The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

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.

Sincere apologies to Dolce Bellezza, who was the inspiration to read this book. Please read her kinder thoughtson the story.

12 thoughts on “The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

  1. >Amy, I certainly didn't hate it, but I expected a lot more of the combination of Atwood and The Odyssey. My high expectations of Atwood may be misplaced, based on thinking The Handmaid Tale quite brilliant; it is the only book of hers I have enjoyed.

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  2. >Have tried with Atwood three times now and always see the potential but also always feel that the execution is wanting. Getting ready to write briefly about this one about which our opinions are similar. Perhaps most disappointing to me was the missed opportunity with the chorus feature for which I had high hopes.

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  3. >For the chorus chapters to work, Atwood would have to be able to write good poetry, a considerably more arduous task than writing good prose. On the evidence of this book, more effort is needed just to write prose that elevates her stories from the mundane.What is it about Atwood that makes us keep trying, Frances?

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  4. >I think I liked some of what you hated, Anthony. I liked the very "common touch" that Atwood gave to Penelope, and her desire to make her story timeless. I also liked The Anthropology Lecture, which I saw as a critique on feminist thought! Sorry it wasn't a win for you!

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  5. >Oof, is it possible for anyone to make such a pop-contemporary reference without sounding foolish? I am going to say it is not. And while Atwood probably shouldn't have written it, some editor somewhere should have cut it!

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  6. >You're right, Nicole, it is the sort of reference that you can understand in a first draft, but you would expect it to be cut out in rewriting.There's a place for that sort of comedy writing, but not from a supposedly serious author. The whole book is suffused with the same low humour.

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