Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A is for Atwood

One of Fall's titles is John Metcalf's follow-up to An Aesthetic Underground, Shut Up He Explained. Part memoir, part travelogue, part literary criticism -- wholly Metcalf -- it weaves several disparate strands and genres into a convincing amalgam and compelling literary form. David Helwig, reading an excerpt published in CNQ, has called it an Anatomy, after Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy: quotation, digression, obsession. I think David is quite right.

Over the next couple of months, as we ready Shut Up for publication, we'll be posting the occasional note and excerpt from it. Today's comes from 'the Century List,' a long critical chapter devoted to the best Canadian short story writers and their contributions to the form. In honour of Margaret Atwood's reception of the 2007 Blue Metropolis Literary Grand Prix, we thought we'd offer up this segment on Atwood as a short story writer:

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is the author of six collections of short fiction, Dancing Girls, Murder in the Dark, Bluebeard’s Egg, Wilderness Tips, Good Bones, and The Test. She has been internationally lauded for these volumes but I remain unconvinced. While her wit and intelligence are obvious the stories in general fill me with disquiet. My unease revolves around what she wrote in "An End to Audience" which I quoted from in my talk at AlcalĂ  de Henares: "I believe that fiction writing is the guardian of the moral and ethical sense of community. Especially now that organized religion is scattered and in disarray, and politicians have, Lord knows, lost their credibility, fiction is one of the few forms left through which we may examine our society not in its particular but in its typical aspects; through which we can see ourselves and the ways in which we behave towards each other, through which we can see others and judge them and ourselves."

She goes on: "Writing is a craft, true, and discussions of the position of colons and the rhyming of plastic and spastic have some place in it..."

Her statement in the first quoted passage that fiction enables us to examine our society "not in its particular but in its typical aspects", and the implication in the second that the craft of writing is separable from and subsidiary to the "message" of the writing, fundamentally differentiates Margaret Atwood from most of the other writers on the Century List. Characteristically, she is committed to presenting ideas and political positions. The central problem with fiction which advances ideas is that we can take issue with the ideas advanced as ideas; we can disagree intellectually with particular moral and ethical positions or with the political ideas of left, right, and centre. But it is impossible to "disagree" with our experience of the particularities of a Mavis Gallant story.

All too often her messages seems to me to urge a raucous and almost hysterical feminism. Bill Hoffer used to grump that Atwood’s work was most appreciated "by girls of the most unpromising kind". Doubtless less perceptive criticism than irritated misogyny. Yet the work does have designs on us. She does indeed want to send us messages. And like telemarketing, they’re messages I’m not interested in listening to. It comes down to a question of artistry. I would stand, rather, with William Faulkner who is supposed to have said to a lady who asked him what message he had wished his book to send that had he wanted to send messages he would have used Western Union.

Clark Blaise reviewed Wilderness Tips (1991) in the Chicago Tribune and wrote:

"...she works a secure but narrow band of settings and characters. Men still murder, women still create. The stories are not profound and certainly not charming. What they are is stylish, very, very Atwoodian."

He went on:
"In the duality of the sexes, men and women can never be intimate. They can never fully trust or be worthy of trust. Like great scarred hunting cats, they gather in temporary prides for gorging and breeding and seem curiously susceptible to urges unworthy of their cunning and experience. Atwoodian men are especially ineffectual, over-matched little boys, worthy of giggles even in the height of their passions."

Despite such savage and ghastly stories as "Hairball" in Wilderness Tips Atwood can be generously funny. What follows is an excerpt from "Hurricane Hazel" from Bluebeard’s Egg (1983). The story is an almost perfect comic performance. The feminist position which is inherent in the story is not advanced as an argument; the uncouth young male, Buddy, is seen through the grave eyes of the narrator as something as alien as a being from Mars, and the rituals of teen courtship are described almost as by an anthropologist observing the rites of savages.

"Hurricane Hazel" has for me only one flaw and it is that place in the story where Margaret Atwood intrudes into the comic texture to hammer home unnecessarily a point that was being made delicately by the whole shape of the scene. I draw attention to this because it illustrates my reservations about her editorializing, her deforming didacticism.

The narrator and Buddy along with Trish and Charlie are swimming in Pike Lake and, typical Atwoodian detail this, "Part of a hot-dog wiener floated near where we waded in, pallid, greyish-pink, lost-looking."

Under a shady tree Buddy plights his troth.

"Then he said, ‘I want you to have something.’ His voice was offhand, affable, the way it usually was; his eyes weren’t. On the whole he looked frightened. He undid the silver bracelet from his wrist. It had always been there, and I knew what was written on it: Buddy, engraved in flowing script. It was an imitation army I.D. tag; a lot of the boys wore them.

‘My identity bracelet,’ he said.


It was years later too that I realized Buddy had used the wrong word: it wasn’t an identity bracelet, it was an identification bracelet. The difference escaped me at the time. But maybe it was the right word after all, and what Buddy was handing over to me was his identity, some key part of himself that I was expected to keep for him and watch over.

Another interpretation has since become possible: that Buddy was putting his name on me, like a Reserved sign or an ownership label, or a tattoo on a cow’s ear, or a brand. But at the time nobody thought that way. Everyone knew that getting a boy’s I.D. bracelet was a privilege, not a degradation, and this is how Trish greeted it when she came back from her walk with Charlie."

Messages. Messages.

It may be that Margaret Atwood’s best work in short fiction will turn out not to reflect the bleak world of "great scarred hunting cats gathering in temporary prides for gorging and breeding" as Clark Blaise put it. She is not so much "stylish", as Blaise said, but, rather, fashionable. Her talent is, as he said, "not profound" and her best work in short fiction just might be in the idiosyncratic bits and pieces in Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems, Good Bones, and The Tent.

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