Lady Oracleby Margaret Atwood
Joan Foster is the bored wife of a myopic ban-the-bomber. She takes off overnight as Canada's new superpoet, pens lurid gothics on the sly, attracts a blackmailing reporter, skids cheerfully in and out of menacing plots, hair-raising traps, and passionate trysts, and lands dead and well in Terremoto, Italy. In this remarkable, poetic, and magical novel, Margaret… See more details below
Joan Foster is the bored wife of a myopic ban-the-bomber. She takes off overnight as Canada's new superpoet, pens lurid gothics on the sly, attracts a blackmailing reporter, skids cheerfully in and out of menacing plots, hair-raising traps, and passionate trysts, and lands dead and well in Terremoto, Italy. In this remarkable, poetic, and magical novel, Margaret Atwood proves yet again why she is considered to be one of the most important and accomplished writers of our time.
"Marvelously funny." Maclean's
"A wonderfully unpretentious comic romp a fine novel: inventive... funny, and a pleasure to read," Mordecai Richler
"Brilliant and funny. I can't tell you how exhilarating it was to read it everything works. An extraordinary book." Joan Didion
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I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it. My life had a tendency to spread, to get flabby, to scroll and festoon like the frame of a baroque mirror, which came from following the line of least resistance. I wanted my death, by contrast, to be neat and simple, understated, even a little severe, like a Quaker church or the basic black dress with a single strand of pearls much praised by fashion magazines when I was fifteen. No trumpets, no megaphones, no spangles, no loose ends, this time. The trick was to disappear without a trace, leaving behind me the shadow of a corpse, a shadow everyone would mistake for solid reality. At first I thought I’d managed it.
The day after I arrived in Terremoto I was sitting outside on the balcony. I’d been intending to sunbathe, I had visions of myself as a Mediterranean splendor, golden-brown, striding with laughing teeth into an aqua sea, carefree at last, the past discarded; but then I remembered I had no suntan lotion (Maximum Protection: without it I’d burn and freckle), so I’d covered my shoulders and thighs with several of the landlord’s skimpy bath towels. I hadn’t brought a bathing suit; bra and underpants would do, I thought, since the balcony was invisible from the road.
I’d always been fond of balconies. I felt that if I could only manage to stand on one long enough, the right one, wearing a long white trailing gown, preferably during the first quarter of the moon, something would happen: music would sound, a shape would appear below, sinuous and dark, and climb towards me, while I leaned fearfully, hopefully, gracefully, against the wrought-iron railing and quivered. But this wasn’t a very romantic balcony. It had a geometric railing like those on middle-income apartment buildings of the fifties, and the floor was poured concrete, already beginning to erode. It wasn’t the kind of balcony a man would stand under playing a lute and yearning or clamber up bearing a rose in his teeth or a stiletto in his sleeve. Besides, it was only five feet off the ground. Any mysterious visitor I might have would be more likely to approach by the rough path leading down to the house from the street above, feet crunching on the cinders, roses or knives in his head only.
That at any rate would be Arthur’s style, I thought; he’d rather crunch than climb. If only we could go back to the way it had once been, before he had changed. . . . I pictured him coming to retrieve me, winding up the hill in a rented Fiat which would have something wrong with it; he would tell me about this defect later, after we’d thrown ourselves into each other’s arms. He would park, as close to the wall as possible. Before getting out he would check his face in the rearview mirror, adjusting the expression: he never liked to make a fool of himself, and he wouldn’t be sure whether or not he was about to. He would unfold himself from the car, lock it so his scanty luggage could not be stolen, place the keys in an inside jacket pocket, peer left and right, and then with that curious ducking motion of the head, as if he were dodging a thrown stone or a low doorway, he’d sneak past the rusty gate and start cautiously down the path. He was usually stopped at international borders. It was because he looked so furtive; furtive but correct, like a spy.
At the sight of lanky Arthur descending towards me, uncertain, stony-faced, rescue-minded, in his uncomfortable shoes and wellaged cotton underwear, not knowing whether I would really be there or not, I began to cry. I closed my eyes: there in front of me, across an immense stretch of blue which I recognized as the Atlantic Ocean, was everyone I had left on the other side. On a beach, of course; I’d seen a lot of Fellini movies. The wind rippled their hair, they smiled and waved and called to me, though of course I couldn’t hear the words. Arthur was the nearest; behind him was the Royal Porcupine, otherwise known as Chuck Brewer, in his long pretentious cape; then Sam and Marlene and the others. Leda Sprott fluttered like a bedsheet off to one side, and I could see Fraser Buchanan’s leather-patched elbow sticking out from where he lurked behind a seaside bush. Further back, my mother, wearing a navy-blue suit and a white hat, my father indistinct by her side; and my Aunt Lou. Aunt Lou was the only one who wasn’t looking at me. She was marching along the beach, taking deep breaths and admiring the waves and stopping every now and then to empty the sand out of her shoes. Finally she took them off, and continued, in fox fur, feathered hat and stocking feet, towards a distant hot-dog and orangeade stand that beckoned to her from the horizon like a tacky mirage.
But I was wrong about the rest of them. They were smiling and waving at each other, not at me. Could it be that the Spiritualists were wrong and the dead weren’t interested in the living after all? Though some of them were still alive, and I was the one who was supposed to be dead; they should have been mourning but instead they seemed quite cheerful. It wasn’t fair. I tried to will something ominous onto their beach – a colossal stone head, a collapsing horse – but with no result. In fact it was less like a Fellini movie than that Walt Disney film I saw when I was eight, about a whale who wanted to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. He approached a ship and sang arias, but the sailors harpooned him, and each of his voices left his body in a different-colored soul and floated up towards the sun, still singing. The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, I think it was called. At the time I cried ferociously.
It was this memory that really set me off. I never learned to cry with style, silently, the pearl-shaped tears rolling down my cheeks from wide luminous eyes, as on the covers of True Love comics, leaving no smears or streaks. I wished I had; then I could have done it in front of people, instead of in bathrooms, darkened movie theaters, shrubberies and empty bedrooms, among the party coats on the bed. If you could cry silently people felt sorry for you. As it was I snorted, my eyes turned the color and shape of cooked tomatoes, my nose ran, I clenched my fists, I moaned, I was embarrassing, finally I was amusing, a figure of fun. The grief was always real but it came out as a burlesque of grief, an overblown imitation like the neon rose on White Rose Gasoline stations, gone forever now. . . . Decorous weeping was another of those arts I never mastered, like putting on false eyelashes. I should’ve had a governess, I should have gone to finishing school and had a board strapped to my back and learned water-color painting and self-control.
You can’t change the past, Aunt Lou used to say. Oh, but I wanted to; that was the one thing I really wanted to do. Nostalgia convulsed me. The sky was blue, the sun was shin ing, to the left a puddle of glass fragments shimmered like water; a small green lizard with iridescent blue eyes warmed its cool blood on the railing; from the valley came a tinkling sound, a soothing moo, the lull of alien voices. I was safe, I could begin again, but instead I sat on my bal cony, beside the remains of a kitchen window broken before my time, in a chair made of aluminum tubes and yellow plastic strips, and made choking noises.
The chair belonged to Mr. Vitroni, the landlord, who was fond of felt-tipped pens with different colors of ink, red, pink, purple, orange, a taste I shared. He used his to show the other people in the town that he could write. I used mine for lists and love letters, sometimes both at once: Have gone to pick up some coffee, XXX. The thought of these abandoned shopping trips intensified my sorrow . . . no more grapefruits, cut in half for two, with a red maraschino cherry like a navel boss, which Arthur habitually rolled to the side of the plate; no more oatmeal porridge, loathed by me, extolled by Arthur, lumping and burning because I hadn’t taken his advice and done it in a double boiler. . . . Years of breakfasts, inept, forsaken, never to be recovered. . . . Years of murdered breakfasts, why had I done it?
I realized I’d come to the worst place in the entire world. I should have gone somewhere fresh and clean, somewhere I’d never been before. Instead I’d returned to the same town, the same house even, where we’d spent the summer the year before. And nothing had changed: I’d have to cook on the same two-burner stove with the gas cylinder, bombola, that ran out always in the middle of a halfdone meal; eat at the same table, which still had the white rings on the varnish from my former carelessness with hot cups; sleep in the same bed, its mattress furrowed with age and the anxieties of many tenants. The wraith of Arthur would pursue me; already I could hear faint gargling noises from the bathroom, the crunch of glass as he scraped back his chair on the balcony, waiting for me to pass his cup of coffee out to him through the kitchen window. If I opened my eyes and turned my head, surely he would be there, newspaper held six inches from his face, pocket dictionary on one knee, left index finger inserted (perhaps) in his ear, an unconscious gesture he denied performing.
It was my own stupidity, my own fault. I should have gone to Tunisia or the Canary Islands or even Miami Beach, on the Grey - hound Bus, hotel included, but I didn’t have the willpower; I needed something more familiar. A place with no handholds, no landmarks, no past at all: that would have been too much like dying. By this time I was weeping spasmodically into one of the landlord’s bath towels and I’d thrown another one over my head, an old habit: I used to cry under pillows so as not to be found out. But through the towel I could now hear an odd clicking sound. It must’ve been going on for a while. I listened, and it stopped. I raised the towel. There, at the level of my ankles and only three feet away, floated a head, an old man’s head, topped by a raveling straw hat. The whitish eyes stared at me with either alarm or disapproval; the mouth, caved in over the gums, was open at one side. He must’ve heard me. Perhaps he thought I was having an attack of some kind, in my underwear, towel-covered on a balcony. Perhaps he thought I was drunk.
I smiled damply, to reassure him, clutched my towels around me and tried to get out of the aluminum chair, remembering too late its trick of folding up if you struggled. I lost several of the towels before I was able to back in through the door.
I’d recognized the old man. It was the same old man who used to come one or two afternoons a week to tend the artichokes on the arid terrace below the house, cutting the larger weeds with a pair of rusty shears and snipping off the leathery artichoke heads when they were ready. Unlike the other people in the town, he never said anything to me or returned a word of greeting. He gave me the creeps.
I put on my dress (out of sight of the picture window, behind the door) and went into the bathroom to swab my face with a dampened washcloth and blow my nose on some of Mr. Vitroni’s scratchy toilet paper; then to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
For the first time since arriving, I began to feel afraid. It was more than depressing to have returned to this town, it was dangerous. It’s no good thinking you’re invisible if you aren’t, and the problem was: if I had recognized the old man, perhaps he had recognized me.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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