Reporting ringside as The Odyssey and Margaret Atwood square off is pretty intimidating stuff. How to begin passing judgment on one of the first in a new series of books that touts “top-class writers from all over the world” retelling history’s greatest myths, and boasts 26 co-publishers internationally to date? The series, spearheaded by U.K. publisher Jamie Byng of Canongate Books, will encompass Greek, Aztec, Hindu, Norse, Biblical, and African myths, and includes a scholarly overview of mythic literature by the British historian of religion Karen Armstrong.
The premise for Atwood’s entry is the “inconsistencies” in The Odyssey surrounding Penelope in her long years of waiting for her husband’s return from war, and the subsequent slaughter by Odysseus of not only his wife’s corrupt, usurping suitors but also a dozen maids the hero deems guilty by association. Fortunately for the reader, this bout between authorial heavyweights is prone less to serious pummelling of the subject matter than to the fancy thematic footwork and feinting that is characteristic of Atwood’s most compelling work.
Penelope herself narrates from the Underworld, with the hanged maids (who in life acted as Penelope’s confidantes and spies) providing a chorus alternately haunting and vaudevillian in tone and form. Atwood regulars will be familiar with some of The Penelopiad’s themes: voiceless women, untrustworthy narrators, gender stereotypes. The book’s brevity, structure (brief, voice-driven chapters), and loose lyrical qualities recall the whimsy and timelessness of 1992’s Good Bones, a collection of wry deconstructions of traditional yarns in the form of short prose pieces and poems.
Critics dubbed many of the pieces in Good Bones feminist revisionist fables – a designation some will no doubt apply to The Penelopiad – which in many circles seems to imply an obfuscation of “truth” in favour of political correctness. But while it is true that Atwood never shies from staring down terrible acts of misogyny, she has always refused the notion of a de facto sisterhood between women, revelling instead in the visceral, archetypal imagery of myth.
If Atwood’s Odysseus comes off as a bit of a dope, Penelope’s cousin, the ravishing homewrecker Helen, emerges as the more villainous of the two, described as “poison on legs” and “that septic bitch.” And from the outset, Penelope’s loyalty to the 12 maids is curtailed by her own pragmatic survival instincts. She understands very well that “happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.”
Luckily, this plainspoken cheekiness and postmodern noodling is balanced by a genuine and sustained sense of outrage and elegy. In their state of “bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness,” the maids remind us that if myths are powerful, they are also fragile, malleable things. Even the stories Penelope hears of her husband’s exploits are little more than unreliable rumours – according to one report, the Cyclops was only a “one-eyed tavern keeper,” the struggle between her husband and the monster merely an altercation over “non-payment of the bill.”
By establishing the maids’ voices as counterpoint to Penelope’s, Atwood effectively undermines not only Homer’s account but that of her own heroine. It is the maids who crack open the shell of The Odyssey, “the main authority on the subject,” interrupting the heroine’s narrative with their schoolgirl silliness and heartfelt, if somewhat sarcastic, exhortations. The wonder of The Penelopiad is that, as a piece of writing that refuses to stop winking at the reader, it still manages to evoke true pathos. In The Odyssey, the maids’ feet do not twitch for very long; in The Penelopiad, they never stop twitching.
As befits a tale born of the oral tradition, the unmistakable Atwoodian voice is ever-present in these pages. For my money, The Penelopiad is one of the best and most representative of her works. Here is the mercurial, the tough-minded, the playful, the poetic/political, the classical, and the contemporary. Here is Penelope via Atwood.