I was asked this week to name a book that had profoundedly affected me and inspired me to write. There are a lot, all demonstrating the power of language, but I choose to focus on Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.
I am not entirely certain that I will fully “get” this book until I’m a middle aged woman, otherwise, never.
When I was eighteen, living in Dallas and trying to find my footing as someone on the verge of adulthood and responsibility, a friend recommended that I read Cat’s Eye. I had to seek it out used, misfiled under Science Fiction, and I think I paid 80 cents for it.
It’s a story about a lot of things, but at the same time it’s not easy to sum up. It starts with a myth, of how when we kill something, that thing becomes a part of us. In the plot, it’s a girl’s spirit which is crushed and she forms a symbiotic relationship with her primary tormentor. Art and memory are two very important themes. What we lose in life as we age, and what we get back in lucky moments of rediscovering ourselves powers the plot, which leaps around in time as different incidents and facts surface in the mind of the main character. The book shuffles the main character’s memory like a deck of cards and you have to stay with it to put all of the pieces together. It’s certainly too uneventful and internal to ever be a movie.
The book profoundly affected me at the time, like a sip of wine at a very young age: it didn’t quite taste right but I knew that if I gave it time there was a world of experience and subtle variations that would open up to me as I matured.
I skipped class, sat in my car, and read the book in a day. I had to reread it again, several times, annually, before I think I fully managed to crack open Atwood’s thoughts. I recommended it to everyone I knew, and they all just shook their head at me. They’d heard of the Handmaid’s Tale, or read that book in high school, but Cat’s Eye was unknown to them.
I’m not big on first editions, believing that books should be distributed and read, not collected; but I have a copy of this one. Every time I go into a used bookstore, if they have a copy on hand I buy it and give it away, sometimes at random.
Atwood’s career has blossomed since then. She won the Booker prize and has written some incredible books (Lady Oracle is fantastic), but Cat’s Eye remains my favorite of hers, probably my favorite book of all time. I had a professor once say that you have to love people to be a writer, but I disagreed. I don’t think Margaret Atwood loves people. In fact, I think she’s a bit misanthrophic. She’s challenging to read and her characters can be hard to root for. I don’t think I could ever be as good a writer as Atwood, but reading Cat’s Eye certainly made me want to try.