Those Tedious Extremist VictoriesnMargaret Atwood: Life Before Man;nSimon & Schuster; New York.nby Stephen L. TannernWhat is literary art supposed to donfor us? For a long time people thoughtnit was supposed to help us better understandnlife and consequently live morensuccessfully. According to this oldfashionednnotion, the artist shouldnstruggle toward a vision of how thingsnought to be. This might include describingnclearly where we are and what hasngone wrong, but underlying it all wasnthe assumption that human endeavornreally counts, that there is a way thingsnought to be, and discovering it andnaiming for it make sense, hi this traditionalnapproach, an author employs thentechniques of art to create order, meaningnand a basis for affirmation in annapparently chaotic world of undifferentiatednparticulars. He aspires to providensome kind of strategy for living. Sometimesnhe does not struggle enough andndisappoints us with naive or facile affirmations,nbut we sympathize with hisnintentions.nMargaret Atwood, in her fourthnnovel, writes within a different tradition,na modern tradition that employsnthe devices of art to demonstrate thatnlife is ultimately devoid of order andnmeaning, and human endeavor is at bottomnquite ridiculous. The assumptionsnunderlying this conception of literature’snfunction are that writing aboutnany kind of happiness is boring, thatngiving characters significant conflictsnto resolve by responsible, free-willednaction is cheating, and that a gloomy,nunresolved slice of life realistically portrayednis the essence of serious fiction.nThis is a fascinating novel in certainnways and contains a good deal of skillfulnwriting, but it is cynical and pessimisticnDr. Tanner is professor of English atnBrigham Young University.nin a way that makes it irrelevant for mostnreaders. The average person may atntimes be intrigued by a harsh, bleakndescription of life, but he never can benconvinced in his heart that life totallynlacks unselfishness, satisfying sexualnrelationships and self-fulfillment. I suspectnthat in order to praise this novel onenmust be converted to the newer attitudesnabout what fiction should be, convertednto the degree that one does not allowncommon sense and one’s own genuinenlife experience to break in and discreditnthe model. Writers in the old traditionn”. . . splfndiii. fully inif>!riiu;Ll work . . . ,nsometimes erred by portraying felicitynas too-easily achieved; Atwood errs bynportraying it as impossible of achievement.nNeither approach makes for significantnart.nLife Before Man is set in Torontonduring 1976 to 1978. The chapters,nnarrated in the present tense, are datednand alternatingly titled with the namesnof the three main characters: Elizabeth,nNate and Lesje. They resemble thirdpersonnjournal entries and allow singlencharacters and incidents to be viewednfrom a multiple perspective. The plot isneasily summarized. Instead of the usualntriangle, we have a hexagon. Elizabeth’snlover, Chris, has recently committednsuicide. Her husband, Nate, tiring ofnhis lover, Martha, begins an affair withnLesje, who has been living with William.nElizabeth retaliates by going to bed withnWilliam. Nate, after considerable indecision,nleaves Elizabeth to live with Lesje.nNothing works out well for anybody.nTwo characters commit suicide and fivenothers contemplate it.nTo the overworked subject of swappingnbed partners, Atwood has added anpsychological dimension intended to revealnhow the characters became whatnthey are. The dominant influence in eachncase is feminine. Elizabeth is tough andnnnself-centered because of a weak mother,nan irresponsible father and a monstrousnAunt Muriel who raised her. The aunt’snpersonality in turn had been distortednby a male-dominated culture: “AuntienMuriel had a strong personality and angood mind and she was not pretty, andnpatriarchal society punished her.” Natenvacillates in “mid-air” between optimismnand pessimism because his motherncombines both. She is a do-gooder whonkeeps a map of the world with pins in itnmarking the latest cases of oppression.nShe sees that her son receives the Am-nii is siiiH’rb. aimjili’if.”n— yivw York limes lioitk Rcricivnnesty International newsletter and wantsnhim to be a legal-aid lawyer. But her optimisticnactivism masks a cynicism; shenchose humanitarian effort as a desperatenalternative to suicide after her husbandnwas killed in war. The important influencesnupon Lesje were her grandmothers,none Ukrainian and one Jewish,nwho despised each other but doted onnher. She is socially insecure, thinkingnshe suffers from a “damaged gene pool.”nThis psychological dimension enhancesnthe novel but smacks of a psychologyntextbook.nJilizabeth seems to represent the liberatednwoman. She has a responsible jobnas a museum administrator. “She hatesnit when anyone has power over her,” andnher husband certainly holds no suchnpower. Her marriage with Nate is sonopen that anything of value in it leakednout, leaving it empty. She insists thatnNate “pull his own weight” by followingna maze of domestic legalities prescribingnwhen he does the cooking and dishes,nwhich part of the washing is his responsibility,nwhen he is to care for thenchildren, etc. Though he pays half thenrent, he feels the house is not as muchnhis as hers. Elizabeth is “big on the valuenof compromises,” but seems unac-n• • ^ H M H I SnJuly August 1080n