margaret atwood's "life before man" is the literary equivalent of taking a small, sharp rock and bashing it against your head over and over until your skull is an oozing, weeping pulp.
usually, i'm an ardent fan of atwood. i think her last book, 'the blind assassin,' is nimbly written. deft, even. it's smart. i usually dislike the 'book-within-a-book-within-a-book' motif; it's generally clumsy and confusing. but she held such command over her stories and her characters it was breathtaking. i was totally absorbed when i read that book, and i got that high that comes from reading something that really, really cooks. you know that high? i love that feeling. i had it all the time when i was a kid, but as i've read and learned and started pulling books apart, it doesn't happen with every book anymore. and i felt it with 'the blind assassin.'
i disliked 'life before man' not because the characters are unsympathetic. and i didn't mind the meandering plot. i objected to the idea that seemed to wind itself around every facet of the text, every action of the characters, every motive that was placed before the reader: there is no hope, that we survive merely because survival has become routine. i objected to the idea that there is no beauty, there is no joy, there is no real connection possible with another human being. if i were to paint a portrait of humankind based upon this book, i would have have an entirely black canvas. provocative, maybe, but really boring after awhile.
the symbolism was heavy-handed and redundant. two of the main characters work in a science museum. one, lashia, is obsessed with dinosaurs and loves to envision herself in the dinosaur world - but always as a spectator, never a participant. in one scene she imagines herself to be an acorn hanging on a tree. she's also torn between her jewish/ukrainian heritage. blah blah blah, we get it - lashia has no home, no land or even time to call her own, and accordingly, no sense of self. hit me with a brick next time - it'll be faster and i can avoid the library late fines. the other, elizabeth, is a manager at the museum, removed from the science but nevertheless entangled in this "cycle of life" bullshit. there's a cycle of life? really? hakuna mata, everyone! so that's what the lion king and a million other pop culture/religious messages were saying! wowzers! elizabeth was essentially sold to her aunt by her mother, her sister drowned herself in 2" of water, her former lover blew his brains out. elizabeth is a shell of a human being. so what does she do? she makes her ex-husband nate buy his access to their children! she lays on her bed like a corpse! she removes herself from life! my god, WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN??? these people have surrounded themselves with death, or death has surrounded them. they make no movement towards living. seemingly everyone either commits suicide or should or really really wanted to at some point. and nate, of course, is a lawyer-turned-toy maker who neglects his children. blah blah blah. again, color me bored. you know what? life does suck. it's messy and we hurt each other and we hurt ourselves. and yeah, no one will ever know us like we know ourselves. but that doesn't mean that there isn't love. it doesn't negate the good that we do (don't worry, atwood tries with nate's mother... aw, but that's stupid too).
i'm getting myself worked up. i'm reading ivanhoe now. and you know what? i LIKE reading a book where the author is clearly enjoying himself. and you know what's even crazier? i LIKE being alive in this world. argh, that book annoyed me beyond belief. atwood is usually more subtle than that. i found nothing in this book to redeem it.
and the real burn? because i had to drag myself through it, i now owe the library 3 dollars in late fines. fuck!
UPDATE: holy fuck is ivanhoe anti-semitic. jesus, i'm embarrassed to have read this book in public. i'm even more embarrassed to have said i liked it in a public forum. fucking gross. the fight scenes? good. the rest of the book? fucking horrible.