Flirting with Tragedy: Margaret Atwood's the Penelopiad, and the Play of the Text

Article excerpt

Margaret Atwood's recent book The Penelopiad has been classified, perhaps too easily, as a "novel." Unlike Ian McEwan's book On Chesil Beach, which may well have lost out in the running for the 2007 Man Booker Prize because the judges were influenced by the chorus of reviewers and bloggers who argued loudly that it was not a novel at all, not even a "short novel," but a "novella," Atwood's book has generally escaped such criticism, even though it is about same length as McEwan's "novella." (1) The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus announces in its subtitle that it intends to retell the myth of Penelope and Odysseus, the order of their names, like the play on the title of The Aeneid, cuing readers to Atwood's focus. Additionally she has delighted in recounting the anecdote of Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate, descending upon her at breakfast--"my weakest time of day"--in Edinburgh to ask her if she would contribute to his series of books The Myths, with its aim of rendering Greek myths "contemporary." (2) James Joyce in his novel Ulysses may have borrowed the story of Odysseus and Penelope to provide an ironic framework for his vision of the modern world, but no publisher "commissioned" Joyces novel, and it was hardly his intent to retell the myth with an eye toward simply making the classical myth "contemporary." What seems to inform the Canongate framework for The Myths series is an emphasis on retelling the myth as a sort of "adaptation" of a somewhat loose oral narrative with variants resulting from the diversity of renditions of the story by various voices over several centuries or more. As in film adaptation, the Canongate assignment presumably left ample room for the adapter's inventiveness yet clearly required a concern for the essentials of the myth. Atwood, for example, could not have left Tele-machus out of the story, any more than she could have married off Odysseus to Helen upon his return to Greece. Joyce, on the other hand, had no need to perform that obligatory "faithfulness" cherished by audiences of, say, Merchant Ivory film adaptations of E. M. Forster's novels. In its inability to evade the exigencies of a kind of "faithfulness" to an unwritten ur-text of the myth, The Penelopiad prob-lematizes the conventional genre of "novel" to such a degree that it seems legitimate to classify it not as a "novel" but as a prose fiction version of the myth, a kind of "novelization," or adaptation of a prior text. At the same time, there are clear evidences of Atwood's idiosyncratic interpretation of the myth.

Central, then, to a reading of Atwood's Penelopiad is what the book's readers know about its genesis, in many cases before they even begin reading. Because she is a major contemporary writer, the appearance of any of her works generates dozens of interviews, and in some of those following the publication of The Penelopiad she has commented on how the book came into being. And even if readers were unaware of what she had said in interviews, the introduction to this retelling of the Penelope and Odysseus myth makes her intentions unmistakably clear. Once again, there is the troubling matter of the book's having been "commissioned"--troubling, because musical compositions are often commissioned, but literary works seldom are, except perhaps in the case of poet laureates who might be asked to pen a poem for the Queen's diamond jubilee. (3) Furthermore, readers may have too fully enjoyed the high (and low) comedy of Atwood's interpretation of the Penelope and Odysseus myth to note that the structure of The Penelopiad is paying much less homage to the conventions of the novel than readers usually expect. In a number of fascinating ways to be explored in what follows, Atwood appears less interested in writing a novel than offering a pastiche of literary forms or genres. Perhaps the most extensive literary form is the one most appropriate to her Greek material--classical tragedy itself, although the Chorus of her Maids offers its own array of pastiches. …