Shitty authors often fill their books with useless details. It’s a sure sign the book is bad, but it’s understandable. If you have no idea what works, just throw everything in and hope something sticks. The problem with this shotgun approach in novels is that novels are whole pieces, and so it’s hard to isolate the good parts. Some good authors fill their books with details, and then chop off what doesn’t turn out to be a buried gun (see also: Chuck Palahniuk). Why do talented authors leave a lot of details is puzzling.
There’s no need to put a cover on Alias Grace. Buried in it is a brilliant mystery novel that uses it genre to create meaning, not just to create a puzzle. Atwood made a career of exploring the female experience, and the novel is almost the definitive one about our perception of women.
The phase ‘benevolent misogyny’ sounds crazy, and too bad the other term to describe it is ‘victim privilege’. These things exist, though. When people perceive you as lower than them, some of the ways they treat you differently will benefit you.
The perception of women was so narrow that it even excluded some terrible prejudices. Since women are viewed as pure until someone has sex with them, the idea they can be violent didn’t occur to people. The only reason Grace has a chance at redemption is because she’s a woman. No one thinks James may have been innocent, or cares what his reasons are. Boys will be boys, and James is just a boy who couldn’t control his violence.
The question of whether Grace is innocent or not isn’t answered, because the definitive answer isn’t the point. The point is what’s reader answer is and how much of it is based on Grace being female. The purpose of the puzzle is not the right answer but to examine our reactions.
Sexism is more complex than just making one group feel bad. Sexism goes both ways, with positive ideas about an oppressed group stemming from them being considered inferior. Atwood realizes that and this is why Atwood is one of the best authors on the subject.
Even in her comfort zone where she writes about discrimination, she’s still great in it. Her treatment of the subject is never black and white. There are sexist pigs. There are women who accept their position in society. There are men with savior’s complex. The contradicting sexism takes place in the same mind. Dr. Jordan seeks to help the outcasts and the insane. When you give him a woman desperate for love and an ugly servant, he’s regressing to the sexism he grew up with.
A common problem in Historical Fiction is that the authors give the historical characters a modern mindset. A third wave feminist in the 1800’s looks silly unless we get a reasonable explanation how she stumbled on these ideas. It’s like a person who talks about digital property before the internet was invented.
Atwood avoids this flaw. She knows that people who grew up in a sexist environment will think sexist thoughts, including women. I’ve seen plenty of women spit misogyny, such as slut-shaming and victim-blaming today. Of course Grace will buy into her role as a woman, and of course Dr. Jordan will treat ugly women in disgust if that’s all he knows. Thankfully, as time goes on and events pile up, events that challenge these perceptions take place. That’s Grace’s murder role. It’s there for people to question their ideas about the sexes, both the negative and positive.
These ideas are fully explored, so at least Atwood’s shower of details isn’t meant to cover up a lack. It doesn’t make it any less puzzling. It’s not a difference in prose style. Even at her most maximalist Atwood retains a gift for sentences that flow easily. She overcomes the challenge of writing in a less modern style, but unnecessary details remain unnecessary no matter how easy they are to read.
Everything little thing is described. These are not the purposeful descriptions of McEwan. Atwood has no modus operandi for choosing what to describe and what not to. The effect is similar to the shopping lists of Dragon Tattoo. They revealed nothing about the characters. Women had an obsession with appearances back in the day, but these aren’t descriptions that are focused on the beauty of things.
If Atwood wanted to express the characters’ obsession with things looking good, then she’d focus on the beauty of things. The shopping list is a static technique. It exists to give you a blueprint of how a room looks like, but it’s only important so you’ll understand the characters’ movements. Beyond that, telling us the color of the rag is unimportant unless the color or the rag has importance.
Less annoying are the words of wisdom that are dropped between paragraphs. There are many quotable moments, but they feel like they came out of an unpublished Words of Wisdom. I’d love to read a book like this by Atwood. Every novel I read by her paints an intelligent women, but it’s not believable when it comes out of Grace’s mind. She’s portrayed either as enigmatic or simple-minded. Intelligence isn’t a trait, so why do these pieces of wisdom tell us about the character?
The fairly-complex structure isn’t as harmful as these techniques, but it also feels like an unnecessary complexity. The exchange of letters is interesting, but they belong in a story more focused on Dr. Jordan. His main role here is to show a contradictionary sexist mind. He has an interesting psychological arc that gets drowned in too many descriptions and fear of exploring him. He never becomes the presence that the men had in Life Before Man. He exists to show us how Grace looks from the outside. There are too many passages on his life in general that are more than necessary to show he exists beyond the plot, and not enough to make him like a hero of his own story.
The news clippings in the beginning of chapters are better. In fact, Atwood should’ve used them more. She could have used a variety of clippings to show the subtle differences between sexist opinions. She has enough negative capabiliy to paint sexists as human beings while not justifying them. More clippings would allow her to experiment with the sexist mind.
The flaws in this novel prevent it from being great, but it’s still a success. Atwood is too good at prose, so even the filler writing is pleasant to read. The treatment of Atwood’s favorite subject is also the best she did so far, and it’s only over-writing that keeps this behind Cat’s Eye. Atwood said she doesn’t see herself as a feminist writer, but her literature is the ideal feminist. She doesn’t present a cliched narrative of bad men and angelic women (which is just another form of sexism anyway). She uses feminisn to question how think about sex and gender roles. There’s a lot to learn from her.
3.5 simple murders out of 5