Scientist of the human heart: Atwood's disconcerting strength comes from relentless observation and dissection.
The Tent is Margaret Atwood's third book of short prose pieces that might be called prose poems, sketches or musings. As in Murder in the Dark (1983) and Good Bones (1992), Atwood collects a number of disparate short writings--many of which have appeared in journals or elsewhere. Even at her most tentative and fanciful, Atwood is worth reading. She has much to tell us--some of it urgent--and her way of communicating things of importance is unique.
Atwood approaches human life--our lives--like a scientist. She is a careful observer: she declines embellishment; she employs logic. This positioning of herself probably owes much to her father, an entomologist at the University of Toronto, who took his family with him on summer field trips to camp in northern Quebec to study the habits of insects. In Morning in the Burned House (1995), her most recent collection of poetry, Atwood wrote in "Bored" of the tedium she felt assisting her father on his doings ("Such minutiae") and expressed the view that she would now find fascinating what she then found boring ("Now I would know"). She herself has been a birdwatcher over the past several years, a passion shared with Graeme Gibson, who has recently published The Bedside Book of Birds (2005) and claims that he has recorded over 80 species of birds in their downtown Toronto garden. Atwood dedicates The Tent to him.
Even in her earliest work, Atwood drew from the worlds of science to describe human behaviour. Who can forget the frisson of first reading--or, for the lucky ones like me, hearing Atwood read from--her 1971 Power Politics:
I approach this love like a biologist pulling on my rubber gloves & white labcoat
Atwood approached more than love like a biologist. As she makes clear, like insects, birds and animals, we too are a species subject to the immutable laws of nature. In her poem "Man in a Glacier"--a poem about the death of her father--she compares the two- or three-thousand-year-old remains of a man preserved in ice ("everything intact") to the slides ("aging gelatine") that preserve all that is left of her father. She refers to "our bad godmothers" Chemistry and Physics:
It was they who were present at our birth, who laid the curse on us: You will not sleep forever.
Death is the logical end of the natural process of life, present at conception. Atwood comes at this truth from many directions. In Murder in the Dark she ponders the word "plot," with all its ramifications for fiction and our lives. In "Happy Endings" she considers different endings to the following standard situation:
John and Mary meet. What happens next?
After (mis)leading us through several developments, she leaves us with this stark, disturbing truth:
The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.
Her reduction of the plots of fiction and life to simple scientific principles is reminiscent of the sketches of political economist Stephen Leacock. In his 1910 "A, B and C: The Human Element in Mathematics" from Literary Lapses, for example, he spoofs typical math problems. "A, B and C do a certain piece of work. A can do as much work in one hour as B in two, or C in four. Find out how long they worked at it." Leacock applies human characteristics to A, B and C: "B is an easy-going fellow, afraid of A and bullied by him, but very gentle and brotherly to little C, the weakling." Both Leacock and Atwood generate black humour through this interplay of the literary and the scientific.
Atwood's characteristic effects are frequently based on such logical applications of scientific principles and methods to human behaviour. Take her chilling description of a lover in Power Politics:
After all you are quite ordinary: 2 arms 2 legs a head, a reasonable body, toes & fingers, a few eccentricities, a few honesties but not too many, too many postponements & regrets but you'll adjust to it ...
Or her characterization in "Homelanding" from Good Bones:
My eyes are situated in my head, which also possesses two small holes for the entrance and exit of air, the invisible fluid we swim in, and one larger hole, equipped with bony protuberances called teeth, by means of which I destroy and assimilate certain parts of my surroundings and change them into my self.
At times her observations of people seem to be made through a microscope. She offers this clinical description in "Boyfriends": "Up close they dissolved into texture, two square inches of skin, a fly's view, every hair distinct, both clearer and more obscure." By shifting her viewpoint--sometimes to bizarre, imagined characters--Atwood not only gets at certain truths about us and our lives, she also creates an unsettling atmosphere that jolts us out of complacency. At times this technique shifts her work into the genres of science fiction or horror.
The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003)--as well as several of her short stories, such as "Hairball" in Wilderness Tips (1991) and "Giving Birth" in Dancing Girls (1977)--can be considered science fiction. In "Cold-Blooded" from Good Bones, alien creatures establish contact with "blood-creatures," so-called "after the colourful red liquid that is to be found inside their bodies and that appears to be of great significance to them in their poems, wars and religious rituals." In The Tent, a short sketch of a lecture on domestic life in the 1950s, "Winter's Tale," uses the language of horror story: "the young are staring at you with fascinated horror, as if you're about to pull off one of your legs, revealing a green and mossy amputated stump." Elsewhere, she summarizes a stage of English history: "Oliver Cromwell had gone on the rampage, and Charles the First had had his head cut off, and thousands of soldiers and civilians had died cruel and ghastly deaths, with their intestines wound out of their bodies and their heads stuck up on stakes." In the moral fable "Our Cat Enters Heaven," God is sardonically imagined as a cat who preys on little pink "mice" which are human beings ("Our heaven is their hell") and believes--logically--in torture before death. In many adaptations of fairy tales--themselves edgy with horror--throughout her work, she renders them relevant to our time. In "Encouraging the Young," she imagines her aging self as the witch in "Hansel and Gretel," calling to the young from behind bushes in the woods:
I won't fatten them in cages, though. I won't ply them with poisoned fruit items. I won't change them into clockwork images or talking shadows. I won't drain out their life's blood. They can do all those things for themselves.
Atwood is drawn to Darwinian theory--a scientific principle that would have informed her father's entomological studies. Survival (1972), with its emphasis on animal victims, no doubt grew out of that interest. In Life Before Man (1979) she likens Nate's excruciatingly gradual moving in with Lesje to the slow process of evolution. In Surfacing (1972) her narrator reaches sanity by stripping off the trappings of civilization to reveal her essential animal self.
Elsewhere, the horror of a ruthless world "red in tooth and claw" often informs Atwood's writing. In The Tent--as elsewhere, especially in Oryx and Crake--she pictures a world of Darwinism in reverse. A horror indeed. With the same tongue-in-cheek detachment as Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal (which suggested that the Irish famine could be mitigated by eating babies), Atwood pictures an apocalyptic world in which the planet Earth self-destructs. Her well-known commitment to environmental health and global peace--and her concomitant aversion to the abuse of resources and war--find expression in such writings. In "Worm Zero," one of the three novels she won't write soon, she explores the disastrous effects that would occur if worms were to become extinct. In "Something Has Happened" she suggests a membrane that has gradually cut off humanity from the world around it. And in "Eating the Birds" she explores a world in which humans have so badly mismanaged life that we have passed the point of no return: "We're ankle-deep in blood, and all because we ate the birds, we ate them a long time ago, when we still had the power to say no." And she describes the aging process as a gradual decline: in "Voice," a startling story that personifies the voice as an independent double to the person, she writes:
It's begun to happen, the shrivelling. Only I have noticed it so far. There's the barest pucker in my voice, the barest wrinkle. Fear has entered me, a needleful of ether, constricting what in someone else would be my heart ... How much of my life do I have left?
This reversal of Darwinian progress, where the fittest survive and populate a stronger, better universe, into a vicious, sordid decline of life recalls William Golding's chilling Lord of the Flies.
These various applications of science to literature give Atwood's work its peculiar tone. Much has been said about the flat-voiced, deadpan manner in which she reads her work. In fact this style of reading is an extension of her manner of writing. Atwood is angry. She is furious that we make war, that we abuse resources, that we have oppressed others--women, Natives, animals, the helpless. She is angry that we are greedy meat eaters and writes satirically in "Thylacine Ragout" in The Tent of the creation of a new meat by cloning. She is even more furious that we are in denial about it all. Her anger is not the kind that expresses itself in shouting and gesticulation or throwing things about. It is the white-hot rage where the teeth are set, the voice drops to a lower register and speech slows. In "Strawberries," a sketch in Murder in the Dark, an angry narrator retreats from a spat to pick strawberries, and sees things with increased clarity, in scientific detail:
Nothing was hazy. Everything was very clear, clearer than usual, my hands with the stained nails, the sunlight falling on the ground through the apple-tree branches, each leaf, each white five petalled yellow centred flower and conical fine-haired dark red multi-seeded dwarf berry rendering itself in dry flat two dimensional detail, like background foliage by one of the crazier Victorian painters, just before the invention of the camera; and at some time during that hour, though not for the whole hour, I forgot what things were called and saw instead what they are.
It is anger like this that gives Atwood her clarity of vision and her use of the precise language and methods of science to convey it. She believes that it is the writer's task to convey that vision, with clarity. She imagines the vulnerable writer in her title piece "The Tent," occupying that fragile space in which creation occurs. "You write as if your life depended on it," she says, "your life and theirs."
What Atwood wants us to understand is the urgency of her recall to sanity. Our lives, she believes, do depend on it. We must, she pleads, look at what is happening and take responsibilities before it is too late. It is a plea that has been present throughout her writing from the beginning. "In view of the fading animals," she writes in the poem "They are hostile nations" from Power Politics:
The proliferation of sewers and fears the sea clogging, the air nearing extinction we should be kind, we should take warning, we should forgive each other
In a brilliant poem called "The Cell" from Morning in the Burned House, she examines the beauty of a cancer cell as if through a microscope:
as an alien, a success, all purple eye and jelly tentacles and spines, or are they gills, ... The lab technician says, It has forgotten how to die. But why remember? All it wants is more amnesia. More life, and more abundantly. To take more. To eat more. To replicate itself. To keep on doing these things forever. Such desires are not unknown. Look in the mirror.
Disgusting, shocking--all the more disgusting and shocking because of its detached tone--this is Atwood's voice at its best. As she unequivocally states in "Orphan Stories" in The Tent, "All observations of life are harsh, because life is. I lament that fact, but I cannot change it."
Almost as an afterthought, Atwood offers us a thread of hope that might lead us out of the frightful maze of modern life in the last two sketches in The Tent. In "Tree Baby" she lists a series of names for the infant: Catastrophe, Flotsam, Sorrow, No-family, Bereft, Child-of-a-Tree. But she then turns to the possibility that it may be called Astonishment, Nevertheless, Small Mercy or Beginning. And in "But It Could Still," the planting of tulip bulbs with their "small green shoots" on "the darkest day of the year," marks faith that they were "intending to grow." Science can show us what is disastrously wrong, but perhaps science can save us. After all, in the same story, a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species stops an oncoming bullet from killing a soldier.
We dedicate this issue of the LRC to the memory of Jane Jacobs who died on April 25, 2006, at the age of 89.
An original thinker in the fields of urban studies, economics and social philosophy, she became, through adoption, one of Canada's greatest intellectual treasures. The magazine mourns her passing.
We named Jane Jacobs's final title, Dark Age Ahead, to The LRC 100: Canada's Most Important Books. In 2004 the magazine produced a special issue largely devoted to her thought.
Culture resides mainly in people's heads and in the examples people set, and is subject therefore to mortality.
Dark Age Ahead
Elspeth Cameron is a professor of English and Canadian Studies at Brock University. She has won numerous awards for her studies of Canadian cultural figures, and will publish a biography of sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle in 2007.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||The Tent|
|Publication:||Literary Review of Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2006|
|Previous Article:||The Wal-mart-ization of wheat: will developing countries buy Canadian genetically modified wheat if the price is right?|
|Next Article:||Letters & responses.|