AN age in which a writer like Margaret Atwood is accorded the status of a ``lady oracle,'' seems to have lost (or abandoned) all sense of literary proportion. Productive, versatile, a poet and critic as well as a fiction writer, Atwood is probably Canada's best-known contemporary author. Her novels generally receive front-page reviews in book supplements, her still-expanding oeuvre is studied in college courses, and a Margaret Atwood Society, duly affiliated with the Modern Language Association, publishes an annual newsletter. Academic essayists diligently dissect her themes and symbols, gravely pondering the deep significance of her by-and-large middlebrow, unmysterious, straightforward writings.
Although the critical overvaluation of Atwood may be hard to account for, it's not hard to understand her popular appeal.
From the sly comedy of ``The Edible Woman'' (1969) and ``Lady Oracle'' (1976) to the sober, even grim, realism of ``Life Before Man'' (1979) and ``Bodily Harm'' (1981), her work recognizably mirrors the age we inhabit. But when she assumes the role of oracle in works like ``The Handmaid's Tale'' (1985), it becomes clear that Atwood lacks the intellectual substance and subtlety necessary to launch a sustained critique of contemporary society and culture.
Atwood's eighth novel, ``The Robber Bride,'' is a cross between a Fay Weldon-style fantasy-satire featuring a preposterous ``She-devil'' and a Margaret Drabble-ish collage documenting the life histories of three women who first met as university students. The story opens in present-day Toronto, with three women in their late 40s meeting for lunch at a punk-style hangout called the Toxique. Petite, clever, black-haired Tony is a military historian. (Although her male colleagues had to overcome their prejudices to accept her, it's the department feminists who remain totally hostile to the very notion of studying a subject as evil as war.) Gentle, fuzzy-minded Charis works in a shop selling New Age paraphernalia. Dynamic, earthy Roz is the highly competent head of a business built up by her father.
What all three have in common is having lost the men in their lives to the wiles of an unscrupulous woman called Zenia, the ``robber bride'' of the title. Tony was Zenia's first victim, and the only one to get her man back. Poor Charis still doesn't know what's become of Billy, the Kentucky-born draft dodger she sheltered in the 1970s, who took off with Zenia and was never seen again. But Roz knows all too well what happened to her husband, Mitch, a standard-issue philanderer who always returned to his wife and family - until Zenia got her hands on him.
Having attended funeral services for Zenia some years ago, the three lunching ladies are understandably horrified when the not-so-dear departed one walks into the restaurant. What unfolds next, in the three long sections that form the novel's central part, are stories of how each of these very different women managed to be charmed, tricked, and betrayed by Zenia.
Although Zenia is depicted as a vamp, a femme fatale, a ``man-eater,'' with flawless skin, billowing dark hair, a stunning figure, and the knack of convincing each new lover that he is unique, the focus of all three stories is on her ability to beguile the three women into believing she is their friend.
Cool-headed Tony, a shy loner at college in the 1960s, brilliant beyond her years but young for her age, is flattered by the attentions of her sophisticated classmate, who pretends to ``open up'' to Tony and reveal her hidden insecurities. In the 1970s, Charis, wounded by childhood traumas yet sensitive to other people's ``auras,'' intuits danger in Zenia, but falls for a sad story calculated to appeal to her sympathy.
Tough-minded Roz, career-woman of the 1980s, lets down her guard in response to yet another of Zenia's con jobs.
As Atwood delves into each victim's past, it become evident that there are certain similarities beneath their differences. All three had hard childhoods, abandoned or rejected by one or both parents, unsure of their own worth. All three respond to Zenia's false tales of a terrible childhood with sympathy and a willingness to help her. And all three, on some level, envy - or identify with - her boldness. There is some suggestion that Zenia represents each woman's ``other side,'' a dark twin who dares to transgress.
Meeting Zenia again in the present, each heroine is tested. The first challenge is to be smart enough and strong enough to resist being duped again; the second is to avoid becoming like Zenia in the process of fighting her.
The fairy-tale overtones of this novel are deliberate. Atwood's title is a reference to the Grimm (and grim) fairy tale, ``The Robber Bridegroom,'' which is mentioned in the novel (and reprinted in a little pamphlet issued by the publisher). The fairy-tale ``bridegroom'' is a Bluebeard-like character who woos innocent maidens, then slices them up and pops them into a stewpot. One maiden finds out about this beforehand and exposes his evil doings. In Atwood's version, the men tricked by the ``robber bride'' have less of a role than the fairy-tale maidens: It's up to Atwood's three heroines to unmask the ``man-eating'' woman.
Although Atwood, addressing the American Booksellers Association earlier this year, spoke of achieving a wiser, more balanced and realistic brand of feminism, one that takes account of the fact that women as well as men have the capacity for evil, men - and women who believe that men are people, not just sex objects - might well complain that the three men in this novel are portrayed as ciphers, prizes of dubious distinction to be won or lost in the wars among women. Nor is Zenia a very compelling or enlightening portrait of evil: She is merely a stereotypical vamp in the tired mold of Mata Hari. (In addition to stealing men's hearts, she's involved with spies, gun-runners, drug-dealers, and terrorists - or claims to be.)
Readers may well enjoy Atwood's crisp writing, neatly interwoven plotting, sharp-eyed descriptions, and wry sense of humor. But those who imagine ``The Robber Bride'' to be a work of large significance with anything profound or new to say about gender, power, love, hate, or the nature of good and evil, are simply kidding themselves.