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

     Parataxis as Metaphor

       Parataxis is a term to describe the positioning of clauses next to each other. They are either linked with conjunctions, or stand side by side without.
       In Surfacing, parataxis isn't always worthy of comment, but one thing we really should notice is that often in the narrative, a great number of clauses are strung along together without any unnecessary conjunctions, as below:

'I memorized survival manuals, How To Stay Alive, Animal Tracks and Signs, The Woods in Winter, at the age when the ones in the city were reading True Romance magazines... Maxims float up: always carry matches and you will not starve, in a snow storm dig a hole, avoid unclassified mushrooms, your hands and feet are the most important, if they freeze you’re finished.' (42)

'The power flowed into my eyes, I could see into him, he was an imposter, a pastiche, layers of political handbills, pages from magazines, affiches, verbs and nouns glued on to him and shredding away, the original surface littered with fragments and tatters.' (146)
       Both of these extracts, and numerous others like them in the novel, make interesting use of parataxis to reinforce the themes both of the extracts themselves, and of the whole story. One of the key clues as to what themes parataxis invokes can be found within the lexis of the second extract, where we encounter the idea of 'layers'.
       I've said before that I think the novel is fairly effective prose poetry, and this use of syntax rather bears me out: by creating sentences that look and feel as though one idea is being layered over another, Atwood is poetically reinforcing a central problem of the novel - that the identity of the Narrator herself is false, and has been created by layering false ideas over the truth of her existence. Because it is through this Narrator that we receive the facts of the story, and this 'layering' narrative trait is integral to her, we can say that Atwood has created a formal metaphor for her protagonist's state of mind. Take a look at this final extract, from the moment that she 'surfaces':

'Since then I'd carried that death around inside me, layering it over, a cyst, a tumour, black pearl; the gratitude I felt now was not for him.' (139)
       Here, the hinted relationship between the paratactic narrative and the Narrator's crisis is openly referenced. The image of the 'black pearl' has been a long time coming, and has wonderful force because of all the stylistic hints that have preceded it.
       And it is here that I would want to add one parting thought: that the title of the novel does not simply suggest a 'coming up for air'. The act of surfacing is also the act of layering over a surface, as in 'road surfacing', so really you can read the subject and dynamics of the novel both ways.
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.