I understand how ambitious and ballsy certain projects are, like making epic, maddeningly popular books into movies or re-writing fairy tales or really anything that involves re-doing something old and established and beloved, because you risk stepping on a lot of toes. But if you’re careful and brilliant and spry, you can end up with something amazing (see: the film adaption of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass that just came out, or Gregory Maguire’s Wicked).
Canongate has taken it upon themselves to do just this sort of ballsy thing. No doubt they have high hopes. And with someone like Margaret Atwood – she of the various literary prizes and Canadian-female-author fame – taking up one of the first torches, high hopes are certainly understandable.
They are, unfortunately, unfounded.
I can never decide if I like Margaret Atwood or not. I mean, I read A Handmaid’s Tale in high school, like everyone else, and I loooooved it, but let us keep in mind that I was seventeen at most, and that teenagers are idiots (no offense). I’ve read some of her other contributions since then, but my memories of them are hazy, and only vaguely distasteful. Maybe I think she’s a little pretentious. Maybe I’d just like some damn closure to my stories. Maybe I think she should get off her feminist high horse, and realize that not everything is about her womb. Who knows.
At any rate, no one loves a good myth or myth-retelling more than me, but The Penelopiad left me flat. You all remember The Odyssey, right? I’m going to assume that you’re all really well-read and nodding, and then, because me neither, I will sum up: Odysseus goes off to fight the Trojans and get Helen back (you remember that bit…it’s that movie with Brad Pitt and the blond elf), and that takes ten years, and then he spends ten more years trying to get back home to his wife, Penelope, but he keeps getting sidetracked and attacked by Cyclopses and having to sleep with beautiful goddesses so that his men don’t get turned into pigs, or something. At any rate, Penelope is at home all this time, besieged by suitors and faithful as hell. The Penelopiad is her story.
It seems like Atwood tries to give Penelope a bit of bite, a dash of sass to make up for her goody-goody reputation. She’s smart, she’s patient, she’s business-savvy, she’s got a great personality if not quite Helen’s devastating beauty. She carefully builds up Odysseus’ estate, only to have it gobbled it up by a host of pesky suitors. She cultivates a group of loyal maidservants, but Odysseus slaughters them upon his return for…having been raped? Excuse me while I choke on my feminist agenda.
Atwood’s whole retelling is clumsy and obvious. She gives carefully-manufactured winks to various Odyssey-tropes, and then feels she has to explain them to you several times to make sure you get how clever she’s being. She is awkwardly archaic and awkwardly slangy, and the two styles only serve to bring out the salty badness in each other. Her chapters are interspersed with brief, slap-dash ‘poetic’ choruses – a throwback to the Greek stage – played by the twelve murdered handservants. Maidservants? Handmaids? Whatever, they’re dumb.
Mercifully, it was less than two-hundred pages, and there was so little print on each page that I finished it in about an hour and a half. So if you have some time and brain cells to kill – I joke. It wasn’t that bad.