From 3–Cent Pulp, Vol. 2 No. 1 May, 1974
D.M. Fraser offered one of the very few negative responses to Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, after it appeared in 1972. This piece appeared in the 4-page zine published every two weeks by Pulp Press, and was appreciated widely for its scathing treatment of the standard Canlit of the day, a critique that remains equally applicable forty years later.
By the time I came to read Surfacing, the novel had already established itself as some kind of Canadian Ur-Myth, the Great Summing Up of All Our Serious Themes. Enough to put anyone off, especially someone who suspects (as I do) that the themes Canadian writers like best to take seriously are remarkable chiefly for their banality, provincialism, chauvinism: the awful hillbilly earnestness of the Official Literature, so beloved of the Canada Council and people who write long poems about The Land and print them in sepia. It hasn’t been easy to escape Surfacing as the apotheosis of the genre, the novel that finally, definitively, gets our national shit together, thereby—coincidentally?—demonstrating once again the perspicacity of Ms. Atwood’s famous Victim Thesis as expounded in Survival. Given such a context, I was prepared to be humbled—and bored.
As it turned out, I was neither humbled nor (in fairness) bored; it isn’t possible to be humble in the presence of the wilfully third-rate, or to be bored by a book which infuriates to the point of frenzy. In fact, it was rather a lot of fun throwing Surfacing around the living-room, defacing it with rude comments, pacing up and down muttering curses; it’s been a long time—all the way since Beautiful Losers—since a Canadian novel had any effect on me at all. But I’m afraid my response wasn’t so much to Surfacing itself, as a piece of writing neither more nor less inept than most of what gets subsidized and praised here, as it was to the climate in which a work of consistent and self-congratulatory feeblemindedness can be sold, bought and thereafter glorified as an exemplary achievement, as something major. This book, whatever else it may be, is not major. It is so relentlessly minor that you could play it at a funeral and everyone would fall asleep.
As just about everyone knows, Surfacing is the story of a young woman, lately city-sophisticated, who goes home to the North Woods, in the company of some slick friends, to look for her father and ends up by Finding Herself, or some approximation thereof, in a (pseudo-) confrontation with Primeval Forces, one of which may or may not be Daddy. What an opportunity to combine the worst of Ernest Hemingway and Doris Lessing, and in an Authentic Canadian Setting, too! lrresistible .… Here are all the standard contrasts: Effete City vs. Tough Existential Bush, Conditioned Sanity vs. Primitive Madness, Emerging Woman vs. Oppressive Male, and best of all, our own very special local twist, Rapacious America vs. Victimized Canada. Add a dollop of Post-Hippie Coitus (see, we’ve come of age, haven’t we?), a dash of Endangered Scenery, a handful of Hardy Quebecois (two cultures, right?), and several cupfuls of Graduate School lntrospection, and there you have it: yessir, the Great Canadian Novel itself, just the sort of thing MacLeans and Saturday Night will lick up by the shovelful. As, predictably, they did.
Well, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because formulas aren’t themes, subject-matter is not content (cf John Berger), and content is not a matter of painting-by-number on the grid of our supposed national neuroses. Stereotypes, as the Great Critic said (rightly, for once) aren’t archetypes. There’s not a single realized human character in the whole of Surfacing—only a crew of one-dimensional clichés wandering around acting out the parts assigned to them by some Royal Commission on the Meaning of Life in Canada. There isn’t a single insight, a single flicker of political revelation, that hasn’t been hammered into baby powder by every liberal-bourgeois publication in the country since 1967. There isn’t a glimmer of self-perception that isn’t corroded, deformed, by self-indulgence, self-pity, the cant and posturing of Pop-psych. In place of feeling, we’re served a smorgasbord of leftover sentimentalities topped with cheap ironies like stale whipped cream; in place of thought, a catalogue of lnformation Canada platitudes; in place of reasoned political analysis, an undigested lump of anti-American rhetoric no self-respecting paranoiac would lay claim to. And, at the end, we have a cop-out even in terms of the novel itself: another of those weary reconciliations in which, god help us, Revolt is snuffed out in the great damp blanket of lnstant Transcendence. Women take note: the message here, what Surfacing at last comes down to, is that Woman’s place really is, after all, with her Man, just as long as he’s a Canadian: “he may have been sent as a trick. But he isn’t an American, I can see that now; he isn’t anything, he is only half-formed, and for that reason I can trust him.” Surfacing? Submerging’s more like it.
There’s more to complain of: secondary characters (i.e., everyone but the narrator) treated with condescension and/or contempt, prose that must have been cut with a dull knife from a mound of melting textbooks (How to Write Groovy and lnfluence People), scene upon scene that sinks like a waterlogged condom under the burden of enforced Significance. As a poet, Margaret Atwood has shown that she’s capable of incision and lucidity ; as an editor (of Bill Bissett’s Nobody owns th earth), that she does have an acute literary judgement. But there is no discernible incision or lucidity in Surfacing; and the wisest exercise of judgement, in this instance, might well have been to have flushed the manuscript down the drain.
But the real outrage here is that we are, as a “nation,” so obsessed with our (nonexistent) Cultural Identity that we are willing to settle for, and embrace, any sort of pretentious mediocrity which offers itself for our consumption, willing to accept any seriosity as seriousness, any topicality, however trivial, as Relevance, any narcissism as self-criticism, any thesis-izing as evidence of intelligence, any “Canadian Content”’ as actual content. Drivel like Surfacing gets touted in the press, writers of limited gifts like Margaret Atwood get transmogrified into culture-heroes (or heroines), billboards flog the New Canada (where dat?) as if it were a new brand of mouthwash, while we remain the same backwater, the same breeding-ground of pious kitsch, we always have been—and while we proceed, with murderous innocence, down precisely the same paths we’ve loved to condemn the United States for taking. If, as some suppose and Margaret Atwood apparently fears, this country will eventually be swallowed up—politically and culturally as already economically—by our more powerful neighbour, we need have no regrets: having championed, encouraged, inferiority for so long, we can scarcely consider it hardship, or change, to have another kind of inferiority imposed upon us. If a book like Surfacing is typical of what we value, then it may be that we have no sense of value worth defending, and no “identity” beyond the empty rationalizations of self-aggrandisement.
In any event, I eagerly await Ms. Atwood’s forthcoming books: Simonizing, Sanforizing, Sinking .…
— D. M. Fraser
Notes: Saturday Night was a middle-brow magazine of art and politics, and the Great Critic was Northrop Frye.
Class Warfare, a collection of short fiction by D.M. Fraser written between 1972 and 1974, will be published in a new edition this fall by Arsenal Pulp Press.