I was three quarters of the way through Hag-seed, when I realized that I was not particularly enjoying it. The realization surprised me a lot. This was only the second novel that I had read by Atwood (the first being The Handmaid’s Tale). But I was familiar with her poetry. I had also liked the way that she’d paced the narrative of Handmaid.
Hag-seed, however, didn’t seem to be doing much for me. I was having a really difficult time convincing myself to push through the story’s climax. To stop about 40 pages from the book’s resolution seemed a waste, both from the perspective of myself as the reader, and that of the book itself. Most importantly, it felt like a broken promise. I was confused as to whether the fault would lay with me or the narrative.
Margaret Atwood’s 2016 novel, Hag-seed, tells the tale of the great Felix Philips, theatre director extraordinaire, betrayed by his right hand man. This pushes him into retirement right at the point where he needs his career the most. It’s a story of revenge and grief which spins itself into, around, and through Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Not only does the plot of the novel parallel that of the play, but the play is an integral part of Felix’s story. He attempts to regain his career and status by teaching the inmates of Fletcher Correctional the nuances of Shakespeare’s comedy.
Challenges of the narrative in Hag-seed
As a teacher, this story should have been a fascinating study in how to reach the “unreachable” student. It should
have been full of relatable allusions to the career and to the play. Instead, I found a third person, present tense narrative that focused on a character whom largely unrelateable to me.
The choice to tell a story in present tense is uncommon. And I will admit that it’s not to my taste. I find present tense narratives disconcerting, as they tend to emphasize the problem of capturing a story in “real time.” Even a talented writer like Atwood can’t seem to make the shift from past to present more convincing for me. So I was at odds with the narrative from the first page. I made the conscious decision to keep reading, despite the tense. I trust Atwood’s reputation and my experiences with her work.
Felix, the intangible, feels alive
Felix Philips is a character far beyond my own experiences – not in a fantastical way, but in a real-life way. He is a man approaching his twilight years. He found love late, and lost his love shortly after; both his wife, and his three year old daughter are dead prior to the book’s opening. It feels like he is already on the verge of retiring of his own volition when he’s betrayed by his assistant and forced to leave his career just before the opening of his production of The Tempest. Felix’s beginning is so far beyond my own life experiences that his handling of the conflict, his journey, and his growth, are intangible to me.
A number of times in the narrative Felix’s behavior can be explained either by his anger or his grief. Also, for a number of times those explanations entwine until they are indistinguishable. At a few points in the narrative you seriously question Felix’s sanity. Those are probably some of the most compelling moments in the book. Unfortunately, the cause of those things – the death of a spouse, the death of a child, the betrayal of a friend at a time when I needed that friend most – these are not my experiences. They are all such a postscript in the exposition that Atwood’s readers have no way latch onto them. They lack the chance to make those experiences their own.
Mr. Duke, the revenger loses authenticity
When Felix dons the persona of Mr. Duke, the quirky literature professor taking on a role at a prison, the story takes a turn towards a slice-of-life. That is, it would, if Felix weren’t hell-bent on revenge and possibly hallucinating the life and times of his 12-years-dead daughter. The problem is that the reader has no idea how teaching a bunch of inmates Shakespeare is going to enable Philips to get the revenge he obsesses over. All you know is that, somehow, the people Felix wants most are right where he wants them. And the book is counting down towards opening night.
The calm after the storm
Despite all of this, I suspect the dissonance I felt with the narrative is a shortcoming of myself rather than the narrative. The writing on its own is engaging. Atwood’s command of language is as beguiling in Hagseed as it is in Handmaid or Half-Hanged Mary. Also, the same goes for any other of her works that I have read. Her characterization is, for the most part, compelling. The story is well paced, and the dialogue feels very tangible. Only the internal monologue, and the character’s motivations make the story impossibly cumbersome to get through.
I did finish the book, although I remain uncertain whether forcing myself to do so now did the book’s ending anyjustice. There’s no real moment of closure. The “reveal” of a defining feature of The Tempest that might be working to tie Felix’s narrative to Prospero’s falls a little flat in the face of rest of the resolution. I suspect the unrefined conclusion and lack of catharsis also works to echo The Tempest further. But as it’s one of the few comedies that I read on my own rather than studying, I feel like I’ve missed something.
(It should be worth noting that it seems unlikely that a practiced author, like Atwood, would craft a climax that was only satisfying to a small group of readers, based on the chance that they understood a minor point of another complex work.)
Ultimately, I think that Hagseed is a book that I will need to read again in about twenty to twenty-five years. It requires an instinctual level of sympathy rather than practiced empathy, and the character simply isn’t accessible given my lack of similar experience.