Field Notes: This Shape We’re In, The Penelopiad

THIS SHAPE WE’RE IN

SYNOPSIS: Jonathan Lethem’s 2001 novella, one of the first books put out by the publishing arm of McSweeney’s, about a race of microscopic people who live inside an unspecified larger creature.

CONDITION: Bought used from the Untitled Bookshop in early November.

THOUGHTS: Until 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem was first and foremost a science fiction writer. An edgy, inventive one, by all accounts, but a genre guy nonetheless. Brooklyn brought Lethem into a brand new mode—one that combined detectives, medical material (his protagonist suffers from Tourette’s syndrome), and an overwhelming love of New York City.

It also brought him a whole new level of attention. Lethem followed that book with This Shape We’re In, and it feels very much like a palate cleanser, a return to form, a brief layover in familiar territory before launching onto his next ambitious project. (You may know it as The Fortress of Solitude.)

The world in this novella is intentionally murky, but it involves a middle-aged father and retired general named Farbur who lives somewhere in the bowels of the shape. Or, as he nicely dubs his neighbourhood, the “subburrows”. Lethem’s descriptive agility is as precise as ever; early on a man timidly approaches an out-of-control barbeque “in some sort of sketchy volunteer-fireman impulse.”

Farbur finds out his adult son has gone pacifist, meditating and panhandling near one of the shape’s eyes—which are themselves semi-mythical places—and so he sets out with one of his son’s friends to go bring him back home.

There’s a whole bunch of off-the-wall energy on display, but the book doesn’t really hang together. The stakes are raised too high, too quickly, and I didn’t feel nearly as stirred by the vague impending conflict as Farbur seems to. And considering how much emphasis is put on the mystery of the eyes, he sure is able to find the thing pretty quickly.

Come to think of it, Farbur has a strangely acute sense of biology generally, knowing the layout of a body far better than you’d think a microscopic organism would. He also has a surprisingly strong knowledge of Marlon Brando movies. Obviously these are conscious choices Lethem’s made, but I don’t quite know how to square them with the rest.

Things do end on a satisfying note, though, as Lethem floods us with so many reveals on the last page that we move from being in the dark to being completely blinded by the light. Let’s just say it has to do with the kind of shape they’re inside, and… man, I don’t even know where to start.

* * * * * 

THE PENELOPIAD

SYNOPSIS: Margaret Atwood’s 2005 re-telling of The Odyssey, from the perspective of Odysseus’s long-suffering wife Penelope and her team of maids.

CONDITION: New. “Rescued” from the offices of my old student newspaper—we were sent a review copy when it first came out—when I graduated in 2008.

THOUGHTS: The Penelope of this book is not a paragon of morality. She’s not as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as her cousin Helen (to her unending chagrin). Sure, the songs and poems handed down to us from ancient Greece might have laid it on pretty thick about her beauty and virtue—the bards who wrote them didn’t really have a choice. She was a queen, after all.

No, here she’s just a normal, decent woman who was thrust, at age 15, into an unknown land and forced to govern it soon after, once her husband is conscripted into battle. Penelope’s most remembered feature is her constancy—in the 20 years Odysseus was gone, and eventually presumed dead, she fought hard to stay true to him in the face of 100+ suitors, and keep their kingdom of Ithaca intact. But this is a virtue that only looks good in hindsight; in the moment it looks more like foolishness.

Margaret Atwood is coming to Edmonton tomorrow to give a reading from her latest novel, The Year of the Flood. I bought a ticket, because why not? She’s a titan in Canadian literature. Plus it was only $5.

Then I figured it might help if I’d actually read one of her books going in—so I grabbed this, the only one in the boxes of my books that until two days ago were cluttering up my new attic, and tried to catch up, at least a little.

And my goodness. The Penelopiad is just great. I had no idea Atwood was so elegant, so funny, and so crisp a stylist. I guess I have to take back this comic I helped make back in university. (To be fair, the concept wasn’t mine. I was just brought in for punch up—or whatever it is you call it when none of your jokes are funny enough to make the final cut anyway.)

The main conceit is that Atwood, drawing on a long history of alternate versions and reinterpretations, tells Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view. It becomes a de facto autobiography. She also unravels and rewrites the story about the 12 maids who were hung to death upon Odysseus’s return for being disloyal. The proper narrative chapters are off-set by a Chorus of the maids singing and joking and lamenting from beyond the grave.

It’s a brisk book, and one that does very satisfying justice to the tantalizing open-endedness of Homer’s version of events. (This is a mini-genre of which I’m quite fond generally.) Atwood also throws in a few nods to other, more academic, interpretations.

As usual, you should probably start with The Odyssey first, before moving on to the riffs thereupon. But here’s a secret: despite being thousands of years old, that book remains as fresh and witty and exhilarating as any spin a modern writer could put on it. To her credit, Atwood comes as close as anyone.

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