Strophe/Antistrophe: Atwood's "Penelopiad"

I am not normally someone who achieves that most invoked of readerly cliches, the one-sitting reading. I must admit that I am not a very fast reader, and rarely have the stamina or attention span for the sort of prolonged immersion necessary to pull off this feat. Only Jane Austen, for some peculiar reason, regularly inspires these sorts of insomniac long-haul readathons. But this afternoon, my mind utterly fried from jetlag, I sat down with Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad," a slim volume from Canongate's new series "The Myths," and read it from beginning to end.

This is not necessarily praise, although it does speak to the straightforward readability of Atwood's lightly feminist refiguring of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" from the forgotten point of view of patient Penelope. I have enjoyed many of Atwood's other books, but I find them oddly ephemeral, eluding any attempt to fix what I admired in my memory. The problem with "The Penelopiad" is that its strategies are so familiar from other, more complex feminist and postmodern rethinkings of canonical works (like Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" or John Barth's "Chimera") that they are altogether predictable. As many critics have noted, it is hard to read "The Odyssey" without wondering what is going on in Penelope's head, but Atwood seems to have given voice to the assumptions that we all make about what Odysseus's patient wife is thinking, rather than complicating these assumptions. The prose of Penelope's remembrances is straightforward to the point of clumsiness at times, which only underscores the banality of her reactions. The seams in her fictionalization show all too often in ways that are not so much wittily self-conscious as oddly wooden, as if this narrative were patched together too quickly and never fully completed its metamorphosis from research to fiction.

There is one aspect of the novel in which these criticisms are largely untrue. A chorus of interlocutors, made up of the lady's maids whom Odysseus and Telemachus bafflingly murder at the end of "The Odyssey," regularly interrupts Penelope's rather dreary memoir to form a sort of counterreading to her tale. These interludes draw delightfully on classical traditions of the theatre: the multifaceted use of the chorus is here (as a dissenting voice, as the force of objectivity, as the representative of the social group vs. Penelope's individualism), as is the idea of the satyr play which farcically reframes the issues of the preceding tragedy, refusing them their usual solemnity.

Theirs is a demand for justice, delivered in the folk forms of the malleable oral tradition which preceded the textualizing of "The Odyssey" (these forms begin as popular songs and ballads, and ultimately morph into the dissenting, unwritten protest at a modern trial). Atwood makes this all too explicitly clear, but the choric interruptions are also a revelation about the imprecision of both myth and history, the impossibility of providing a single coherent explanation for the inconsistencies in the stories we are told and tell ourselves. (As such they form the antistrophe to Penelope's strophe, redirecting the course of the narrative as Penelope has attempted to wrest it from Odysseus's sole control, just as the Greek Chorus would switch the direction of its stage movements regularly in its chanting.) This is not to say that there are no explanations for these gaps and contradictions, just that histories must be told in dialogues and conversations: the discord of many memories is infinitely more truthful than the assured account of one voice (even if it is an ignored voice like Penelope's).

"The Penelopiad"
Margaret Atwood