The Books: “The Edible Woman” (Margaret Atwood)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

n3108.jpgThe Edible Woman – by Margaret Atwood (her first novel). I got into Atwood in college when I read The Handmaid’s Tale, which blew me away. So I quickly went out and read her other published books. Cat’s Eye was still in the future at that point- that is, hands down, her best book – and one of my favorite novels of all time. But still – there are some other GEMS in her repertoire. The Edible Woman, however, is not one of them. I don’t remember a thing about it – except that the narrator works at some kind of cake company – and the references to food sprinkled throughout are really disgusting – almost like The Thief, The Cook, The Wife and Her Lover. After I saw that movie, I never wanted to eat again. Consumption looked disgusting. Atwood’s point in this book – the overriding theme – is the objectification of women, and how women are seen as things to be consumed. By whatever – your work, your husband, children … there is no autonomous self. Or – it is very difficult to maintain an autonomous self when you are seen as just another version of a birthday cake. But honestly, I don’t remember any of it. It’s a first novel – so it has the flaws of a beginner – but still: you can feel Atwood in there. You can feel the embryo of Atwood’s brilliance – her coldness, her ruthlessness, her unblinking stare at reality as she sees it. There’s no soft pedal in her books. I flipped through The Edible Woman just now and I seriously remember none of it – it’s been decades since I read it … but I did find one excerpt near the beginning that rang a bell, so I’ll post that here today. The narrator – who seems kind of a lost and passive person (a typical Atwood narrator) – has gone to visit her old friend Clara – who is married with a bunch of kids. Atwood is so good when she is describing a certain TYPE of woman – the type of woman who doesn’t fit into an easily classified box. Like – it is assumed that motherhood comes naturally to women. Atwood has never felt that way – at least not across the board. It might come naturally to SOME women, but Atwood isn’t interested in those women. She’s interested in the ones who struggle with it, who maybe do not have the soft-focus glow of maternal glory running in their veins – who LOVE their kids – but who really have a hard time settling in to new roles, and giving up their old ones. This is Atwood’s milieu. This book was published in 1969. And Atwood’s still here, still writing, still challenging herself – she’s not always successful – but that’s her job as a writer. She’s on the edge. I love that about her. And she was on the edge here, with Edible Woman.

Also – Atwood talks a lot in Cat’s Eye about the isolation of women. Being holed up in our own glass boxes – soundproof – bulletproof – unable to touch each other, hear each other. Men can get in there with us, but women can’t get to each other. She writes about that a lot. You can feel her working on that theme in the following excerpt. Clara has gone off into motherhood – and our narrator is trapped in her soundproof box of singledom – and Clara is trapped in her own box – and their friendship has suffered. And notice that it’s Joe – Clara’s husband – who sees this, and speaks it out (his last line). Which is interesting – and also very Atwood-esque. Men – baffled by their depressed womenfolk – trying to make things better.

Oh – and notice the description of who Clara used to be. It SEEMS like she would be the kind of person who would “take” to motherhood … yet it seems to overwhelm and confuse her. Atwood always does stuff like that – which makes her a good writer, sometimes a great writer. She doesn’t truck in stereotypes – although she deals with them all the time – because don’t we all?

Another example of her complexity (and I keep bringing it up – because I think sometimes Atwood is tarred with WAY too wide a brush – she writes about that generation of women – who were children in the 50s, and young women in the 60s – and what a transition it was … and because of that she sometimes is seen as “anti-male” or “femi-nazi” or any of those other stupid terms that don’t really mean anything – at least not where she is concerned.) But anyway – another example is that after the excerpt below – the narrator and her kind of worldly sexy friend Aisley, who was with her, walk away – and Ainsley keeps saying, “How can Clara let her husband just wait on her like that? She’s flourishing – he’s all wiped out … why doesn’t she get off her ass and DO something??”

Her people end up feeling human – rather than ciphers – because she always knows that the surface isn’t the whole story.

Excerpt from The Edible Woman – by Margaret Atwood

Arthur had reached us and stood beside his mother’s chair, still frowning, and Clara said to him, “Why have you got that funny look, you little deon?” She reached down behind him and felt his diaper. “I should have known,” she sighed, “he was so quiet. Husband, your son has shat again. I don’t know where, it isn’t in his diaper.”

Joe handed round the drinks, then knelt and said to Arthur firmly but kindly, “Show Daddy where you put it.” Arthur gazed up at him, not sure whether to whimper or smile. Finally he stalked portentously to the side of the garden, where he squatted down near a clump of dusty red chrysanthemums and stared with concentration at a patch of ground.

“That’s a good boy,” Joe said, and went back into the house.

“He’s a real nature-child, he just loves to shit in the garden,” Clara said to us. “He thinks he’s a fertility-god. If we didn’t clean it up this place would be one big manure field. I don’t know what he’s going to do when it snows.” She closed her eyes. “We’ve been trying to toilet-train him, though according to some of the books it’s too early, and we got him one of those plastic potties. He hasn’t the least idea what it’s for: he goes around wearing it on his head. I guess he thinks it’s a crash-helmet.”

We watched, sipping our beer, as Joe crossed the garden and returned with a folded piece of newspaper. “After this one I’m going on the pill,” said Clara.

When Joe had finally finished cooking the dinner we went into the house and ate it, seated around the heavy table in the dining-room. The baby had been fed and exiled to the carriage on the front porch, but Arthur sat in a high-chair, where he evaded with spastic contortions of his body the spoonfuls of food Clara poked in the direction of his mouth. Dinner was wizened meat balls and noodles from a noodle mix, with lettuce. For dessert we had something I recognized.

“This is that new canned rice pudding; it saves a lot of time,” Clara said defensively. “It’s not too bad with cream, and Arthur loves it.”

“Yes,” I said. “Pretty soon they’ll be having Orange and Caramel too.”

“Oh?” Clara deftly intercepted a long drool of pudding and returned it to Arthur’s mouth.

Ainsley got out a cigarette and held it for Joe to light. “Tell me,” she said to him, “do you know this friend of theirs – Leonard Slank? They’re being so mysterious about him.”

Joe had been up and down all during the meal, taking off the plates and tending things in the kitchen. He looked dizzy. “Oh, yes. I remember him,” he said, “though he’s really a friend of Clara’s.” He finished his pudding quickly and asked Clara whether she needed any help, but she didn’t hear him. Arthur had just thrown his bowl on the floor.

“But what do you think of him?” Ainsley asked, as though appealing to his superior intelligence.

Joe stared at the wall, thinking. He didn’t like giving negative judgments, I knew, but I also knew he wasn’t fond of Len. “He’s not ethical,” he said at last. Joe is an Instructor in Philosophy.

“Oh, that’s not quite fair,” I said. Len had never been unethical toward me.

Joe frowned at me. He doesn’t know Ainsley very well, and tends anyway to think of all unmarried girls as easily victimized and needing protection. He had several times volunteered fatherly advice to me, and now he emphasized his point, “He’s not someone to get … mixed up with,” he said sternly. Ainsley gave a short laugh and blew out smoke, unperturbed.

“That reminds me,” I said, “you’d better give me his phone number.”

After dinner we went to sit in the littered living-room while Joe cleared the table. I offered to help, but Joe said that was all right, he would rather I talked to Clara. Clara had settled herself on the chesterfield in a nest of crumpled newspapers with her eyes closed; again I could think of little to say. I sat staring up at the centre of the ceiling where there was an elaborately-scrolled plaster decoration, once perhaps the setting for a chandelier, remembering Clara at highschool: a tall fragile girl who was always getting exempted from Physical Educaton. She’d sit on the sidelines watching the rest of us in our blue-bloomered gymsuits as though anything so sweaty and ungainly was foreign enough to her to be a mildly-amusing entertainment. In that classroom full of oily potato-chip-fattened adolescents she was everyone’s ideal of translucent perfume-advertisement femininity. At university she had been a little healthier, but had grown her blonde hair long, which made her look more medieval than ever: I had thought of her in connection with the ladies sitting in rose-gardens on tapestries. Of course her mind wasn’t like that, but I’ve always been influenced by appearances.

She married Joe Bates at the end of our second year, and at first I thought it was an ideal match. Joe was then a graduate student, almost seven years older than she was, a tall shaggy man with a slight stoop and a protective attitude towards Clara. Their worship of each other before the wedding was sometimes ridiculously idealistic; one kept expecting Joe to spread his overcoat on mud puddles or drop to his knees to kiss Clara’s rubber boots. The babies had been unplanned: Clara greeted her first pregnancy with astonishment that such a thing could happen to her, and her second with dismay; now, during her third, she had subsided into a grim but inert fatalism. Her metaphors for ehr children included barnacles encrusting a ship and limpets clinging to a rock.

I looked at her, feeling a wave of embarrassed pity sweep over me; what could I do? Perhaps I could offer to come over some day and clean up the house. Clara simply had no practicality, she wasn’t able to control the more mundane aspects of life, like money or getting to lectures on time. When we lived in residence together she used to become hopelessly entangled in her room at intervals, unable to find matching shoes or enough clean clothes to wear, and I would have to dig her out of the junk pile she had allowed to accumulate around her. Her messiness wasn’t actively creative like Ainsley’s, who could devastate a room in five minutes if she was feeling chaotic; it was passive. She simply stood helpless while the tide of dirt rose round her, unable to stop it or evade it. The babies were like that too; her own body seemed somehow beyond her, going its own way without reference to any direction of hers. I studied the pattern of bright flowers on the maternity smock she was wearing; the stylized petals and tendrils moved with her breathing, as though they were coming alive.

We left early, after Arthur had been carried off to bed screaming after what Joe called “an accident” behind the living-room door.

“It was no accident,” Clara remarked, opening her eyes. “He just loves peeing behind doors. I wonder what it is. He’s going to be secretive when he grows up, an undercover agent or a diplomat or something. The furtive little bastard.”

Joe saw us to the door, a pile of dirty laundry in his arms. “You must come and see us again soon,” he said, “Clara has so few people she can really talk to.”

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5 Responses to The Books: “The Edible Woman” (Margaret Atwood)

  1. belledame222 says:

    It’s not great, and the characters are -really- kind of loathsome. It feels very much like a “college” piece–it’s very much wrapped up in satire of academia (and surroundings).

    and yeah, it’s very much about disgust. she’s not terribly sensual, on the whole; or, well, it’s a minimalistic sort of sensuality; you see it come up most, i think, in “Handmaid’s Tale,” in stark contrast to the terrible repression. the ascetic sensuality of a hardboiled egg; the tactile delights of a set of Scrabble squares.

    she comes off rather anhedonic on the whole, though, stunning as her prose can be; disgust always creeps in. something else she shares with Orwell.

  2. belledame222 says:

    …actually, i think she works in some sort of advertisement firm.

  3. Eryndil says:

    You know, i had to read this novel for an english project once, and i thought it was a load of rubbish and i still do. It’s well written and about a subject that cannot be ignored, but why must it be SO feminist? Doesn’t Atwood realise that men weren’t built to cause grief to women, some women cause grief to men – supposedly fighting for the right to equality. Now, i’m a woman, and i don’t feel oppressed by the male population. Some of them have snide remarks to say about my figure, or what size of bra i wear, but women are just the same if not worse. There is a difference between feminism and equality. Feminist are trying to turn the tables and be just as abusive to men and men were to women. Is this right? I don’t think so.

  4. red says:

    Eyrendil – your comment is a bit blinkered. To say “why is this book so feminist” is like complaining that Moby Dick has too much about boats in it. Don’t complain about what a book IS. How about you read it and try to discover WHY the author feels the way she does?

    This is Atwood at her youngest – her books are no longer so radical – but this was published in the 60s when things were much worse for women, in terms of patriarchal structures.

    But there’s a tone in your comment I find off-putting.

    To say that YOU have never felt oppressed by men reminds me of a very useful saying: An anecdote is not data.

    You give me an anecdote. It may be meaningful to you, because i’ts your life – but it is NOT data to prove a point.

    So what that you never felt oppressed. Maybe you’re an idiot. Maybe you’re lucky. Who knows. There’s a big wide world out there where women, who are not morons, or stupid, or unintelligent, ARE pissed off. Why don’t you find out why?

    You sound like you have too big a chip on your shoulder though to really listen, or even have curiosity about how OTHER people might respond to men. You’re just so certain that your own personal experience should be everybody’s.

    Here is how I feel … what is the matter with everyone else that they DON’T feel that way??

    I think you need to ask other questions when reading a book such as this. Not the silly “why does it have to be so feminist”? How about you open your mind a bit and see WHY Atwood was so pissed off?

  5. Jay-jay459 says:

    I am halfway through the book. I find Atwood to be a marvelous writer, she uses small points to create a significant meaning…Ainsley so far is hilarious by the way

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