Thursday, April 20, 2006


I am glad I listened to my voices and read Margaret Atwood's The Tent. I don't have enough superlatives to heap upon it. It is classic Atwood.   The reviewers call these gems fictional essays. I'm not quite sure what a fictional essay is. I'd classify them, if they have to be classified, as short short stories. Atwood has a delicate style and quick rhythm that makes these stories not only easy to read, but also easy to read fast. I had to constantly stop and force myself to slow down. Because in spite of the breeziness of the prose, there is still depth that is subtle enough to be missed if you're not paying attention.   Sure, some of the pieces like "Our Cat Enters Heaven" and "Three Novels I Won't Write Soon" are pure fun and made me laugh out loud. But other pieces like "The Animals Reject Their Names and Things Return to Their Origins" and "Faster" left my brain whirling. Atwood's sense of irony continually amazes me. Combine that with her dark and wicked sense of humor and you'll find yourself wanting to laugh and cry at the same time with some of the stories. There's a story called "Horatio's Version" where Horatio gets to tell his side of the Hamlet story. And then there is "Life Stories" where the product of writing down a life is reduced to a simple "I." And of course, the titular story "The Tent" in which the narrator sits in a tent made of paper, writing on the walls. Here's a sample:

Why do you think this writing of yours, this graphomania in a flimsy cave, this scribbling back and forth and up and down over the walls of what is beginning to seem like a prison, is capable of protecting anyone at all? Yourself included. It's an illusion, the belief that your doodling is a kind of armour, a kind of charm, because no one knows better than you do how fragile your tent really is. Already there's a clomping of leather-covered feet, there's a scratching, there's a scrabbling, there's a sound of rasping breath. Wind comes in, your candle tips over and flares up, and a loose tent-flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edge gap you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining in the light from your burning paper shelter, but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?
It is tempting here, and in several of the stories, to equate the narrator with Margaret Atwood herself. But we all know that can't be done; the writer may be in the character, but the character is not the writer. Still, I can't help but wonder how close she is to some of them.   The book also contains illustrations drawn by Atwood. While they won't be winning any prizes, they are still quite good and I am left wondering once again if there is anything this woman can't do. Novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer, inventor, artist, reviewer. I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me she also plays the piano, sings opera, dances ballet and a has a scientific laboratory in her basement.   She must have an assistant to help her keep track of everything. If she doesn't, she should have one. I could live in Toronto, eh?