Uglypuss

Douglas Adams says in The Salmon of Doubt that “every country has a distinct personality… and Canada is an intelligent 35 year old woman.”  When I read that, I thought Canada is an intelligent, 35 year old woman, and she is Margaret Atwood. So much is Atwood steeped in the literature of this country, that I have often felt that the whole edifice of Canadian literaure is supported between Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Someone once called Atwood’s books “reportage from our premier front line correspondent in the war between the sexes.”

In Bluebeard’s Egg, there is a short story by Atwood called Uglypuss which has managed to stick in my mind, though I was less than sympathetic to the characters when I read it. The story describes a single incident – Joel’s refusal to be at home when Becka asks to meet him. Joel is unenthused by the prospect of meeting Becka, and what will degenerate into a slinging match with her need for commitment, so he grabs his coat and heads out to a diner, eyes the women available, and feels somewhat clever for having avoided the unpleasant visit. He does not want a monogamous relationship and attempts to escape from Becka.

Every move to encircle him, pin him down, force him into a corner, only makes him more desperate to escape. She never came right out and said so, but what she wanted was permanence, commitment, monogamy, the works. Forty years of the same thing night after night was a long time to contemplate.

There are hints in the story as to why their relationship did not work out.

In recent years, he’s come to realize that the kind of woman that ought to turn him on – left-leaning intellectual women who can hold up their end of a debate, who believe in fifty-fifty, who can be good pals – aren’t the kind that actually do. He’s not ashamed of this discovery, as he would have been once. He prefers women who are soft-spoken and who don’t live all the time in their heads, who don’t take everything with deadly seriousness. What he needs is someone who won’t argue about whether he’s too macho, whether he should or shouldn’t encourage the capitalists by using under-arm deodorant, whether the personal is political or the political is personal, whether he’s anti-Semitic, anti-female, anti-anything. Someone who won’t argue.

He is referring to debates he had with Becka, which, ironically, he taught her to be able to engage in, and it is clear that he cannot hold his own, that Becka has challenged his politics.

Early on, he thought they’d been engaging in a dialogue, out of which, sooner or later, a consensus would emerge. He thought they’d been involved in a process of mutual adjustment and counter-adjustment. But viewed from here and now, it was never a dialogue. It was merely a degrading squabble.

Becka is at his home, “waited for an hour and a half, pacing, reading his magazines, surrounded by a space that used to be hers and still felt like it.”

Today she thought she still loved him, and love conquers all, doesn’t it? Where there’s love there’s hope. Maybe they could get it back, together.

However, she is outraged by his evasive tactics, anticipates with accuracy everything he has done – even the fact that he must be considering picking up one of the diner’s floozies, which he is doing that very moment – and feels a great rage swamp over her. He has manufactured an ending to the relationship by saying that “People came to the end of what they had to say to one another”. She feels that she has not come to the end of what she has to say, but maybe

She should never have called him. She should know by now that over is over, that when it says The End at the end of a book it means there isn’t any more; which she can never quite believe

She shreds the couch, and then sees Uglypuss – an old, half-blind, cat. It is the only thing he seems to care about, “his kidnapped child, the one he wouldn’t let her have.” She grabs the cat and puts it in a sack, quieting its frantic struggles with shoe-polish fumes. She ties the sack and throws it in one of the myriad garbage bins outside the restaurants and slams the lid.

The story ends with Joel rummaging frantically in garbage bins in the street calling out for Uglypuss, thinking that he needs perspective, that he was reacting to a trivial thing, that this was Becka’s attempt to control him again. Not once does he think of losing Becka, only his cat.

Is this a psychotic, vindictive woman? She has just walked away after kidnapping her boyfriend’s aged cat, subduing it with toxic fumes and depositing it semi-dead in an airless bag in a dumpster. But you can see how much the heart bleeds. 

Tonight she feels dingy, old. Soon she will start getting into firming cream; she will start worrying about her eyelids. Beginning again is supposed to be exciting, a challenge. Beginning again is fine as an idea, but what with? She’s used it all up; she’s used up.

I used to be a good person, she thinks, “I am a good person, aren’t I?” And now? Now that she’s done it – they have their answers more emphatically than if they had actually met.

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