I recently reread Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel, Life Before Man. Published in 1979, it has stood the test of time, even of prehistory: one of the characters, Lesje, a paleontologist, fantasizes about the age of dinosaurs.
It is not of course about dinosaurs, though the three main characters are in their way museum pieces. Elizabeth, who works in Special Projects at the museum of natural history, has the best grasp of the present; her husband Nate romantically harkens back to a simpler time and and has quit his job as a lawyer to make beautiful expensive wooden toys in the basement. After Elizabeth’s lover, Chris, commits suicide by blowing his head off with a shotgun, they must realign their lives. Elizabeth is traumatized, and Nate wants to end own affair with a woman too dramatic for him. Lesje knows Elizabeth and Nate only slightly and also knew Chris, who worked at the museum too. Nate has a crush on Lesje, and thus a triangle is formed.
Atwiood heads each chapter with a date and switches from one point of view to the next: her characterization of Elizabeth, a controlling woman who does not respect Nate except as the father of their two children, is particularly lucid and chilling. She and Nate share the house, but both openly have sexual affairs with others. Nate is likable but weak: Elizabeth understands his fleeing from woman to woman all too well. He is confused, running from closeness.
Lesje, daughter of Latvian immigrants, is younger and does not fit in anywhere. She is bored with her lover, an environmental engineer who works in sewage disposal. She fantasizes about life before man.
In prehistory there are no men, no other human beings, unless it’s the occasional lone watcher like herself, tourist or refugee, hunched in his private fern with his binoculars, minding his own business.
Atwood’s cool observations are more sophisticated than Lesje’s. She shows us Lesje’s guilt about her regressive fantasy of watching camptosaurs and pterosaurs
Lesje knows, when she thinks about it, that this is probably not everyone’s idea of a restful fantasy. Nevertheless it’s hers; especially since in it she allows herself to violate shamelessly whatever official version of paleontological reality she chooses. In general she is clear-eyed, objective, and doctrinaire enough during business hours, which is all the more reason, she feels, for her extravagance here in the Jurassic swamps. She mixes eras, adds colors: why not a metallic blue Stegosaurus with red and yellow dots instead of the dull greys and browns postulated by the experts? Of which she, in a minor way, is one. Across the flanks of the camptosaurs pastel flushes of color come and go, reddish pink, purple, light pink, reflecting emotions like the contracting and expanding chromatophores in the skins of octopuses. Only when the camptosaurs are dead do they turn grey.
Nate creepily makes several hang-up calls to Lesje before they begin to see each other. Elizabeth likes to control things, so she makes a point of getting to know Lesje and William and inviting them to dinner.
Though Elizabeth is not someone you’d want to have dinner with, she is the most interesting of the three. Unlike Lesje, Elizabeth has no fantasies.
Elizabeth walks west, along the north side of the street, in the cold grey air that is an extension of the unbroken fish-grey sky. She doesn’t glance into the store windows; she knows what she looks like and she doesn’t indulge in fantasies of looking any other way. She doesn’t need her own reflection or the reflections of other people’s ideas of her or of themselves. Peach-yellow, applesauce-pink, raspberry, plum, hides, hooves, plumes, lips, claws, they are of no use to her. She wears a black coat. She’s hard, a dense core, that dark point around which other colors swirl. She keeps her eyes straight, her shoulders level, her steps even. She marches.
Women do get harder and denser with experience, and I admire Elizabeth’s intelligence, even if I deplore her methods of managing relationships.
Life Before Man is a classic.