CANADA IS a vast tract of land, much afflicted by snow and a burning sense of cultural inferiority. Larger than the whole United States but with only a few more people than the state of California, Canada is rich in history, parliamentary tradition, and an array of natural resources. One of them is Margaret Atwood, a critic, poet, and novelist who jarred her countrymen not long ago by pointing out that survival is the overwhelming theme of Canadian literature and life.
The charge was taken as a shamefully open admission of Canadian provincialism. But readers of Atwood's splendid new novel, Life Before Man, will have their doubts. It is true that in Life Before Man, guests at a Toronto dinner party play a game that consists of substituting "moose" for any word in the title of a Canadian novel. Played down here, that would yield Gone with the Moose, Of Moose and Men, or The Naked and the Moose. In Toronto, it produces a string of titles no American has ever heard of.
The guests also play lifeboat, the dreadful triage game in which participants are cast overboard unless they can prove they would be more useful alive. One woman argues that if they reach a desert island, they will need babies. She could have them, but Elizabeth, their statuesque hostess, is almost past childbearing. Raw Canadian survivalism? Maybe. But what Margaret Atwood artfully makes clear by the time she's through is that Canada is no longer provincial. Perhaps that's because the country's attention has shifted in one generation from wilderness to weltschmerz. Perhaps it's because the rest of the modern world has joined Canada in her preoccupation with survival. In any case, welcome to the lifeboat. The decline of the West is mushing along just as fast on Bloor Street as on Broadway.
Life Before Man is presented in a form familiar to what used to be called women's fiction: a tangled marital triangle - or trapezoid, rather - that includes wife, husband, several lovers (one has just selfishly blown the top of his head off), a separation, several children caught in the middle. The sort of thing, an Atwood character reflects, that might be mumbled over in church basements by discussion groups with names like "Second Time Around" that offer bandages "to those wounded by the shrapnel of exploding families." Atwood writes with savage humor, admits emotion only under extreme pressure, sheathes her sadness in polished irony. She neither minces words nor wastes them. Sentences are spare, kept under enormous compression, like a bent bow.
Switching back and forth between three main characters, Elizabeth, Nate, and Lesje, the novel is presented as a series of journal entries. Elizabeth regards husband Nate with bare tolerance. She married him "easily, like trying on a shoe," then encouraged him to quit his law firm in order to take up toymaking. The couple split up, but except insofar as this disturbs the lives of their two children, Elizabeth contemplates the loss of her husband (to a pretty, gawky paleontologist named Lesje) with chilling equanimity. "It will mean she'll have to carry out the garbage bags herself, but she thinks she can live with that."
Elizabeth is a control freak, a brilliant, self-centered survivor, a dutiful but cold mother, a disciplined woman affiicted - blessed? - like Atwood with a visceral and cerebral feminism: in the kitchen, she has posted a huge command: CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS! When she coldly turns away her brooding lover, Chris, she thinks grimly that she "treated him the way men treat women." His suicide she regards as "something he did to her."
Men do not fare well in Margaret Atwood's novels: In the battle of the sexes, Nate is totally outgunned by Elizabeth. "His inability to complain, to complain skillfully and with feeling," Atwood writes, "put him at a disadvantage." Soft. Sentimental. Decent. Despairing. A dreamer who is fond of children; he tries to make happy all the women "he can't help being involved with." And fails, "not because of any intrinsic weakness or lack of will, but because their own desires are hopelessly divided,"
An archetypal liberal lapsed into privatism, Nate "was once among those who felt the universe should be just and merciful and were prepared to help it achieve this state. He recalls the convoluted pain, his sense of betrayal, when he realized finally how impossible it was." Nate's mother has a map of the world taped to her kitchen wall. On it, in red kindergarten stars, she marks each new case of torture or mass murder that comes from the Amnesty International newsletter. She works tirelessly with well-intentioned groups whose aim is to publicize such atrocities and so correct them. Nate knows all this is futile. He consoles himself by thinking that his mother is naive. Sometimes he manages to imagine that the toys he carves "are the toys tortured children would play with if they could." It is the shock of Nate's life when he finally learns that his activist mother is as despairing as he, and realizes how much he has depended all his life upon her dauntless dogooder's refusal to admit it.
Elizabeth emerges as a powerful character and a genuine monster. Nate, too, is more than a poor lovable schnook. He becomes the complete woman-oriented Uxorious Man, which feminism seems at times to encourage, demand, create - only to find unsatisfying. (Are we in for a return to Heathcliffs?) The creation of a Memorable Monster and an Eternal Husband in a single novel is no small achievement. With hints and suggestions, measured out in fleeting flashbacks and glimpsed funerals, in lovers' tiffs and coffee spooning, Atwood finally makes of Elizabeth a monster who stirs pity and admiration. Also (God help us), Elizabeth seems to be some sort of thematic demonstration that rationalism and the disciplined mind are highly limited in regulating one's private life or even in trying to obey one's own humanist command, CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS!
Yes, dear reader, Nate moves in with Lesje, who eventually becomes, as she herself notes, that contradiction in terms "a pregnant paleontologist." Though Lesje is smart, a passionate professional scientist, she is also awkward, kind, ingenuous, more at home with dinosaur bones than dinner parties. She envies Elizabeth's worldly competence, searches for an image to live by. When she shops, she flips through the racks "looking for something that might become her, something that she might become." It is Lesje, the daughter of a Lithuanian immigrant, who seems to have the last word on survival, on an age that thinks it is free to choose to have children or not, to regard sex as purely a matter of personal pleasure. To imagine, in short, that man is in control.
Lesje often broods upon the ways of dinosaurs. Did they go in herds? Did they copulate like birds or like turtles? Was the sickle-shaped, razor-sharp third claw of the Deinonychus for fighting or foraging or catching females? Not much is known about dinosaurs, even by an expert like Lesje. But how much is really known about man? "She does not know, for instance," Atwood' writes, "why she is crying." One thing is clear, Lesje thinks, "Dinosaurs didn't intend to become extinct; as far as they knew they would live forever."