LIFE BEFORE MAN
If there are such things as "poet's novels," Margaret Atwood writes them. Each of hers has a controlling, spooking metaphor; here the central idea is that today's men and women live in an era that is without the consolations of history, in which old forms are dying out, not to reappear. So it's no accident that the women here work with remnants of the past: Elizabeth Shoenhof, a director of a Toronto museum, is married to Nate, once a lawyer but now a maker of chic wooden toys. Both have had and will still have other lovers, but they're struggling to stay living in the same house for the sake of the children. Elizabeth's latest lover has just killed himself; Nate's most recent girlfriend has dumped him. And when Nate then goes toward museum paleontologist Lesje, Elizabeth retaliates with a calculated seduction of Lesje's live-in boyfriend. The actions are unsubtle and desperate, the air bleak, the light almost wholly interior. The pre-history of emotions and social codes here is entropic, using up and discarding modern feelings without ready alternatives: the only saving grace to Nate-and-Elizabeth's grotesque marriage is its eventual guaranteed extinction. To this end, Atwood leaves no self-doubt uncovered, and there are chapters--it's a book of chapters above all, some of them memorable--in which the characters numbly go through rituals (Elizabeth, for instance, visiting the planetarium, staring up at the faked stars) that are as spare and just as poems, veined with their own strange blood. Yet, for all the generosity, such unrelenting social and emotional chaos makes the book very confining: everyone's center is constantly being stirred, the struggles slow and nearly unbearable, until the entire novel comes to seem like one large tar pit. And though this is an effect Atwood no doubt wants, it's one that nevertheless makes for a gooey, close read. Monumentally depressing, thoroughly gifted work from a very special novelist.