Does Margaret Atwood Get Depressed?

I really don’t know why Margaret Atwood never appeared on my reading radar for so many years. I only ended up reading The Handmaid’s Tale because I had to teach it for A Level. I’ve just finished reading Oryx and Crake. Another fantastic example of scorchingly observational science fiction in this stark tale of post-apocalyptic USA. Through each particular lens, she is able to examine the minutiae of current existence, through taking elements of them and exaggerating and expanding them, to a level that, while it does seem absurd, often seems all too close to a worryingly possibly future. While The Handmaid’s Tale is largely concerned with gendered identity and female oppression, as well as the indoctrination of religion, Oryx and Crake is more of a critique of the over-reliance current society has on technology, and everything that goes with it. This of course ranges from the need for thrills on the Internet, and the current splicing of genes and biological warfare taken to new extremes in the giant bunny that glows green. I was initially a little put off by the Frankenstein nature of some of this, and its implicit criticism of genetic science, but it’s hard not to be drawn into her stories. And if nothing else, she is a well-researched writer, so her work always has some sort of basis in existing fact (one of the reasons that The Handmaid’s Tale is so disturbing is that all of the rituals and tortures that take place have actually happened at some point in the history of the world). So with all of this doom and gloom, I can’t help but wonder if her researching and telling of these morbid yet factual tales leads to a bit of desperation on the subject of the world and its foibles.

I’ve recently found myself shying away from the keyboard. The bits of the book that I’m working on come at the climax. And it isn’t very nice. The things I’m putting my characters through are unpleasant, to say the least. To create, to absorb myself into the details of a character’s life until I know their every whim, history, and everything in between. And then put them through hell. Because that’s what makes an interesting, compelling book. To a greater or lesser extent, you must pit your characters against antagonism, difficulty, tough choices. Otherwise their wouldn’t be a story. Of course, what it opens up, and I always find more starkly in fantasy, is an examination of the human condition. In Oryx and Crake, Atwood creates a future which is abominable but doesn’t seem that far away anymore. Over reliance on technology, senses numbed to violence and sex so we seek more extreme and ridiculous forms of entertainment and pleasure, a world where the poor are starkly delineated and shunned out from having basic commodities. Freedoms exchanged for a warped idea of ‘safety.’ So I wonder if she, too (and to expand it, any writer in the world) has found that in the process of examining the world and its people a little more closely, trying to capture the true emotions of people, or even just making a story come to life, they have found themselves looking at what they discover and finding it makes you want to go and have a lie down (this can also be caused by a big roast dinner or a late one the night before).

So who is she (we, the reader, the invisible writer) actually rooting for? She presents us with two personalities, that arguably represent the different ways of viewing the world. And frankly, I don’t know if I agree with Jimmy more than Crake. Jimmy is us, the person who believes in the power of the human spirit, the fallibility of humankind but within those very flaws are the seeds of redemption. Crake, a sociopath and genius, is able to view humanity impassively, view it as the disease to itself and the planet it is, the base urges that drive us destroying each other and our habitat, while we squabble over inconsequential things we invented like money and power. Jimmy is pathetic, while Crake is incredibly cool, verging on godlike as the novel progresses. Jimmy is romantic and conniving, ruminating uselessly on the life he had before and the mistakes that he made, whereas Crake is decisive and clinical, his  plans and ideas following a strict order that he has planned for years. In essence, of course I believe in Jimmy, but there’s something to be said for being cool. I’ve never been cool.

She must have got depressed. Her observation of the darker side of human nature is revealing, but she must find it hard to type some of those sentences (I’m currently reading her book On Writers and Writing and she talks about the writer self and the ‘real’ self. Apparently she’s quite cheery and smiley). While constructing these worlds, pitting the characters against, most poignantly, themselves, and the people they love the most, she is revealing a chilling understanding of just how exactly we seem hard-wired to destroy everything we love. It’s times like this I understand why drinkers are famous writers. Or is it the other way around? The unexamined life may not be worth living, but spending a large chunk of your day examining the darkest parts of humanity gives you an urge for a stiff drink at around 4pm. Perhaps this is one of the consequences of writing. There must be some drawbacks to not having the same 9-5 schedule as everyone else, or the fact that you can sneak out for a sunny lunch for a couple of hours without getting told off. Don’t get me wrong, staring at a blank page for three hours and agonising on the best way to describe a sofa is not exactly a joyful experience, and a lot of it seems to be much more hard graft and slog rather than creative explosions bursting forth joyfully onto the page, but it’s better than a lot of jobs. And maybe someone has to do this for us. In the daily grind, caught up in the whirlwind of life, very few people have the time to sit back and truly ruminate on what makes us human, or what might destroy us, or even save us, in the end. Losing yourself in a wonderful book that does this for you, so you can have some profound moments of contemplation on a busy train, is how writers are truly indispensable.

So, Mrs. Atwood, do you? And for that matter, what about all those writers out there, or anyone else that is troubled by the nature of being at 3am in the morning? Do let me know.

Dear Terry,

I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time. It was on one of those lists that you make, along with changing the address on your driving licence and washing the curtains. Now you’ve gone and spoiled it, by dying. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the irony, you yourself might have had a little dialogue with the man himself, I won’t even attempt to write that, I wouldn’t presume to possess the stoical wry humour you managed to find in the darkest moments of the human experience. Still, it was a bit rude not to wait for my letter.

You probably had better things to do than read this, to be honest. What with dealing with Pratchett’s posterior cortical atrophy and all, writing yet more fantastic works, generally reading and learning all the amazing stuff you knew (how did you keep it all in your head?) along with hanging out with your mates. And quaffing. So maybe it’s best you didn’t get to read it after all. The thing is, it turns out you had a pretty profound impact on my life. In fact I didn’t really realise how much until I started crying yesterday when I found out you’d died. I’ve heard of people doing that for people they’ve never met, but I always thought it was a bit lame to be honest. Just the thought of all of your wonderful characters, your lightning wit, that fabulous prose. The idea of it just cutting off. Well, it was emotional. I think people underestimate the power of humour.

I wrote my dissertation about you. I’ve always adored books, but by the time I got to the third year of my degree, I have to say I was getting a little tired of the snobbery surrounding jumped-up ideas of ‘literature.’ Don’t get me wrong, there’s a reason great works are considered great works, but I also get frustrated at the idea that something has to be difficult and arduous to read in order to be ‘worthy,’ that unless I need a thesaurus to wade through it, I’m not learning anything. Luckily, I found a lecturer who shared my absolute conviction that, on the sly, you’d been writing a bit of literature yourself. Sneaky. I can see how you disguised it. You set it in an alternate world (fantasy is obviously not the same as Real Books) and made it funny. Dear Gods, it’s hardly surprising not many people noticed. The thing is, as far as I’m concerned, literature is something that changes the way you see the world a little bit, that leaves you staring out of the window for a good five minutes, thinking about why we do what we do, and how the world works. It also means something different to you each time you come back to it, which is something not all books can achieve. Yours do. I started reading you in my teens, I’m still going now, and am frantically buying up as many Pratchett books as possible to treat myself to that fabulous experience again. To be honest, I found the dissertation again the last time I moved house and it was bloody awful, so I’m glad you didn’t read that. Nothing like a twenty-year-old trying to sound like an academic to ruin some decent ideas, but I’m still so proud I did it. Somewhere, in the University of Southampton (in L-space, in fact) there is a little bit of writing that acknowledges the impact that you’ve had on the world. And I’m not the only one.

I think those Discworld books are brilliant, by the way. My first real exposure to feminism came when I read Wyrd Sisters. Nothing like satire to expose the foibles of representation in the world. You wouldn’t stop there though. Just because it was trolls, doesn’t mean your examination of race relations in Ankh-Morpork had any less resonance in Feet of Clay. In asking questions of the tropes we have saturated ourselves with in the world of fairytale, you kept asking us to look again at the things we do here, in Roundworld, and wonder if things aren’t all that different, and shouldn’t need a bit of a rethink. You know, after a bit of quaffing. Did I mention how funny you are? That’s hard. I went to a stand up night the other day for people just starting out. As expected, it was varied. Some were great, some less so. Genuine humour is difficult. You’ve probably made me laugh out loud more than anyone I’ve ever met. That stuff stays with you. When I was training to be a teacher, we learned how the brain makes much stronger associations with things when they provoke a humorous response. Which is why I could never understand why things that are funny are always dismissed as being trivial. The things I remember from your books have stayed with me far longer than any stuffy professor boring me to tears with his ideas about…stuff (see, can’t even think of anything I learned).

Not just those books though. Two of my favourite books in the whole world (and trust me, I read. A lot.) are Good Omens and Nation. They are simply wonderful. The kind of books that made me sit and stare out the window for, well, a whole afternoon actually, just thinking about that wonderful world, the language, the characters, allowing myself to wallow, to savour the beauty of that experience. That doesn’t happen very often. I want to be a writer, Terry. I wonder if I would have done what I did – quit my job, started an MA, chosen an impoverished life where I agonise over sentences, stare out the window more in frustration than enjoyment sometimes, if you hadn’t made me believe in the power of words. Which is even more of a bugger, because now you’re dead I can’t blame you and ask if you wouldn’t mind sending me a few quid to help with the rent. Like I said, sneaky.

If I were you, I’d think of some sort of wise statement to end this letter on, to allow the camera to zoom out in a lovely metaphorical way, leave us all whimsical and smiling. But I can’t. And I worry that no-one else will be able to do it quite like you. Which is a bit crap, really. You’ll understand why I’m finding it hard to end on a positive note. I’ll give it a go.

Instead of sitting around and feeling a bit bloody miserable, maybe we can imagine all those people, literally millions, who have had the great fortune to lose themselves in one of your amazing books. And let’s imagine how they’re all writing letters, just like this, maybe in their head, maybe out loud (although that’s riskier, socially) but they’re doing it, all the same. I think they’d all sign it off in the same way.