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Elaine’s brother Stephen once told her that time is a dimension, like space, and that it’s theoretically possible to travel through it. She imagines time like different transparencies laid on top of each other, with nothing ever lost.
Elaine remembers riding the streetcar with her friend Cordelia at the age of thirteen. Elaine and Cordelia like to judge the outfits older women wear. Their favorites are the old women who wear too much makeup and brightly colored clothes because they appear not to care what other people think.
Elaine considers her present, middle-aged self. She realizes that the old women she so admired may actually have been unable to see what they looked like. Even with age, she cares a lot about her outward appearance.
Elaine’s thoughts turn to Cordelia, wondering what would happen if they were to reunite. She imagines an aging Cordelia and realizes that it’s easier for her to think about Cordelia in dire straits: homeless, in a coma, or in an iron lung.
Elaine hates Toronto, and she moved to British Columbia to get away from it. She now has a second husband, Ben, and two daughters, Sarah and Anne. An artist of some success, Elaine has returned to Toronto for a retrospective of her paintings at a woman-run alternative gallery called Sub-Versions. Her first husband, Jon, has offered to let her stay at his studio while she is in Toronto.
Elaine notices a poster advertising her retrospective. Someone has drawn a mustache on the photo of her. Perhaps becoming a face worthy of graffiti means she has become someone worth defacing.
Elaine’s narration shifts to focus on her past, but she still uses the present tense. Before moving to Toronto, Elaine’s family travels through the country while her father researches caterpillars. They drive around, spending the night in tents or in motels. Because of World War II, they only eat what food rations allow them. Stephen is obsessed with the war going on and whittles wood into the shape of a gun. He and Elaine often play war, during which Stephen forces Elaine to pretend to be dead and lie on the ground.
One night, Stephen teaches her to see in the dark like a commando. Slowly, Elaine’s eyes adjust to the dark, and the shapes of things begin to emerge. Present Elaine compares these gray shapes to her pictures of the dead.
Elaine receives a brownie camera for her eighth birthday but doesn’t remember if that’s what she truly wanted. She remembers longing for craft supplies so she could make the projects she’s seen in a hobby book she owns. She collects the silver paper from cigarette cartons whenever she finds it on the ground but doesn’t know what she intends to make with it. She also dreams of being friends with girls her age, a phenomenon she only knows from books.
Because her family moves around so much, Elaine’s mother homeschools Elaine and Stephen. The book Elaine has depicts a family living in a house with a yard and pets. When Elaine draws pictures, she draws girls in clean pinafores and bows like in her reader. She thinks of these girls as exotic. Stephen draws pictures of the war, sometimes veering into science fiction and depicting a space battle.
Cat’s Eye opens with an anecdote about space-time, which sets up the premise that time does not behave linearly in the novel. Within these chapters, Elaine narrates in present tense whether she’s speaking in the novel’s present or not, which creates the disorienting sensation of Elaine’s past and present occurring at the same time. This happens jarringly in Chapter 2, when Elaine interrupts her vivid teenage memory with her present actions and feelings, which makes it difficult to locate where in time Elaine actually is. This confusion suggests that going to Toronto has confused her internal sense of time. By Chapter 5, the sections in the past have no interruption of the present at all, as if Elaine is fully reliving her childhood. Elaine’s metaphors of liquid transparencies (microscope slides) and items bobbing to the surface of the water suggest that Elaine observes her past with both intense scientific scrutiny and in random order. Although she pores over intense details, she doesn’t necessarily have control over what she remembers. Far from the realm of physics, Elaine’s sense of time appears to operate according to her emotions.
These early chapters also introduce Elaine as a character and narrator, cynical and witty, but also confusingly defensive. Her defensiveness hints that Elaine fears that she is vulnerable. Her assumption that weakness, not strength, explains the appearance of the old women she once admired suggests that Elaine believes aging signifies a loss of control. If the old women still had the coordination to look better, surely they would exercise that power. Because of this framework of control, Elaine’s comment that she still worries about her appearance is less a statement of vanity and more a sign that she worries about how much control she has over herself and how others view her. Indeed, throughout these early chapters, Elaine spends a lot of time considering how much power she has. Her gruesome wishes for Cordelia demonstrate that she prefers to be in a position of power over Cordelia in some way. Therefore, the reader may be confused as to why the mustache drawn on Elaine’s poster gives her a sense of pride. Usually, men have mustaches, and so this incident represents Elaine enjoying someone making her image more masculine, or in other words, more authoritative and expressive of power.
These early chapters featuring Elaine’s childhood introduce the idea that images shape people’s view of how the world should be, as opposed to merely portraying how it is. Instead of wanting to do art projects from her imagination, Elaine wants to make the specific projects her craft book presents, treating the images in the book as a source of authority for how to do crafts. Since the hobby book doesn’t offer any ideas on what to do with silver paper, Elaine doesn’t either. Elaine’s only understanding of what other girls are comes from her reader, which causes her to think of them as “exotic,” beautiful and foreign, as if she doesn’t see herself as a real girl. Despite being a girl, Elaine happily wears pants and enjoys playing war games with her brother, meaning that there’s nothing inherently masculine about these activities. Therefore, Elaine’s earliest images of girlhood give her the most narrow, simplistic image of what a girl should be, defined only by what she sees in her reader.