On: Margaret Atwood's Surfacing Academic blogs:
Atwood's Surfacing
Coetzee's Disgrace
T. S. Eliot's Prufrock


       David is a hipster and a hypocrite. Atwood bases his character upon the then-contemporary stereotype of a young male American drop-out. He is a man who has no real purpose in a dizzyingly complex post-war, Cold War world, but who thinks he is the master of his destiny:

They’re making a movie, Joe is doing the camera work, he’s never done it before but David says they’re the new Renaissance Men, you teach yourself what you need to learn. (4)
       One of the ways in which David tries to make sense of the world is to film it. However, he and his side-kick Joe have not got the money for very much film; the end product must therefore be stunted. To make this movie, which is called “Random Samples” because it aims to lay ‘random’ images side-by-side, David wants to film odd and eye-catching bits of ‘life’. What he will inevitably end up with, of course, is a stunted view of things, when he is really aiming to produce work of ‘significance’, because such a work relies upon imagination, and upon having rather more film and flexibility than they have. Equally, such a work can only be subjective, which David fails to see.
       It is really in the making of the film that we see his hipster ‘ideals’. Being a ‘drop-out’ from regular society, David is ultimately aiming to show his adoring audience a unique view of the world and himself. Unfortunately, as Anna notices, “Everyone she knew was making a movie,” (4) and David is really not a person with much originality.
       His personal language shows us his lack of originality most clearly – he is part of a definable group. In the formation of a ‘group identity’, a language is usually formed alongside it, just as a group ‘code of dress’ might emerge. (This use of language is a part of what Surfacing is about, in fact). In giving David expressions such as “neat”, “random”, “really neat”, or “groovy”, Atwood shows David to be one of those hipsters who reduce everything around them to a series of goofy, clichéd expressions. David’s central philosophy, moreover, is summed up by an abstract noun, “flow”. This would seem fitting, as David’s grip on the world is rather abstract. He contributes nothing concrete or of value to it, and perhaps his use of the abstract noun in, “What you need is flow,” instead of the verb form (for instance, “You’ve got to flow”) signals his unwillingness to actively commit to a role in the world.
       “Random” as a word denotes a happening born of no reasoning or method. However for David, the word is also imbued with a sense of the magical. For him at that time, as for many of us now, the word possesses oddly positive connotations. He is in awe of the ability of things to be ‘random’, and so aims to recreate this. This is yet another sign of his suspect originality.
       Anna has another perspective on David up her sleeve. In referring to his masterpiece as, “Random Pimples”, she suggests that there is something adolescent about his ideas and pursuits. David’s unappealing immaturity is corroborated at quite a few points in the book: his attitude to his parents, his attitude to sex and women, and the Narrator’s view of him as false, all contribute to his caricature: rootless, depthless, aimless.
       When we learn that, “David calls his [parents] The Pigs,” it is an example of David’s aggression toward ‘other people’. In trying to prove himself different and not reliant on anyone, David takes on the teenager’s irrational bravado. This is in contrast to Anna, who submissively calls her parents “nothing people”, and Joe, who “never mentions his mother and father” (11). More than the other two, David is out to prove his dominance and difference.
       David’s misogyny is shown in the incident when he decides to get Anna to strip for “Random Samples”. His frustrated, unimaginative and voyeuristic mind has arrived at its logical conclusion: pornography.

“Come on, take it off,” David said; his light-humour voice.
“I wasn’t bothering you.” Anna was muted, avoiding.
“It won’t hurt you, we need a naked lady.”
“What the hell for?” Anna was peevish now, her veiled head upturned; her eyes would be squinting.
“Random Samples,” David said patiently… “You’ll go in beside the dead bird, it’s your chance for stardom, you’ve always wanted fame. You’ll get to be on Educational T.V.” he added, as though it was a special bribe. (128)
       Various ironies about David exist here. Firstly, where he supposed that he had imagination, David’s idle mind has boyishly turned to poking at Anna. Secondly, he is attempting to prove that he can control Anna, for the benefit of Joe, who we soon after find out has sex with her. But most of all, though he has married Anna, he has no respect for her. He knowingly undermines her status twice in the same sentence, insinuating both that when naked she is associable with a dead bird, and that her closest shot at stardom would be an appearance in a little-watched educational programme. The alignment of Anna with a dead bird is an especially cruel strategy, as he suggests that his naked wife is sexually dead. This is not the only female insecurity he exploits, however, as a re-reading of their encounter with the heron might hint: “The smell was like decaying fish.” (109). David has suggested that parts of his wife smell like decaying fish.
       In lighter moments, the Narrator observes that David behaves like cartoon characters:

“Snappy with the crap in there,” giving a Woody Woodpecker laugh. (68)
Then he went “Arf, arf” like Popeye, wiggling his ears. (86)
Then he went “Yuk, yuk” like Goofy. (145)
       This is an indication of two things about David: that he is a consumer of mass/trash culture, and that he is reliant on false, constructed images to create a persona for himself. Therefore when the Narrator starts to ‘see through’ David, after he has made a pass at her, the language used to describe her epiphany plays heavily on the idea of his personality as a construct:

…he was an imposter, a pastiche, layers of political handbills, pages from magazines, affiches, verbs and nouns glued onto him and shredding away, the original surface littered with fragments and tatters… Second-hand American was spreading over him in patches, like mange or lichen. He was infested, garbled, and I couldn’t help him: it would take such time to heal, unearth him, scrape down to where he was true. (146)
       It’s possible to see this description of David as pivotal in the novel, incorporating as it does much of the point of the book. Language, she argues, is what people define themselves with – and it has become abused.
       Insofar as it gives us the Narrator’s view of him, this passage is useful for showing her central problem: his fraudulence as a genuine human being. With “verbs and nouns glued onto him,” he is related to a papier mâché figure, hollow inside; and by using the French noun “affiches” in this context, she invokes images of the lying politician. Finally, by relating the whole process to canker,2 it is indicated that David is the unconscious victim of a cultural conspiracy. He has been colonised by a fungal American language, and its misogynistic, voyeuristic values. It returns us to the opening sentence of the novel, reinforcing the threat posed by American culture toward the more natural Canadian.

1. Introduction
       To the students
2. The Techniques
       Narrative Position
       Narrative Structure
       Parataxis as Metaphor
3. The Tensions
       [Spiritual] Journey
       Language as theme
       Garden vs. Wilderness
4. Chapter Discussions
       Chapter One
       Chapter Two
       Chapter Three
       Chapter Four
5. The Other Characters

6. Wider Reading
       Academic books

Copyright © Richard Cheadle, 2004-2006. All rights reserved.

Richard Cheadle, Hemsted House, Benenden School, Nr. Cranbrook, Kent. TN17 4AA.