Boomtown Boudoir

Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman
August 27, 2008, 4:31 am
Filed under: boys, Hyperbole | Tags: , , ,

Pete was my great romantic failure. To this very day. Not because, for once, I couldn’t make him love me, but because he loved me at a point in my life when I wasn’t trying to make him. He was the type who was ready to be married with babies by the time he was nineteen. We had a very sweet, perfect relationship that I was by no stretch of the imagination ready for. When I asked him what he did all day over the phone, he used to respond with a minute-by-minute laundry list. We once drove out to the International Buffet in Franklin Mills and spent a pleasant several hours watching this one family of fat people repeatedly send their fat little kids up to snake the line when the crab legs came out. He and my dad would e-mail each other about motorcycles. I have a hard time even talking about Pete because I fucked things up so badly. Not that I wish I hadn’t, because then the whole rest of my life would not have happened, but because it’s a lot more sad to fuck things up with someone who is trying to actively love you in a healthy way than it is to have other fuck-ups fuck up all over you because you’re scared of repeating the first case scenario. It was right around the time that Pete started talking about how it wasn’t that weird to get married really young that I first read The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. It was the absolute wrong thing for me to read if I wanted to continue being more or less happy with my nice, stable boyfriend.

In The Edible Woman, the protagonist is a young, sensible, post-college woman named Marian who gets engaged to her perfect-on-paper boyfriend, Peter, only to find that she suddenly can’t eat. At first it’s just meat, eggs, obvious animal proteins, but after awhile, she can’t eat anything that she can imagine being alive. This eventually includes vegetables and rice pudding. Marian can’t eat because she relates to her food; she also feels that she is being consumed as casually as one would grab a quick snack on the weekend. While this is going on, she has a series of strange random encounters with another man, Duncan, who is the Peter antithesis: he’s broke, he’s cerebral, he’s skeletally skinny and weak and manipulative and appealing in a dangerous way and basically about nineteen kinds of nightmare. Duncan gets all the good lines in the book. He says stuff to Marian like, “I can tell you’re admiring my febrility. I know it’s appealing, I practise at it; every woman loves an invalid. I bring out the Florence Nightingale in them. But be careful… [Y]ou might do something destructive: hunger is more basic than love. Florence Nightingale was a cannibal, you know.” Marian can’t resist. She ends up in a weird extracurricular kissing-only relationship with Duncan as she begins to act more and more unhinged around Peter. The book ends with Marian baking a cake that looks like her and trying to serve it to Peter so that he understands what has really been going on between them. He thinks she’s nuts (as is only appropriate) and takes off. Then Duncan appears at her doorstep. Marian is suddenly hungry. They sit down together and eat it; it’s just a cake after all.

The Edible Woman’s unassuming brilliance lies in the way that Atwood integrates all of the near-fantastical allegory into the character’s lives with an utterly straight face. It’s not magical realism; the reader is supposed to believe that Marian literally cannot eat because of sudden, symbolic identification with food as a living entity. Marian herself is as shocked as the reader is that such a thing could and would happen to her because she does not take herself particularly seriously; in fact, in a book populated by stock types and caricatures who all represent something, she alone seems to be an amorphous nonentity that could go either or any way in life. First there’s Ainsley, her wacky roommate who deceives another mutual friend into impregnating her so that she can have a baby and raise it by herself. Then there’s Clara, a college friend who can’t seem to stop getting pregnant and spends the book drowning in young children while maintaining a rather dour outlook about whether or not this is rewarding. The Edible Woman also pokes somewhat unkindly at three women from Marian’s job, the “office virgins.” The office virgins are all single, man-hungry, and terrified by the prospect of remaining that way. Peter is a dry portrait of a confirmed bachelor who decides to get married only after his last single male friend ties the knot and conducts his engagement as though it is a business deal. Duncan is, as he puts it himself, an amoeba: drifting and seeking to integrate whatever comes along into his own need to be taken care of and then rejecting that care. Marian goes through the book relating to all of these characters in a plausible day-to-day manner, while systematically rejecting all of their symbolic choices in life for herself. This is really why she’s going hungry: like her choices in food, none of the choices in life that seem to be available to her are acceptable. It causes her a great deal of torment until the end, when she realizes that she doesn’t have to decide or do anything at all, despite life’s enormous pressure to pick something. The pressure comes from the symbols, not from the actual process of living.

While Marian sort of ends up with Duncan at the end, it is understood that ending up with Duncan isn’t anything remotely close to a solution: he’s still Duncan, meaning, unstable and impossible and incapable of most reciprocal human contact–which is his entire allure. The prospect of having Duncan fill the spot in her life left by the fully-functional Peter is ludicrous even to Marian, who spends the entirety of the book unsure of what she is supposed to do with him while unable to stop herself from doing something with him. Atwood insinuates through this relationship that it’s ultimately more self-actualizing to do things and not know why than it is to do things because they fulfill the superficial qualifications of a good reason. Beneath that is a current of painful self-actualization being more important than the crap shoot fulfillment occasionally found in conformity.

What Atwood gives us with The Edible Woman is a deft and witty rendition of your basic quarterlife crisis. While the pressure to get married is not as urgent now as it was in the late 1960s, the various choices that need to be made during the years after college are still enough to make anyone crazy. It is only those who have already decided exactly who they are and what they are going to do with their lives who do not suffer from some sort of post-collegiate mania, where the future looms in a way that manages to be simultaneously terrifying and depressing. College is where you’re supposed to get over and done with all of the cliched self-actualizing activities like finding yourself and sowing your wild oats and following your bliss and learning from your mistakes. The deal is that after graduation, you’re supposed to go out and become a functioning member of society. What no one tells you about college is that you will not find yourself or sow your wild oats or follow your bliss or learn from your mistakes in any sort of profound way until you have to do it for real, and mean it, something that is difficult when you have had the safety net of identifying your life as that of a student, doing studentish things with other students. And unless they plan on staying in school forever, like Duncan does, the sudden removal of that safety net often comes as something of a rude and unpleasant awakening. Marian is like pretty much any other post-college woman I’ve known: when she fails to find an identity at her shitty entry-level job, she looks to whatever romantic relationship is standing the closest, hoping to find it there. Of course it doesn’t work. She has much more growing to do before she will be able to have a solid relationship without feeling consumed. Duncan, without providing an easy way out, does provide the kind of half-decent, whimsical impetus that only becomes an impetus when you are desperate for one. And Atwood’s portrayal of Marian is wisely muted, with the other characters reacting with only mild surprise or amusement to her various actings-out. When Ainsley, upon seeing Marian’s cake at the end, cries out in horror, “you’re rejecting your femininity!” we are more likely to laugh at Ainsley for being ridiculous than we are at Marian. If only because if only it were that simple.

Finding yourself isn’t simple. It’s a fucking mess every time if it’s done right.

For better or worse, I broke up with Pete and adopted this as my entire modus operandi in life. It’s hard to say whether The Edible Woman tipped the scales in favor of something I was already struggling against believing or if I just reacted that strongly to the ideas it presented, but I spent the next eight years playing the same story out with a whole host of Duncans. The “why am I doing this?” relationship dynamic was one I cultivated until it lost all scent and flavor, which was sad, because it was always the scent and flavor I wanted in the first place, the very thing stable relationships seem to lack after you’ve been chewing on them for awhile. It’s strange to find myself suddenly mature, almost against my will, at a point in life where I have made most of the important decisions that took me so long to make, and pick up The Edible Woman again. Not because everything is decided now; it isn’t. But I’ve made peace with that being the constant instead of whatever guy or whatever job or whatever situation falls into my lap when I’m not paying attention. I don’t have too many more breakdowns left in me. Not because the potential isn’t out there; it always is. But because it seems I’ve lost my taste for seeking it out purposefully. I’ve learned that life is hard enough when you’re happy and stable as it is.