Still going strong
Short-story collection shows Atwood has plenty left to say
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Margaret Atwood’s latest short-story collection finds the grande dame of CanLit in moods both irreverent and elegiac.
Of the 15 stories here, the first three and final four are told from the viewpoint of an 80-ish Toronto woman, Nell, sifting through the memories of her long and loving relationship with her husband, Tig, who has recently died. “Had they really been that careless, that oblivious?” Nell asks herself, referring to the couple’s “under-equipped hikes” but perhaps intending much more. “Obliviousness had served them well.”
These are the elegiac stories, and many readers will interpret them as autobiographical. Atwood has used the characters of Nell and Tig in an earlier collection when she and they were younger. Now 83, Atwood was widowed in 2019 when her husband of nearly 50 years, the writer Graeme Gibson, succumbed to dementia.
The Nell and Tig stories are observational and anecdotal, filled with wisdom and humour about the mysteries of aging and lore of the natural world (the latter a science-minded Atwood family specialty) but absent noticeable plot lines.
The strongest one has Nell cleaning up the papers of her long-deceased father-in-law, a brigadier-general who saw the worst of the Second World War (as did Gibson’s father).
One wonders if Atwood, never one to waste a scrap of prose, had a novel in mind, abandoned it, and repurposed what she had as related stories.
Most of the other eight stories, sandwiched in between, are more playful. One is narrated by a common snail who has reincarnated as a human female. This is perhaps less a reversal of Kafka than a satiric comment on our culture’s current obsession with gender dysphoria.
“How crude are the sexual procedures of humans compared with those of snails!” notes the snail. “No slow slippery caresses of tentacles, no intertwining, no tantalizingly voluptuous wreathing and writhing.”
Another is an imagined interview Atwood does via seance with one of her major literary influences, the 20th-century master George Orwell.
Sadly, he has not heard of her. “You’re a writer?” Orwell asks. “Selfish, lazy, and egotistical, like all writers, I suppose?”
She replies: “Well … lazy, certainly.”
Atwood gives us naturalism in the middle section, to best effect in a pair of stories, Bad Teeth and Airborne: A Symposium, which celebrate long friendships among smart women of a certain age.
In the former, a woman defends herself against her friend’s false accusation that she had slept with an unappetizing man some 40 years earlier.
In the latter, three senior female academics gather to execute their plan to endow a university chair for a young female professor.
These characters, like Atwood herself, are survivors of the feminist wars of the 1960s and ’70s. They find their successors humourless and censorious.
“We’re in the middle of a regime change, like the French Revvie,” one of them says. “They were always changing the passwords. Wake up one morning, use yesterday’s password, off with your head.”
The recent success of the TV adaptation of Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has likely won her many new readers who know nothing else by her. Old Babes in the Wood, though a treat for her longtime fans, might not be the best starting point for relative newbies.
Her huge body of work (50 titles over more than 60 years) offers many other entry points, from the feminist satire of The Edible Woman and Cat’s Eye to the speculative eco-fiction of the MaddAddam trilogy. Then of course there are the volumes of poetry, the wide-ranging essay collections, the graphic novels and several earlier short-story books.
She isn’t finished yet. Old Babes in the Wood provides evidence that Atwood is one old babe who has no intention of closing shop.
Morley Walker is a retired Free Press writer and editor.
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