FIFTY PAGES into The Robber Bride, a moment from television surfaced in my memory: it's "The Journal," three or four years ago, and Margaret Atwood is on a panel of women writers with Marilyn French, Kate Millett and Anita Desai. The subject at hand is the new thrust of feminist thought, how women are not, after all, just biologically adapted men who have been socialized to comply, but are different by nature, more nurturing, less aggressive, our hope in saving a testosterone-ravaged planet. And then Margaret Atwood, asking in that deadpan drawl, "Are you saying that women are morally superior to men?"
It's a question that no one leaped to answer (in fact, as I recall, the discussion lay in ruins), so Margaret Atwood has taken another go herself at showing the dangerous and covert world of female aggression in a huge and delicious new novel. The Robber Bride is the adult side of the girls' society in Cat's Eye, illuminating, this time, female sexual competition. It's a funnier, quirkier book than Cat's Eye, like an expansive Fay Weldon, with all the colours shaded in.
The setting of this new novel is the battlefield of love, and Zenia, Atwood's "robber bride," is a romantic terrorist. She's one of those women with no last name, inventing and reinventing herself according to the contingencies of the moment. She has her hair dyed or her breasts enlarged ("upping her strike capability"); she sports a black eye or fakes cancer (in this arena, weakness is the ultimate weapon). In the background is a canvas of war as we've defined it: lives are rearranged by the Second World War and Viet Nam, the oil wells of Kuwait smoke. The characters are for the most part war brides and war babies, those pithy reminders of the synchronicity of love and war.
In the first major scene in the book, three middle-aged women, three of Zenia's victims, huddle in terror in a Toronto cafe. They've just seen Zenia walk in, some years after her funeral (longtime Atwood readers would have known better than to fall for this ruse). The three are friends because they share a long and bloody history with Zenia. She's exploited their weaknesses and their goodwill, she's betrayed their trust, she's turned their men into lovestruck zombies and stolen them away.
After the first recounting of this dramatic reappearance, it takes Atwood some 450 pages to pick up the thread of action in the present time. First she excavates the history of each of Zenia's victims, moving around the circle of her story three times, in a leisurely way, almost ritualistically, having already shown her hand (if not what is up her sleeve). This repetition makes the novel relentlessly symmetrical, but it does have several useful functions. It adds an element of fatalism to the story, a sense of how deeply rooted our behaviour patterns are. Using three dramatically different points of view also reminds us how "quixotic a notion" the truth is, a fact all feminist deconstructionists know and are warned not to forget:
Every sober-sided history is at least half sleight-of-hand: the right hand waving its poor snippets of fact, out in the open for all to verify, while the left hand busies itself with its own devious agendas, deep in its hidden pockets.
The voices of Atwood's protagonists are so well realized that each narrative strand is a novel in itself. -The women are wonderful foils for each other. Tiny, brainy, matter-of-fact Tony is a military historian, plotting battles on a Plastic me- and-flour-paste relief map, with green peppercorns and kidney beans standing in for the troops. Charis is, well, a fruitcake, a fragile, crazy, and wise hodgepodge of "gauzy metaphysics" who drinks cabbage juice, reads auras, and channels energies with an amethyst geode. Roz is larger than life and twice as rich, a mother hen at home and a shark in her corner office. ("You have a gourmet's taste for the underbelly," says her assistant admiringly.)
All three are nice women, though, and what they have to look at is the fact that Zenia came into their lives with their permission. In fact, each one welcomed her, knew her in a way deeper than consciousness: she is the dark side, the doppelganger. For Charis, she evokes Karen, the desperate girl Charis was before she changed her name and committed herself to repressing any negative energy in her life. For Tony, who is vaguely dyslexic, she's the little girl named YNOT who would stand behind the curtains surreptitiously writing KCUF and TIHS in the condensation on the windows.
The motif of reversals and palindromes runs through the novel, and Atwood uses it to turn the popular mythology of sexual relationships inside out. The chivalry of women is highlighted, the way they overfunction in relationships, protecting men from "the real world, especially the real world of women, (which) is far too harsh a place." In partnerships, both are devoted to the same cause - the happiness of the male partner. Wives collude with men in the myth that the housework is shared, rescue them from sexual adventures that have gone out of control, build up their self-esteem after a battering by the other woman. Zenia is a crash course for Atwood's protagonists in the potential largesse - and the dangers -of using their powers overtly. As usual, in her sexual politics, Atwood patronizes no one, takes no prisoners.
What The Robber Bride illustrates is the growth in the last decade of Atwood's ability to embody her ideas in real, fully imagined situations and characters -characters that she treats with something approaching tenderness. The denouement of the novel is a bit contrived, no doubt because the plot of Zenia's return is little more than a framing device. The three tales it frames, however, are compelling and astonishingly rich composites of story and idea. Margaret Atwood does here what she has always done brilliantly: she looks at the world and names things, putting them in their places with terrifying accuracy.