Sunday, August 7, 2011

Summer Reading: Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad"

The Blogger has been watching far too much House Hunters International lately and pining for waterfront property in Mykonos, the Amalfi Coast and the like. The image of Penelope waiting on the hills in her home, keeping watch over the Mediterranean, comes to mind. But since Odysseus was away for twenty years, one can’t help but wonder if his wife maybe had better things to do with her time.

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad falls into the area of post-modern literature written to given speculative (and often fun) insight to established literary works from the object’s point of view. Homer’s The Odyssey discusses all of his Odysseus’s exploits as he takes ten years to return home to his wife from the Trojan War (what, he didn’t have Mapquest or GPS back then?). The title is a pun on Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.

Penelope is no shrinking violet, although she seems to be that initially. Betrothed to Odysseus at page 15, she does not love him but they bond quickly and eventually grow to love one another. There is much discussion of how their household ran, and in particular the central role the women play in the household. The home has a dozen maidens at any given moment and a housekeeper or two, to run the entire estate. It illuminates the following comment made by Alan Bennett:

“History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. History is women following behind with the bucket.”

One of Penelope's maidens, tortured
and killed
Atwood’s touch here, unlike in heavier works such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, is a light one. Everyone knows that Penelope had dozens of suitors waiting to swoop in and marry her, with the express objective of acquiring her real estate, but not everyone knows that she had maidens who charmed them and slept with them just to keep them away from Penelope. According to Atwood’s narrative, the maidens were slaughtered along with the suitors, for perceived treason and crimes against the household. The maidens are given their own chapters in the text as a Greek Chorus, and they are a singing, teasing, vengeful and comical lot, speaking from beyond the grave. At one point, when they speak, the narration is written as a play, with express stage direction instructing the maidens to dress in sailor outfits. There are also appearances from Odysseus himself, Telemachus as a power-hungry lad with slight Oedipal tendencies, and Helen of Troy as the classical equivalent of a Mean Girl.

The Penelopiad, while a thin novel in terms of volume, is an outstanding exercise in style and is surprisingly, refreshingly comic for an Atwood work. The maidens’ chapters are presented in a variety of styles, including ballad, poetry and traditional folk song metre. One of the chapters reads as a court trial transcript. In fact, it’s their presentation of the narrative, both in traditional and contemporary literary readings, that is the real revelation of the text.

Penelope herself is not portrayed as a weeping, loyal wife sitting at home pining for her husband to come home. She is a crafty, highly intelligent survivalist who was thrust into the traditional male role of running the estate and managing to fend off the opportunistic suitors who only see her value in real estate. It’s this reading that dignifies her life and gives it real value outside of its relation to Odysseus’s courageous ventures.

Alberta Theatre Projects production in Calgary
Many have contended that Atwood’s work can be heavy-handed, and indeed despite high critical acclaim, her novels generated some of the intense debates I have ever seen in my literary studies. While some have criticized her for being overtly feminist in her writings, others have charged that she is not feminist enough (depending on who you listen to). Nonetheless, the general consensus is that she excels in assuming the guise and exploring her characters’ psyche. Perhaps the greatest verisimilitude she has given in any work has been in Alias Grace, a forensic psychology novel on the notorious historical criminal trial of Grace Marks, told largely from the murderer’s point of view. The revered work, considered one of her highest achievements, won the prestigious Giller Prize in 1996 and was shortlisted for the Booker. If nothing else, Atwood knows how to envelop her reader so thoroughly in the protagonist’s psyche that the outside world does not exist.

The Penelopiad was also turned into a highly acclaimed theatrical production at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and was also performed in Ottawa, both in the summer and fall of 2007. It has since been performed numerous times in Canada and the UK, and attracted considerable attention in the theatre world as a challenging, exciting piece to play. The play is an exercise in high style and has been featured in fringe festivals worldwide. That such an inventive, engaging work by one of the seminal authors of our time was an international best-seller but did not even make the New York Times Bestseller list, while even the likes of “writers” like Victoria Beckham and one of those overexposed caricatures from MTV made such a list, is indicative of the sad cultural state of our times.

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad may sound heavy, but given the familiarity of its source texts to western readers from classical studies courses, it should make for delightfully intelligent beach reading. Pack a copy together with your towel, umbrella, sunscreen and picnic basket, together with this study guide, and have a truly enlightening day at the beach. And maybe wonder where, exactly, to put Bennett’s proverbial bucket to clean up the mess Odysseus made.