Margaret Atwood is 35. No, not that one. This Peggy is always Margaret and never, ever writes a book. She also has the initial “H” in the middle and uses it to fend off shop clerks dumb enough to wonder, Hey aren’t you …?
Missy Marston’s first novel soon dispenses with nominal coincidence and launches a volley of cuts to the bone. We join Margaret in the universal pit that no one can climb out of, the one where the viper is time itself and its devil spawn: “this decaying, disposable human suit we all wear.”
Laugh lines make Margaret want to cry. She knows that her attitude is “a giving in to the tyranny of ‘prescribed beauty’ and so on,” but she remains a realist, saying that aging is what turns “a perfectly nice-looking young woman” into Ed Asner.
Margaret edits documents for an insurance company. In 10 years of service, she has encountered nothing that “could possibly be interesting to anyone.” That includes her co-workers, whose only interest may be the bile they stimulate in her, these boring people who “love their cats, their gerbils. … Whatever.” The ongoing contempt can be exhausting. Only her paycheque (all hers, now that hubby has left) makes up for it.
Margaret once loved her husband. She fell for Brian’s full package the day she met him in a college lecture hall: “the shape of his fingernails and the hair on his arms and his soft plump earlobes.” He smelled like a man, banishing schoolyard memories of boys “who smelled like bananas and salami.” Marston has an impressive gift for scent memory.
Brian was a liar and a user, and Margaret let it slide until her victimhood festered. She’s now in a sparsely decorated singles pad, perfecting her loneliness. At her lowest point, as she weeps in bed after a social blunder and reprimand at the office, everything changes.
Space aliens have been watching her. Their grey-green, almond-eyed leader has already done a reconnoitre of her apartment. “He finds her sadness irresistible.” When he shows himself late one night beside her bed, Margaret is “strangely moved,” the only distressing item being the creature’s exposed, humanoid penis.
We move from Margaret’s viewpoint to chapters reporting from the supporting players, including ex-husband Brian (capturing his slick charm and poisonous narcissism) and Margaret’s mother, Rose, who notes while observing her sleeping husband, “We all look like children when we sleep. Until we start to look like corpses. Wait for it.”
To call Marston’s humour wry is barely a start. The twist in her comedy is fuelled by merciless observation, unvarnished glimpses into the human appetite for misery. Enduring a painful menstrual bout, Margaret channel-surfs while gorging on Chinese takeout and faulting her uterus for imagining that new life is “ever going to grow in there.” Her pulsing gut even manages to spoil her enjoyment of a program about a woman “whose face has been eaten off by a bear.” Marston deftly tweaks our ambivalent laugh-or-cry synapses.
The aliens are the inspired wild card. As the story gets weirder, it becomes both funnier and unexpectedly moving. In the broadest sense, the novel is religious. Margaret is desperate for meaning, a way of relearning how to love and be loved.
There are a few gratuitous point-of-view shifts, pulling us out of Margaret for a sentence or two to give us the thoughts of marginal characters. In short encounters between major characters, too, we’re sometimes distractingly shuttled back and forth between inner worlds.
Marston’s main lapse, which some readers will embrace, is her heartfelt rush to redemption, as the alien gods (yes, from the machine) secretly revitalize her human heart. As aliens go, they are delightfully convincing; as narrative devices, not so much. I confess, I much preferred the unregenerated Margaret, who still had some of the moxie of her namesake.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail’s first-fiction reviewer.