Monday, August 2, 2010

Lady Oracle

We continue with our look at Canadian author Margaret Atwood, with her 1976 novel Lady Oracle.

Joan Foster is a former fat girl, writer of Gothic romances under a pseudonym, wife to a political radical, mistress of a Polish Count, lover of an avantgarde artist. She has faked her own death and has whisked off to Italy, just like in her romance novels. Joan isn't everything she seems, of course - she is also a poet, but the secret to her poetry is unsettling.

Every review I've read for this book, including the blurbs on the back of the paperback I picked up secondhand, say that Lady Oracle is a comedy. I laughed a couple times, but I would not consider this a comedy. Just like in the two other novels I've read by Atwood, comedy is a byproduct of the tragedy we unleash upon ourselves through the lies we never stop telling.

Lady Oracle lacks the narrative complexity and cleverness of her later novels it seems. However, this novel is still concerned with themes previously seen in Atwood novels: rewriting and recreating of history, femininity, gender roles, and the "war of the sexes". Above all of that is the nature of fiction, of course. An Atwood novel doesn't seem complete with some pontification on storytelling.

Storytelling is a primary plot device and theme in Lady Oracle. Joan Foster is a compulsive liar, but not in a moral sense. She writes novels, she engages in the dubious act of Auto-Writing, and she is constantly revising her autobiography when meeting men. She tells herself stories to escape a childhood of an unloving mother, obesity, and cruelty at the hands of other girls. She tells her lovers more stories to cover up the past, consistently rewriting her history. She even fakes her own death in an attempt to recreate the past.

Joan's story, as she tells it, is filled with duplicity, and the slippery nature of identity. She uses a pseudonym to write her trashy romance novels, but she uses those novels, the act of writing, and therefore the identity itself to escape her own reality. Every time she tells a new lover a revised version of her history, she has assumed a new identity.

Unfortunately, as Joan writes her latest novel, her own story leaks into the fictional novel's narrative. It seems she has trouble keeping her selves separate. Unlike all the other duplicitous characters in her own life, and her fiction, who live a constant series of self-identities.

One can see that Atwood has created something complex and interesting. Her ability to convey sophisticated concepts while at the same time keeping the narrative accessible and entertaining is absolutely genius. Very few novelists that I have read have this amazing skill.

What separates Lady Oracle from the other two novels, as aforementioned, is the relative linearity of the plot. The protagonist's life history is revealed piece by piece, like a line, with the twinning of her lives coming like the vanishing point of a painting. This is a very slight criticism. One can derail a novel simply because it isn't as clever as the author's next novel. That's not fair.

Regardless, Lady Oracle is a fine novel, one worthy of teaching in school. It's an excellent textbook example of the sophisticated power of theme and symbol in the novel. Atwood's remarkable skill at creating engaging and enthralling stories while managing to deal with multifaceted themes is mostly unmatched. While not as fun as the other two novels I've read by her, I still greatly enjoyed Lady Oracle.

Next, I'm not 100% sure what I'm going to read. I have Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog from the library, as well I've purchased secondhand Robert Charles Wilson's Spin. Who knows? Keep reading to find out!

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