Cat's Eye

[Notes written whilst reading, so have the double misfortune of being first impressions without the benefit of hindsight. Probably sheds less light on the novel than on the beautiful shape of my brain. Actually... all Hot-Doll material is like this.]

Also a book about oppressor and oppressed, but here it is not political but personal -- the bully and the bullied. I worried that like Handmaid's Tale I would get too little insight into the 'villain'. However, around the middle of the novel there is a beautiful moment of realization, where Elaine walks away from her abusive friends. She discovers their weakness: they need to bully her, their self-confidence is built on destroying someone else's: I am better than you.

The novel isn't just about the psychology of bully and victim, but also about the effect of the relationship on both. Elaine's cat's eye marble becomes her safety talisman; she carries this perfect, hard, round ball everywhere. And with it she learns to see differently -- to become detached from emotion, feeling, her body, to perceive only shapes, colours, puppets. An abstract vision to one side of reality. Elaine finds security in art.

High school Elaine is harder, colder. The bullying she endured has been willfully forgotten. Her interest in boys isn't emotional but aesthetic. She wants them to strike silent poses, not to talk. Cordelia, meanwhile, is much weaker. Having been deprived of someone to put down for so long, her self-confidence crumbles. We learn that the torment Cordelia inflicted on Elaine mimics and is caused by the torment inflicted on her by her father. Cordelia wants to be perfect, but can't. So she has to make someone else LESS perfect.

Elaine realizes this. What is puzzling is that she feels guilty about her relationship with her best friend. Why? Cordelia almost killed her. Elaine had every right to walk away. But she is still, unwittingly, the cause of Cordelia's deterioration. Worse, roles have been reversed. Now Elaine has been bullying Cordelia, for the same reasons. Thus: guilt, which she runs away from.

The paths of both characters crisscross twice more, and when one is on the up, the other is in the doldrums: emotionally, professionally, artistically. They are locked in a bind, where one's fortune is the other's misfortune. The present day Elaine constantly wonders where Cordelia is, how she's doing. The competition for supremacy has continued consciously and subconsciously throughout her life. Cordelia doesn't even have to be there anymore. She returns as a voice in a dark room, urging death and nothingness. One of the creepiest things I have read ever. Seriously terrifying.

Elaine wants to end the bind when returning to Toronto. Break down the walls that contain your own version of yourself, of others (by now we know the two are interlinked) and instead offer true reflection. The sharing of stories. But Cordelia doesn't turn up. She's dead, and the bind remains. So where does that leave Elaine? Victory, yes, but also emptiness. Elaine is Cordelia. So much of herself is tied up in her idea of her tormentor and friend. Cordelia's death is also her own.

The last image but two is beautifully oblique. Elaine sends her own Virgin Mary into Cordelia's past in order to save her before it is too late. Guilt, compassion, forgiveness. You wonder whether the Mary that saves Elaine suggests Cordelia felt the same feelings when she was older. But the very final image of the novel underlines the impossibility of such time-travel. The past informs the present, not the other way around. There is an acceptance, a finality, a letting go, in Elaine's parting thought that those echoes of the past are 'enough to see by'.

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