Where shall I begin? The very begininning: the title The Penelopiad suggests spoof, comedic writing, not my favourite literary feeding ground. Why not the Penelopesian Wars? But I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s books, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake are serious, intelligent, subtle works. I blamed the marketing department at Knopf Canada for the title. The slaughter of the maids and mutilation of Melanthius is the brutal conclusion to a story I have been reading on and off for twenty years. After the block of the title, I expected much from Atwood: a feminist reading of Penelope’s story (putting aside Butler’s theory that The Odyssey was written by a woman) – a brilliant idea.
I didn’t completely dislike Atwood’s story, just found it wanting, compared to her other books. The humour lacked subtlety. Describing the race Odysseus won to secure Penelope as his wife, Atwood writes:
He cheated. […] He mixed the wine of the other contestants with a drug that slowed them down, though not so much as they would notice; to Odysseus he gave a potion that had the opposite effect. [So far, so good …] I understand that this sort of thing has become a tradition, and is still practised in the world of the living when it comes to athletic contests.
A single movement: my eyes followed that line, a snort, and the book flew, pages fluttering like a quail, across the room. Is this the Margaret Atwood who wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale lines like, “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.” Has Spike Milligan taken the role of Atwood’s Muse?
Spike Milligan, or perhaps the Pythons, are also presumably the inspiration for ‘The Anthropology Lecture’ and ‘The Trial of Odysseus as Videotaped by the Maids’ chapters.
But I didn’t completely dislike The Penelopiad. It was an opportunity to hear retold one of my many favourite parts of The Odyssey. And, readable in two sittings, it had the virtue of brevity.