“The Other Place” (found in Moral Disorder and other stories) by Margaret Atwood is more of a character sketch than a sustained story. It’s not great, but very good, and there is some wonderful writing in it. Rather than a standard review, I would like to walk through the narrative and display some of the beautiful linguistic scenery along the way.
Told from the perspective of a young woman making her way alone in the world, Atwood describes her longing and sense of powerlessness –
For a long time I wandered aimlessly. It felt like a long time. It didn’t feel aimless, however, or not in any carefree way: I was being driven by necessity, by fate, like the characters in the more melodramatic novels I’d read in high school who would rush out into thunderstorms and lurk around on moors. Like them I had to keep moving. I couldn’t help it.
She was pressed to pursue… pursue what? It’s not like she is on a mission. At the same time, she is distanced from the life laid out for her, handed down through the generations, portrayed by her parents rushing about doing gardening and dishes at home.
They were immersed in mundane affairs, they were not contemplating any higher truths. I’d feel superior to them. Then I’d feel homesick.
“Meanwhile, I had to make a living,” she writes. Fortunately, there were jobs to be found for women with her intellect.
I thought of myself as an itinerant brain– the equivalent of the strolling player of Elizabethan times, or else a troubadour, clutching my university degree like a cheap lute.
At the university gatherings, the male faculty saw her as free game for “trial gropings” while their wives looked on her “as if she had head lice.” She stood alone, like the cheese in “Hi-ho, the derry-o“. She fails to find liberation in the sexual revolution, too old for the “love beads and pothead crowd.” Instead, she lives on the edge – in rooming houses, shared apartments and sublets – filling her space with “makeshift items from thrift stores”.
The objects I chose were designed to hold something, but I didn’t fill them. They remained empty. They were little symbolic shrines to thirst.
She manages to land a job teaching grammar to freshmen at a university in Vancouver. She moves into an upstairs apartment. She walks through the rooms naked and wears herself out reading late at night. Sometimes she goes for walks.
A friend introduces her to Owen – a man more desperately alone than she is. He drops by at night – not really courting her, not really befriending her, just sort of hanging out.
One night Owen tells her his brothers once tried to kill him by locking him in an abandoned refrigerator. She wonders if this explains his desperate sadness. Is he suicidal?
I felt I should respond in some empathetic way, declare a firm position, reach out a helping hand. My eventual murmur of “That’s terrible.” didn’t seem nearly enough. Worse: I had a shameful desire to laugh, because the thing was so grotesque, as near-tragedies often are. Surely, I lacked empathy, or even simple kindness.
Owen must have felt so too, because after that evening he never came back. Or possibly, he’d done what he’d wanted to do: dropped off his anguish, left it with me like a package in the mistaken belief that I would know what to do with it.
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image above Sara Benitez in Books Worth Reading