo or dame, she is an avid consumer who loves clothes and wears sexy underwear. Lively in bed, she has an ebullient personality and loves to have a good time everywhere. She is also greedy and aggressive and may have an even greedier mother or aunt egging her on. Woe betide the divorced husband whom she ruthlessly takes to the cleaners! Thea, who hunts with eagles, perfumed Ramona in her black lace underthings and three-inch spike heels, Angela, Shula, Denise, who knows how to handle divorce judges, Renata, with the rapacious Señora in tow—they streak through the novels, bemusing Sammler and bowling over Augie and Herzog and Charlie Citrine. But we experience them only through men—we must always take the men’s word for what these disturbing creatures are like. The novelty of A Theft—a novella which Bellow has published as a paperback original—is that a woman with some of the qualities of Bellow’s earlier women is now the central character.
She is Clara Velde, a four-times married fashion executive who lives with Wilder Velde, her current husband (who has “stud power” but is otherwise unsatisfactory), three children, and an Austrian au pair girl in a Park Avenue apartment. Like the others, Clara has plenty of physical presence:
Really, everything about her was conspicuous, not only the size and shape of her head. She must have decided long ago that for the likes of her there could be no cover-up; she couldn’t divert energy into disguises. So there she was, a rawboned American woman. She had very good legs—who knows what you would have seen if pioneer women had worn shorter skirts.
It will not escape the reader that this description too comes to us by way of a masculine—not to say sexist—eye for women, but Bellow evidently makes an effort to enter Clara’s mind—or at least her voice—and to place her at the center of events.
The other voice in the novella is that of Ithiel (Teddy) Regler, an adviser to presidents and other powerful people, a man who knows the “big picture,” who appears on TV shows with Dobrynin and helps the Italian police track down terrorists—a man who, in Clara’s opinion, “could be the Gibbon or Tacitus of the American Empire.” Clara has been in love with him throughout her four marriages and his three, and they have remained the closest of friends, confidants, and advisers. Unfortunately, Ithiel has a low taste in women—“overdressed sexpots, gaudy and dizzy, ‘ground-dragging titzers,’ on whom a man like Ithiel should never have squandered his substance”—and has never acceded to Clara’s plea to marry her. He did however once buy her an emerald engagement ring, which she has treasured ever since. It is the disappearance of this ring from Clara’s bedside table that provides A Theft with its minimal plot, which involves, among others, the au pair girl and Clara’s difficult daughter Lucy.
What charm this somewhat undernourished little book possesses lies in its language. Both Clara and Ithiel are loquacious, speaking (and thinking) in the racy, colloquial, highly colored urban idiom that so many of Bellow’s characters use, whatever their imputed background or class. (Clara, for instance, comes from a small-town, Bible-reading Indiana family—but never for a moment sounds like it.) Here, for instance, is Ithiel on the subject of psychoanalysis when Clara asks him how he “interprets” her loss of the ring.
“I don’t,” said Ithiel. “It’s a pretty bad idea to wring what happens to get every drop of meaning out of it. The way people twist their emotional laundry is not to be believed. I don’t feel you wronged me by losing that ring. You say it was insured?”
“Then file a claim….”
“I’m really torn up about it,” said Clara.
“That’s your tenth-century soul. Much your doctor can do about that!”
“He helps, in some respects.”
“Those guys!” said Ithiel. “If a millipede came into the office, he’d leave with an infinitesimal crutch for each leg.”
But such verbal exuberance is not enough to make A Theft seem more than skimpy to those who enjoy, as I do, the abundance offered by a novel like Mr. Sammler’s Planet or Humboldt’s Gift. Instead of a realized work of fiction, A Theft suggests only the armature for an uncompleted and much weightier work based upon the relationship of Clara and Ithiel. The resolution of the ring’s theft seems perfunctory and without much consequence for either of the leading characters. Many of Bellow’s shorter stories have been more substantial. It was, after all, the dense representation of felt life within a restricted space that endeared the “blessed nouvelle” to James and Turgenev. There is no density—or compressed energy—here. Bellow has taken no particular advantage of the form. Underplotted and slackly rendered, A Theft may provide a mildly pleasant read for admirers of Bellow, but it serves mainly as a reminder of how much more we have come to expect from this writer.
Of the books under review, Susanna Moore’s seemed livelier and fresher than the others. The Whiteness of Bones is her second novel; the first, My Old Sweetheart (1982), won the PEN Hemingway first-novel prize and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters when it appeared. There are parallels between the two books. Both deal with girls—Lily Shields and Mamie Clarke—who grow up in plantation luxury on the island of Kaua’i in Hawaii. Each suffers a troubling relationship with her mother, and each loses, in a different way, a loved father. Both girls—they are best friends (and each makes a brief appearance in the novel devoted to the other)—leave the island for the wider world as they become young women.
The second novel is no mere replay of the first. After the exotic opening section in Kaua’i, which is lushly evocative of scents and colors and the rapturous sensations of childhood, The Whiteness of Bones shifts into a different mode and becomes the story of an ingenue’s adventures in the wicked and worldly city of New York. Mamie is not a virgin, having had an affair with a callow student in California. As a child she was sexually molested by an elderly and much loved Japanese gardener, and she carries with her, deeply concealed, a burden of sexual guilt and a regressive longing for a state of purity that appears in her fantasy life as the clean whiteness of a bone. Sexuality—and a woman’s relation to it, either as predator or victim—forms a recurrent theme in the novel and assumes a variety of shapes—some subtle, some crude.
Arriving in New York fresh from college in California, Mamie moves into the Park Avenue apartment of her rich, snobbish, and selfish Aunt Alysse (once Alice), an accomplished sexual predator who doesn’t particularly like sex but uses it to advance herself from husband to husband, each richer than the last. Alysse finds Mamie a job as an assistant lingerie buyer at the most expensive women’s store in New York, called, transparently, Deardorf’s. (“Generations of barely educated, well-born young women had skipped across Deardorf’s elegant floors for that awkward two- or three-year period between college and first marriage, and their sponsors—wealthy grandmothers, father’s mistresses, trust fund executors—had been relieved and lucky to place them there.”) Alysse then proceeds, over several bottles of champagne, to lay down certain laws of conduct that will help her niece to advance in the world:
Never, ever let your maid work for a friend and do not be overly familiar with the help, for example, you should not have introduced yourself the other night to Mrs. de Coppet’s chauffeur; never sit on any toilet seat, anyone’s, I don’t care whose, besides, it’s great for the thighs to pee three inches above the seat; try to use the old form of a word, looking-glass, for example, or frock; do not ever get caught changing the place cards at someone else’s dinner; do underdress, it makes the other women look older and vulgar; do, do flirt, with everyone, children, husbands, wives, especially wives as they’re the ones who invite you back…. You paid not the slightest attention to Louise Hathaway at lunch, but you must remember it was Louise who was singlehandedly responsible for bringing the sport of water-skiing to France.
Mamie’s metropolitan adventures take a different form when her younger sister, Claire, arrives, fresh from an abortion. Alysse finds in Claire a junior version of herself, someone much more receptive to her instructions than the more innocent and idealistic Mamie. Claire is only too eager to plunge into a life of extreme and even dangerous sensation.
The Whiteness of Bones rattles on as a half-farcical, half-satirical sendup of high life. Alysse gives a dinner party to launch the two girls, and Mamie finds herself seated next to a fat interior decorator, who tells her of a grand duke who hated his father.
“That’s not so uncommon, do you think?” Mamie was trying to be a good dinner partner. “It is the classical Oedipal struggle.”
“The what?” He looked at her for the first time.
“The Oedipal struggle.”
He was very perplexed. With some suspicion, Mamie took it upon herself to briefly explain to him the story of Oedipus. When she finished, there was a long pause.
“That’s the single most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said loudly. He was shocked and outraged. Mamie looked around nervously, but no one was listening to them. “Want to kill your father and marry your mother? It’s ludicrous! Judas priest, girl, wherever did you hear such a thing?” he shouted.
But at the same time, the theme of woman as sexual victim is explored with gathering seriousness, even grimness, as the reckless Claire teams up with a photographer given to sadistic practices in both art and life. Claire unwittingly sets up a situation in which Mamie is subjected to a violation that comes close to destroying her—literally as well as psychologically. There is even a third level of action—ruefully romantic in tone—in which the hitherto unawakened Mamie meets a somewhat world-weary but elegant older man who tenderly introduces her into a realm of sexual experience that she has never known before.
The Whiteness of Bones is a disharmonious book, in which the lyricism of Hawaiian childhood clashes with the often abrasive account of New York. Cleverness and pathos coexist but do not fit together. One feels that Susanna Moore had not quite made up her mind what sort of novel she wanted to write. As if recognizing a need to pull things together, she permits an authorial voice to comment on what is happening and more or less instructs the reader what to think:
Claire did not have a clear picture of herself, other than a romantic and indulgent idea that she was a rebel. The car repair class was only a temporary solution for Claire’s unrecognized feelings of helplessness. She was unable to support herself in a way that would give her both dignity and sustenance, but she would be able, at the very least, to clean a carburetor.
A statement of this kind can seem intrusive or naive or amusing. For my part, I enjoyed Moore’s analytical comments—as I enjoyed much else in this badly constructed but funny, touching, and sometimes even beautiful short novel.