Margaret Atwood - The Penelopiad
Canongate hardcover - copyright 2005
Cover art by Nina Chakrabarti - 196 pages
Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)
Jeanette Winterson - Weight
Canongate hardcover - copyright 2005
Cover art by Marion Deuchars - 151 pages
Rating: 5/10 (Mildly Recommended)
Reviews by Aaron Hughes
It is appalling but hardly surprising that Canongate, a highbrow mainstream publisher, has so far omitted from the Myth Series any authors associated with the science fiction and fantasy genre, for many decades the genre that has most closely followed in the tradition of ancient mythology. All of the Myth Series authors are known as mainstream writers; however, several of them have previously written science fiction and fantasy, perhaps unwittingly, including both Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson.
I hated Margaret Atwood's last novel Oryx and Crake, because Atwood's self-conscious writing style and lack of plotting turned what should have been an interesting premise into a chore to read. Thankfully, The Penelopiad is far more engaging and entertaining. I can only assume that Atwood read my review and took it to heart, and the checks for my share of the royalties will start rolling in soon.
Atwood largely sticks to the story of the return of Odysseus (Ulysses) familiar from The Odyssey, but sheds new light on the tale by showing it from the viewpoint of Penelope, whom she expands from the bit part Homer allowed into an interesting and sympathetic character. Through Penelope's eyes, the Trojan War seems a great deal less heroic, just a lot of fuss over a pretty face. Penelope waits in vain for her husband Odysseus to come to value her intelligence and loyalty over the beauty of Helen, who comes across as a royal bitch. When Odysseus hangs twelve of Penelope's handmaids he suspects of conspiring with Penelope's suitors, The Odyssey presents this as a minor incident, but from Penelope's viewpoint we see it as a tragic waste of life.
For the most part, Atwood follows the conventions of Greek mythology, with just a few modern touches such as the cheeky chapter headings: "Helen Ruins My Life", "The Suitors Stuff Their Faces." Turning one convention of Greek drama on its head, Atwood brings Penelope's slaughtered maids onstage as the chorus. This chorus of maids alternates between grotesque rope-jumping rhymes - "we danced on air / our bare feet twitched / it was not fair" - and sociological speculation on their own metaphorical significance - the maids assert that they symbolize the extinction of the matriarchal religion that preceded Greek mythology (a concept Atwood attributes to Robert Graves), and vehemently "deny that this theory is merely unfounded feminist claptrap."
Usually Atwood intrudes upon her own stories with her self-indulgent writing style. The Penelopiad stands with The Handmaid's Tale as one of Atwood's best efforts because for the most part she manages to step off the stage and allow Penelope's story to carry the reader along. Atwood still cannot resist a bit of wordplay here and there, but at least in The Penelopiad she takes herself less seriously than usual. For instance, Penelope describes learning of the secret that one of the bedposts of her marriage bed is a tree still rooted in the ground:
When Margaret Atwood is telling dick jokes, the world is just a little bit better place.If the word got around about his post, said Odysseus in a mock-sinister manner, he would know I'd been sleeping with some other man. And then, he said, frowning at me in what was supposed to be a playful way, he would be very cross indeed, and he would have to chop me into little pieces with his sword or hang me from the roof beam. I pretended to be frightened and said I would never, never think of betraying his big post.
While many mainstream writers share Margaret Atwood's tendency to intrude into their own stories, few do it quite so literally as Jeanette Winterson, critically acclaimed author of vividly imagined books like Sexing the Cherry and Gut Symmetries. Weight retells the story of Atlas and Heracles (Hercules), in which Atlas is temporarily relieved of his great burden by Heracles, the only other person strong enough to carry the weight of the world, in exchange for Atlas helping Heracles to complete the labors the gods have assigned him. But at various points Winterson completely abandons those two fellows, in favor of undisguised lectures and memoirs of a person named Jeanette Winterson.
I can tolerate the autobiographical memoirs because Winterson at least limits herself to aspects of her background somewhat related to her fascination with mythology and with the story of Atlas. Thus, these passages are meant to illuminate the underlying story of Weight, albeit in a jarring and clumsy way. Of course, this sort of clumsiness often wins praise from critics and academics, who marvel at the unusual narrative device without stopping to think that perhaps it is unusual because most writers are not so clumsy.
Winterson's lectures to the reader are much harder to stomach. She sets the tone in her preface to Weight (emphasis and ellipses in original):
Winterson could not possibly be any more condescending if she tried. Why would she assume that we do not know what sedimentary rock is? Is it really necessary to shout certain words at us, underscoring awkward phrases like "such as those involved in mountain building"? The stuttering repetitions - "pages of a book", "record of contemporary life", "far from complete" - grate on the eyes, and Winterson spoils their symbolic import by heavy-handedly spelling it out for us: "The recurring language motif of Weight is 'I want to tell the story again,'" she tells us in her Introduction. Similarly, she does not trust her readers to understand that she is using sedimentary strata as a metaphor for ancient myths, so in the first chapter of Weight (really a superfluous second introduction, or a third introduction if you count the annoying preface) she spoon-feeds the concept to us: "All the stories are here, silt-packed and fossil-stored."Sedimentary rock is formed over vast expanses of time, as layer upon layer of sediment is deposited on the sea bottom.Being formed this way, such rock is usually arranged in a succession of horizontal bands, or strata, with the oldest strata lying at the bottom.Each band will often contain the fossilized remains of the plants and animals that died at the time at which the sediment was originally laid down.The strata of sedimentary rock are like the pages of a book, each with a record of contemporary life written on it. Unfortunately, the record is far from complete. The process of sedimentation in any one place is invariably interrupted by new periods in which sediment is not laid down, or existing sediment is eroded. The succession of layers is further obscured as strata become twisted or folded, or even completely inverted by enormous geological forces, such as those involved in mountain building . . .The strata of sedimentary rock are like the pages of a book . . .Each with a record of contemporary life written on it . . .Unfortunately the record is far from complete . . .
In spite of my irritation with Winterson's condescending writing style, I have to give Weight a mild recommendation, because the chapters that actually follow Atlas and Heracles are quite good. Like Atwood, Winterson does a nice job of approaching an ancient story with a modern sensibility. I don't remember any mythology text mentioning that Heracles delighted in masturbating in public, but it suits his boastful personality. More importantly, Winterson effectively conveys the quiet heroism of Atlas's lonely task. She ends with a clever twist reconciling the myth of Atlas with modern science's understanding of the universe.Jeanette Winterson's narrative framework in Weight detracts from what is otherwise a worthwhile story, but at least there is an interesting, meaningful story to be found once you get to it. By the same token, The Penelopiad focuses more on tale-telling (a "low art," according to Penelope) than any of Atwood's other recent books. Perhaps that is the benefit of Canongate limiting its Myth Series to critically acclaimed mainstream authors - in order for those authors to retell mythological stories, they have to actually tell a story.
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