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Elijah Wood
Elijah Wood

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Review article Dance ofDeath in Toronto the Good MICHAEL HURLEY Margaret Atwood. Life Before Man. Mcclelland and Stewart, 1979. $12.95 They've discovered rats prefer any sensation to none. Surfacing My tendency is to regard each new Atwood novel as "a gorgeous plum-pudding" of a work, to borrow Northrop Frye's description of Beddoes' Death's Jest Book. So it came as somewhat of a surprise to me to find the first fifth of this novel hard sledding, few things catching my attention. Yet, as I read on, I became once again - albeit gradually - irrevocably hooked. Al- . though it doesn't pack the obvious punch of a Surfacing , Life Before Man - in which the extinction of the human race is death's jest - is a more subtle, confident and well-crafted work, unified by this poetnovelist 's remarkable gift for deftly interweaving strands of imagery. My guess is that some critics will harp on the bedhopping scenes, objecting to the atmosphere of sex and violence, and ignore characterization, structural techniques , organizing metaphors, etc. Toronto the Good dies hard. As in The Edible Woman and Surfacing, sexual triangles proliferate as the battle of the sexes escalates; military metaphors - "power politics" suggest the desperate win/lose urgency of these tortuous , narcissistic encounters of middle class professionals . The major characters work at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, a beleaguered institution as sexually charged, claustrophobic and smouldering with suppressed violence as the university English department in Tom Marshall's Rosemary Goal or the farms in Grove and Matt Cohen. As in these novels, everyone 's social trajectory crisscrosses everyone else's; Marshall's description of Kingston as a sexual "daisychain ," a "sexual commune" in which everyone engages in "ricochet romance" rimes perfectly with Atwood 's Toronto the Promiscuous: "Everyone in this town always knows what happens to everyone else.... An incestuous city.'' Such is our garrison legacy. What everyone "knows" is that Chris, the current lover of the calamity-prone, "once vibrant and sensuous " Elizabeth, has blown his head off; that Elizabeth 's husband, Nate, an "edible man" who makes expressionless toys, inured to his wife's affairs and 122 given to the same practice, is now sleeping with the socially-retarded, dinosaur-loving paleontologist Lesje, who works with Elizabeth at the R.O.M.; that Elizabeth will soon seduce Lesje's lover, "William Wasp" from London, Ontario, just to keep things all in the family. And so it goes. It's a hard time for lovers; everybody wants to be free. The R.0.M. is the perfect focus for Atwood's themes of digging up - and escaping to - the past; of classifying and encasing; of juxtaposing regional and cosmic perspectives; and, above all, of death, extinction , and "the survival of the human race." As in her other works, Atwood employs animal imagery, especially dinosaurs, the dead animal-victim par excellence, to describe her gallery of the spiritually maimed. Elizabeth , Lesje and the rest of Toronto's walking dead are increasingly identified with the dinosaurs they classify . As with The Edible Woman, Life Before Man initiates itself with an epigraph, a quotation from The Age of the Dinosaurs: fossils - like novels which articulate a community to itself, make it visible - are "our only chance to see the extinct animals in action and to study their behavior, though definite identifica- . tion is only possible where the animal has dropped dead in its tracks." Life Before Man is Atwood's "Toronto Exhibit," a Crestwood Heights study of Torontonians under glass, caught in the actions that define them, dropping dead in their tracks, literally and metaphorically. In Surfacing, the narrator's parents are "mammoths frozen in a glacier"; her lover has "the defiant but insane look of a species once dominant, now threatened with extinction." Besides being "a mammoth or a mastodon...like the ones at the museum," Elizabeth's grandmother, Auntie Muriel, is also a 100%, dyedin -the-wool Atwoodian grandparent figure, a Wicked Witch of the Victorians. She's the grandmother in A Gift to Last taken to the xth factor. Here is the Canadian family-as-trap. Elizabeth is unable to escape this self-righteous, grimly religious, rigid "corseted brontosaurus...




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"We're a also told , 'to each generation is born a creature of light and a creature of darkness.' All this doubtless came as a surprise for most HBO watchers. The last thing one expects after the amoral bedhopping of 'Sex in the City' is a big fat dose of Manichaeism." 041b061a72


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