Robert Fulford's column about Toronto & Margaret Atwood

(The National Post, August 24, 2000)

In the first sentence of Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Blind Assassin, a beautiful 25-year-old woman kills herself by driving off the St. Clair Avenue bridge, east of Mount Pleasant Road. The car smashes through "the treetops feathery with new leaves," and Laura Chase quickly burns to death on the floor of the ravine, 100 feet below.

This is a Toronto death, and a literary death, and a death charged with symbolic power for both the character and the woman who has created her. It stands at the narrative gate of Atwood's 10th novel, which opens on to scenes of psychic horror, monstrous oppression and betrayal -- not to mention a clever plot that includes both a novel within a novel and also a third novel, a science-fiction fantasy set on the planet Zycron. This innermost story, a perverse and sadistic tale, is told within the realistic love story that one of Atwood's characters is writing.

Atwood, we can be sure, did not choose the locale of the suicide casually. It fits into her book and into her life's work by underscoring once more her intense relationship with Toronto and its folklore. For a long time she's been a grand international figure, loved by the Germans, the English, the Japanese and God knows who else, and of course admired across the United States and Canada. Even so, we who live in Toronto maintain a special relationship with her. As Mark Abley noted in The Guardian, "Toronto looks on her with fond possessiveness." Any Atwood narrator would immediately identify that phrase as a veiled threat, but the truth is that she's become, more than anyone else, our novelist, the intimate chronicler of our lives, true successor to Robertson Davies as chief mythologist of Toronto life, past as well as present.

Thirty years ago, Atwood wrote, "Literature is not only a mirror, it is also a map, a geography of the mind." Her fiction maps Toronto, its geography and its psychology; she's our urban cartographer. As the years pass and the books pile up, she beavers away at the job of understanding Toronto and describing, in her oblique ways, the specific individuals and human types who walk its streets and explore its ravines. She's conscious of her responsibilities, and meticulous about her Toronto facts: After she wrote her opening suicide scene, she sent a researcher to determine that the drop from the bridge actually measures 100 feet. More than any other living writer, she's rooted in Toronto -- if not always in Toronto reality, then certainly in her own carefully formed construct of the city.

She turns Laura's suicide into a specifically and uniquely Toronto event by placing it over a ravine. Ravines are the chief characteristic of the local terrain, its topographical signature. They are both a tangible (though often hidden) part of our surroundings and a persistent force in our civic imagination. They are the shared subconscious of the municipality, the places where much of the city's literature is born.

Laura's decision to die in the Vale of Avoca, close to Rosedale, fits the story and reflects her tragedy. The life from which she's making a final definitive escape is a specifically Rosedale life, and it has destroyed her soul. The evil spirits living behind the elegant facades on Rosedale's winding streets shape the action in The Blind Assassin, and Laura is their victim. (The book contains rich people and poor people; readers may guess which group is irredeemably ruthless and vile.)

The death scene also takes place only a few blocks west and south of the street on the edge of Leaside where Margaret Atwood herself discovered the power of ravines. In 1948, when she was nine, her family settled near the southeastern corner of Mount Pleasant Cemetery. At the end of the street behind her house, a footbridge led toward a patch of the peculiar ravine wildness that defines Toronto, especially for children. As Rosemary Sullivan says in her book The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out, "Margaret could climb down through dense underbrush into the Moore Park Ravine, which snaked through the east side of the city" -- and connected directly with what may now become famous as the setting of Laura's death. Sullivan quotes Atwood's note on the ravines, written years later: "To go down into them is to go down into sleep, away from the conscious electrified life of the houses. The ravines are darker, even in the day."

Beneath the bridge, where Laura dies, the streams trickle toward the Don River, Toronto's literary corridor. The Don is the Euphrates of Toronto books, home of our myths and legends. Head to the east and you find yourself in Ernest Thompson Seton territory, where that great Victorian naturalist (a favourite of Atwood's in childhood) did the private exploring that led to his classics, Wild Animals I Have Known and Two Little Savages. Follow the ravine south from the St. Clair bridge as it joins the Don proper and soon you'll reach Bloor Street, where (with a little imagination) you can see Michael Ondaatje's characters from In the Skin of a Lion completing the construction of the Bloor viaduct in the 1930s. Keep going and you can glimpse, on the east bank that forms Riverdale Park, the lovers and dreamers who populate the young Morley Callaghan's novels of the 1920s, like It's Never Over, that intense account of claustrophobic urban frustration. Move on south to Gerrard and Dundas, glance to your right, and there are Hugh Garner's defeated Cabbagetown dwellers, sitting on the grassy slopes as they endure the Depression and wonder whether to volunteer for the war in Spain. Not far away, you'll run into the male protagonist of Catherine Bush's 1993 novel, Minus Time, that wonderfully Toronto-centric book; he tells us that as a 13-year-old he ran away from home and lived in the ravines, becoming briefly famous in the papers as Ravine Boy. Keep going far enough, reach the lake, make a right, and eventually you can find a major Robertson Davies character, Boy Staunton from Fifth Business, dead at the bottom of Toronto harbour, sitting in his Cadillac convertible, his mouth inexplicably filled with a large chunk of pink granite. (Is Laura's automobile suicide a 30-years-later echo of Boy's?)

Atwood's self-chosen assignment is to pull together the folk tales of Toronto, compiling and ordering all our myths and clichés and prejudices, packaging them as neatly (but in her own way) as those two German brothers did in Grimm's Fairy Tales, the book Atwood once cited as the most influential in her life. Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979), The Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996) and now The Blind Assassin -- these are all elaborations on Atwood's vision of her city and its surroundings.

Pursuing the obsessions of her Torontonians naturally takes Atwood into the ravines. In Lady Oracle, Joan describes her childhood trauma suffered in a ravine. In Cat's Eye, that painfully brilliant account of the viciousness of children, a ravine is where Cordelia tortures her alleged friend, Elaine. Here, in the secrecy of the trees, away from the eyes of teachers and parents, the girls can mistreat each other at will, in an Atwoodian female version of Lord of the Flies.

Even when her characters are rooted elsewhere, their stories carry them to Toronto. The two women at the centre of The Blind Assassin are from a small town in southwestern Ontario, something like Stratford, and one of them, the wordy octogenarian narrator, spends most of her life there. But they act out both the terrible and the ecstatic moments of their existence in Toronto (the denouement of their story, by the way, will startle and upset anyone who has neglected to read fiction or look at movies in the last 25 years).

Atwood has been cast in the role of feminist by popular mythology and by the often combative tone of her work, especially her poetry. But Atwoodian fiction rarely follows a feminist line. Certainly she's sensitive to the spirit of the moment, but it clearly matters more to her that she remain honest to humanity as she sees it. In the environment she knows best, the success-focused arena of Toronto, feminist pieties don't apply. In this angry, driven world, an unwritten law of envy decrees that every success must be followed by a reaction of equal and opposite resentment. Atwood, being the writer she is, could hardly ignore the truth that women follow the rules of this world as slavishly as men -- just as, decades ago, she demonstrated that Atwood the Nationalist could never be allowed to prevent Atwood the Novelist from seeing and depicting the inherent comedy in certain attitudes of her fellow nationalists.

Unfortunately, the girls in Cat's Eye do not necessarily change when they grow up; woman's inhumanity to woman remains a fact that no rhetoric can erase. In a 1993 Maclean's review of The Robber Bride, Judith Timson shrewdly remarked: "As a sort of grown-up sequel to Atwood's 1988 novel, Cat's Eye, the book seems to be saying that if you think little girls can be mean to each other, you should see what big ones can accomplish." Reviewers may notice that, in a single heart-stopping moment that defines the book's title, The Blind Assassin repeats this pattern. Typically for Atwood, this 1945 conversation takes place in one of the temples of propriety that were typical of the Old Toronto, Diana Sweets.

Like all novelists, Atwood draws her characters from the people around her, and ends up (rather like Davies) with a gallery of frequently recognizable Toronto figures. She avoids the more or less strict system of the roman à clef as famously exemplified by Simone de Beauvoir's The Mandarins, in which great names in French intellectual life of the 1950s (Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, etc.) were simply given different names and allowed to follow just about the same course they followed in life (as de Beauvoir later explained in her autobiographical writing).

Atwood's strategy is different. She unravels the fabric of her Toronto, or the Toronto she knows at the moment of writing, and then reknits it in a new form, drawing emotional strength and human detail from experience and observation while stamping them as her own.

This is not to say she makes them unrecognizable. In The Robber Bride, for instance, more than one reader recognized a grotesque version of Barbara Amiel and a fanciful elaboration on Atwood's late friend, the poet Gwendolyn MacEwen. But it was in Life Before Man, that powerful (and powerfully chilling) account of her Toronto in the 1970s, that Atwood most clearly relied on living models. There she took a group of people who had known each other at the House of Anansi Press and moved them into the Royal Ontario Museum, a place Atwood haunted as a child and later wrote poetry about. Life Before Man contains versions of Atwood, her former husband and her life's partner, Graeme Gibson. Elizabeth, the most fascinating figure in the story, both repellent and alluring, seems to many people based on Gibson's former wife, Shirley Gibson, who has since died. Certainly she thought so, and spoke of a libel action until calmer heads prevailed. Perhaps she realized that you do not sue over fiction without making yourself ridiculous.

In a small way, I have been part of Atwood's Toronto, as an occasional editor of her magazine work, the subject of one of her articles long ago, and sometimes a reviewer of her books or a critic of her politics. In 1988, in a book of memoirs, I included a passage about her that I considered more admiring than not but she regarded otherwise. In 1990 she wrote a story, Uncles, originally published in Saturday Night magazine, expressing her displeasure. She included it in her collection Wilderness Tips, and in England a review by Anita Brookner summarized it as the account of a little girl "who tap-dances for her adoring male relatives ... and grows into a woman who assumes that uncle-shaped men -- bulky, balding -- are bound to be well-disposed, until just such a colleague at work publishes a spiteful book filled with gossip about the star she has become. This is well judged, and informed by the kind of dismay that a child might feel ..."

Everyone at Saturday Night who read the story in manuscript recognized Atwood's source in an instant. Following rigid tradition, she claimed that the character in question had nothing to do with any living person. It was, she said, fiction, as if only silly people would imagine otherwise. That's what she said on Morningside, speaking to Peter Gzowski, which in Canadian culture was always the closest thing to being under oath. And -- who knows? -- it could be the truth. Perhaps all those people who identified me, and perhaps I myself, were projecting our own ideas on to her work. Possibly Shirley Gibson imagined the whole thing. Philip Marchand in The Toronto Star, commenting on this issue at the time, noted that people sometimes claim to recognize themselves in significant fiction because they hope it will give them "a form of immortality." Atwood may have had just such a situation in mind when she wrote, in a 1970 poem:

In restaurants we argue
over which of us will pay for your funeral

though the real question is
whether or not I will make you immortal.

This is the function she has been performing, all these years, for Toronto, its topography, and many of its inhabitants. We would be churlish if we were less than grateful.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image