Cats Eye Margaret Atwood Essayshark

Cat's Eye

by Margaret Eleanor Atwood

Margaux Fragoso is the author of Tiger, Tiger, a memoir.

Anyone familiar with upstate New York knows its formidable ice-greased winters, where the backs of your thighs sear and chap, and your teeth clatter like rickety marionettes. But the first time I saw my soon-to-be best friend, she wore only a flimsy poncho, short skirt, no pantyhose and, most amazingly, open-toed shoes.

Both in our early 20s, enrolled at the same university as grad students, we spent years synchronizing our tastes. She tattooed her arm in the exact same spot as mine. I began to sport cleavage just like her. She dyed her hair dark; I highlighted mine. But what began in enchantment eventually ended in disillusionment. She'd inform me of people who didn't "like" me and spared me none of the snarky put-downs supposedly said behind my back by a mutual friend. I'll never know if those comments were true — only that they wounded me.

In the wake of this friendship's demise, another friend recommended Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye. "Very few books explore female friendship at this level of intensity," she said. "It will help you."

I devoured it within two sleepless nights. Then I read it again, slowly, this time to savor it.

And there is so much to savor in Cat's Eye's lushly imagined landscape where sorrow and beauty merge. This novel is as philosophical as it is emotional, as poetic as it is psychological. It's the story of Elaine and her best friend Cordelia, a histrionic, well-to-do girl who puts a defiant blond streak in her hair and refers to her mother as "Mummy." Although she's only 9, Cordelia plays vicious emotional mind games and conducts rituals that resemble hazing — like telling Elaine to stand out in the freezing cold for hours. Like a surgeon going straight for the valves instead of the heartstrings, Atwood expertly conjures how doubly disorienting and painful it is when the proverbial mean girl also happens to be your best friend:

"With enemies, you can feel hatred, and anger. But Cordelia is my friend. She likes me, she wants to help me. ... With hatred I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love."

Margaux Fragoso's recently published memoir Tiger, Tiger, is an account of an abused child's relationship with a 51-year-old pedophile. Sara Essex/Macmillan Publishers hide caption

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Sara Essex/Macmillan Publishers

Reading Cat's Eye reminded me of Philip Wingate's classic poem "Two Little Maids," for each of us, at one time or another, "in sweet dreams of childhood, we hear the cry: You can't play in our yard" and feel the pain of those ancient exiles.

One of Cat's Eye's most superbly crafted twists is that Cordelia and Elaine eventually swap roles, with Elaine becoming the dominant friend and the once omnipresent-seeming Cordelia the girl you can't help but pity. Elaine gets even by subtly teasing Cordelia throughout their teens and then finally abandoning the now viscerally unstable young woman when she most needs a friend. But Elaine's revenge fails to liberate her from her overwhelming sense of trauma and alienation.

By the book's end, Elaine mourns "not something that's gone, but something that will never happen." She wishes she and Cordelia could have had a healthy, lifelong bond like a pair of elderly girlfriends she spots on a plane: "two old women giggling over tea."

Cat's Eye helped me move on from a friendship that had become toxic while, more importantly, assuring me that, like Elaine, I had every right to wish it could've turned out differently.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Andrew Otis.

February 5, 1989
What Little Girls Are Made Of

By Margaret Atwood.

ime is not a line but a dimension,'' the narrator, Elaine Risley, tells us at the beginning of this, Margaret Atwood's seventh and most affecting novel. ''You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.''

Elaine is a Canadian painter of some renown who, at 50, has returned to her childhood city of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. The dull, provincial city of her youth has become world class in the intervening years, ''New York without the garbage and muggings,'' but in the week she is there her interest in the city's new galleries and restaurants and shops and, in many ways, in the retrospective itself, is only glancing. Her focus, and the novel's, is all on the past, on those images that surface unexpectedly, relentlessly, amid the glitz of the transformed city, images of the dead, of a lost time, and of Cordelia, her childhood friend and tormentor, her double.

Elaine's first eight years are spent on the road with her family, as her father, an entomologist, tracks infestations across northern Canada. For Elaine and her brother it is an enchanted existence, ''irregular, and slightly festive,'' a life of motels and housekeeping cottages and tents, but it little prepares her for the life that is to follow when her parents move to Toronto, to a new and only partially completed tract house in a growing postwar suburb. There, amid the tightly prescribed rituals of that time and place, she quickly learns that there are ''things my parents have been keeping from me, things I need to know'': a whole vocabulary of household words, ''chintz,'' ''coat tree,'' ''cold wave,'' the intricacies of churchgoing and Sunday school (''The hats, for instance: how could my mother have forgotten about the hats?''), the need for braids, dressing gowns, purses, in short, the whole, complicated, shifting world of ''girls and their doings.''

It is a world that Margaret Atwood portrays with deadly accuracy, a lonely, terrifying place where time is marked by the endless procession of paper pumpkins and snowmen and tulips that are hung in classroom windows, and the future, with all its repulsive, distinctly feminine mysteries, is only a threat. At its center is Cordelia. Cordelia lives in one of the larger houses that have sprung up from the mud, a house with two stories, and a powder room, napkin rings, egg cups. Her mother paints and has a cleaning woman, her two older, ''gifted'' sisters speak, as does Cordelia, in an ''extravagant, mocking way.'' In this girls' world of propriety, innuendo, uncertainty, Cordelia will say anything, do anything. She is scornful, manipulative, wild. Elaine adores her and Cordelia finds in Elaine a perfect foil for all her own apprehensions.

Elaine, Cordelia proclaims, needs improvement. ''I am not normal, I am not like other girls. Cordelia tells me so, but she will help me. . . . It will take hard work and a long time.''

In the campaign of terror that follows, Cordelia and her two friends surround Elaine throughout her day, pointing out her failings, her weaknesses, mocking the way she walks, the way she eats, the way she laughs. They torment her with her own image, ostracize her, and in a terrible bit of play-acting, bury her alive. Elaine submits. ''They are my friends, my girl friends, my best friends. I have never had any before and I'm terrified of losing them. I want to please.''

It is, as Elaine says, ''the kind of thing girls of this age do to one another, or did then,'' and it nearly costs Elaine her life until a miracle, or merely the hallucination of one, finally frees her from Cordelia's spell. As teen-agers, the two girls briefly renew their friendship but with Elaine now, not Cordelia, as the stronger one, the needed one, the one who has learned the power of cruelty.

All this is vintage Atwood: the precise and devastating detail, the sense of the ordinary transformed into nightmare, the quiet desperation of characters trapped, silenced, utterly alone. Inevitably, the emotional intensity of these early scenes makes the more familiar material of Elaine's later life seem somewhat anticlimactic. Leaving Cordelia behind, Elaine begins to study drawing, has an affair with her teacher, marries another art student and is caught up, reluctantly, in the dawning feminist movement. She has a child, attempts suicide (urged on by what she describes as a 9-year-old's voice) and finally flees Toronto. She sees Cordelia twice as an adult, the second and final time when Cordelia is a resident of a ''discreet private loony bin,'' drugged, trapped, ''a frantic child . . . behind that locked, sagging face.'' The nightmare has been exchanged between them.

And yet nothing goes away. Cordelia appears in every image Elaine has of herself, every self-doubt, every fear, in her every wish to be loved. Cordelia's doppelganger haunts Elaine's return to Toronto but at the retrospective itself her face does not appear among the crowd at the gallery, much as Elaine longs to see it. Yet time is fluid, it ''turns back upon itself, like a wave,'' and in one final gesture of conciliation, Elaine visits the place where they were young together and at last extricates herself from the past by imaginatively returning to Cordelia ''something you can never have, except from another person: what you look like from outside. A reflection.''

Given the artist narrator and the retrospective that frames the novel (in which Elaine includes a self-portrait called ''Cat's Eye''), it is tempting to use the book as a guide to Ms. Atwood's own work, to hear the author's voice in Elaine's, especially when she discusses feminism (''I avoid gatherings of these women, walking as I do in fear of being sanctified, or else burned at the stake'') or fame (''Eminence creeps like gangrene up my legs'') or her art itself (''I have said, Look. I have said, I see''). But while reading the novel as Ms. Atwood's own midlife assessment of her life and her work adds a certain significance to its conclusion and may lead us to speculate further on some elements of the story that the character does not confront - the undercurrent of misogyny, the joylessness in a life that is in every other respect carefully recounted - it in no way adds to the pleasure the book provides. For finally ''Cat's Eye'' is not only about memory, nor is it the chronicle of a particular life. It is a novel of images, nightmarish, evocative, heartbreaking and mundane, that taken together offer us not a retrospective but an addition: a new work entirely and Margaret Atwood's most emotionally engaging fiction thus far.

Alice McDermott is the author of two novels, ''A Bigamist's Daughter'' and ''That Night.''


The Toronto of ''Cat's Eye'' is a state of mind that Margaret Atwood can talk about. ''I grew up all over the place,'' she said in a recent telephone interview, ''but I went to high school in Toronto, I went to some of public school in Toronto, and I went to university in Toronto. So that's enough Toronto to keep one for a while.''

It was after creating the futuristic world of ''The Handmaid's Tale'' that the author depicted the very real one of ''Cat's Eye.'' It had begun to take shape, in starts, earlier. ''The whole idea had been kicking around in my head for about 24 years,'' she said, ''because when I looked back to 1964 I found that I had some notes for a book with some of the same material in it.''

That material - the clothes, the speech, what she calls the ''items'' of the 1940's and 50's - emerged from the details of ''a very puritanical, button-down, rigid society,'' and the school system Ms. Atwood describes was ''a relic of the Empire,'' though not so different, she supposes, from those in the United States in the 50's.

As for the ''little-girl behavior'' that is the dramatic thread of the book, ''that is with all of us,'' she said. ''The same-sex socialization, to borrow a phrase, that goes on between the ages of 8 or so and 11 or 12 tends to get passed over, particularly with little girls, as not very important. But when you talk to real women and ask them how important it was to them, you get a different answer.'' Is there a little-girl brand of cruelty? ''All children can be pretty mean to one another, and that's not to deny that they can be pretty wonderful, but I think the methods differ between boys and girls.''

Ms. Atwood left Canada to live and travel in the United States and Europe, but is now living once again in Toronto, with the novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter, Jess, who is 12. This time, she reports, it is ''quite a different kind of city.''


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