Oh, Margaret Atwood, how could you have known – approximately 20 years before the advent of Facebook – that there would one day be a place (a cyber place, no less!) where ordinary people eagerly test their hypotheses about long-lost friends and acquaintances who once would have been relegated only to an aged yearbook or photo album? In light of our obsession with reconnecting with everyone from every facet of our lives, Atwood provides a story that allows me to ruminate on whether or not this “closure” – this attempt at connecting all the tentacles of our lives – is appropriate.
Atwood wrote a novel called Cat’s Eye. A more civilized version of the movie Heathers, perhaps, as it hosts a cadre of “mean girls.” However, I’m not sure that Atwood would posit her work primarily as an ode to childish rivalries. Instead, she focuses on the longing to figure out what becomes of the people who we leave behind as we move on to new ventures. After all, the scenarios that we make up provide a barometer – accurate or not – of our own accomplishments. Did she marry? Where does she work? It’s only natural to wonder, right?
The protagonist of Cat’s Eye, Elaine Ridsley, is an artist returning to Toronto for a retrospective of her work. She is hesitant to revisit a city that holds all her childhood memories, yet she longs for some intangible connection with girlfriends past – particularly one domineering one named Cordelia. The ringleader of their girlhood clique, as well as the inflictor of brutal one-upmanship to Elaine, Cordelia becomes the mythical “stand in” for Elaine’s conflicting emotions of where she came from and where she is now. Twenty years after she’s left Toronto for Canada’s west coast, Elaine incessantly attempts to analyze what has transpired in an attempt to make sense of the rest of her life.
Brought back to Elaine’s childhood, the reader discovers that Cordelia instigates a controlling and authoritative hold over Elaine. She and her “followers” chastise Elaine for the way she walks and the way she speaks. And on a snowy day, they toss Elaine’s hat down a ravine and demand the girl fetch it. Then, with other girlfriends in tow, Cordelia leaves Elaine to nearly freeze to death.
What makes Atwood’s work so enthralling is the nuanced way in which Elaine handles her cohorts. Cordelia and the other girls still want to be her friends, for what fun is exerting power if the powerless don’t participate? There’s no dramatic hair-pulling or damaging public revenge. Instead, Elaine slowly and expertly extracts herself from the group and wields her own power: disinterest. And then, in early adulthood, Elaine simply “drops” Cordelia.
With her protagonist now safely ensconced in adulthood, Atwood writes about Elaine’s desire to reunite with Cordelia, if only to provide some sort of elusive closure:
“I think of encountering her without warning. Perhaps in a worn coat and a knitted hat like a tea cosy, sitting on a curb, with two plastic bags filled only with her possessions, muttering to herself. Cordelia! Don’t you recognize me? I say.”
“Cordelia must be living somewhere. She could be within a mile of me, she could be right on the next block. But finally I have no idea what I would do if I bumped into her by accident, on the subway for instance, sitting across from me, or waiting on the platform reading the ads. We would stand side by side, looking at a large red mouth stretching itself around a chocolate bar, and I would turn to her and say: Cordelia. It’s me, it’s Elaine. Would she turn, give a theatrical shriek? Would she ignore me? Or would I ignore her, given the chance? Or would I go up to her wordlessly, throw my arms around her? Or take her by the shoulders, and shake and shake.”
If only Elaine had had access to the internet. For what she wants is a simple touchstone – a quick glimpse into Cordelia’s present life. She merely wants to know what has become of Cordelia, years after she inflicted this hurt. Because despite the fact that Elaine has moved on, the mystique and aura of Cordelia still permeates her life. Her artwork represents those years, as visages from this clique of girls inch their way into paintings. And on some level, does she not want to “show” Cordelia just how well her life has turned out? This longing for a fusion between past and present pervades Cat’s Eye. It’s a simple wish, but one fraught with high emotions.
But in the end, she doesn’t reunite with Cordelia. Her questions about how she would have handled this encounter remain unanswered.
Like Elaine, I’ve experienced that hunger to reunite with someone from my past – with many people, actually. Although I have no “mean girls” to exonerate, there are those who I inexplicably longed to investigate. So, when Facebook came on the scene, the easy access to everyone created a longing to play the “whatever happened to” game with people I had mostly forgotten.
Now, in the 21st century, these Elaine-Cordelia connections do, in fact, happen. Past and present are fused together. Elaine and Cordelia could easily uncover information about each other. No stone is left unturned in our quest for fitting all the pieces of our puzzled lives together. In the past, any visit to my hometown would be peppered with concern over whether or not I would bump into one of them. But now, because of the internet, the mystery is gone. I check out their blogs and look for context clues in the photos they post. We have the same KitchenAid mixer! She goes on interesting vacations! What makes these little touchstones so jarring is that I’ve kept these people in the contexts of when I interacted with them. And I’m not sure if I prefer thinking of them as the whole beings that they are or as snapshots.
So which is it? Has Facebook given its users a glimpse into how we – and others – should truly see each other? Since, intellectually, we know that we can’t totally obliterate (suppress, perhaps) facets of our being and that they exist for a reason, is it the right thing to have all life experiences fused together into one? I imagine that this is how God sees us, after all. From birth until death, with all experiences intertwined and relevant. Or should we, like Elaine Ridsley, be allowed to move on and become different people (even though we know that our histories reside within us)? Despite the fact that we only put forth what we want others to see, is Facebook as close an approximation to our true personas as possible? Perhaps in our attempt to know – and be known – fully, our “community” expands to include anyone and everyone who’s touched our lives.
I think that in theory, these cross-current lives are a good thing. But because I don’t want to fully engage (I don’t post photographs of my own, nor have I ever written a status update), I’m left like Elaine, who at the end of Cat’s Eye, says, “This is what I miss, Cordelia: not something that’s gone, but something that will never happen.”