From feminism to fairy tales: the musings of Margaret Atwood

Does the award-winning Canadian writer know how to draw? A chance to find out.

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At this point in her career, Margaret Atwood is so revered that she could write a shopping list and someone would slap an award on it.

Which brings us to The Tent. Billed as fiction, it's a collection of previously published essays, poems, and musings - ranging in length from one paragraph to three or four pages - and illustrated by Atwood's own drawings. In many ways, it feels like a literary scrapbook, with pen-and-ink sketches in place of the calligraphy and fuzzy stickers.

Over the decades, the Booker Prize-winning Canadian has written science fiction, short stories, historical fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children's books. The collections in "The Tent" reflect that varied output with titles that range from "Salome Was a Dancer" to "Three Novels I Won't Write Soon" to "Chicken Little Goes Too Far."

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But few of the pieces feel as if Atwood were terribly invested in them. They read more like jottings scribbled in a journal - minus any personal revelations.

In the first essay, "Life Stories," the narrator says, "I'm working on my own life story. I don't mean I'm putting it together; no, I'm taking it apart. If you'd wanted the narrative line you should have asked earlier, when I still knew everything and was more than willing to tell. That was before I discovered the virtues of scissors, the virtues of matches."

The result is like staring at shards of pottery - some of the fragments are more graceful than others, but they don't add up to a finished whole.

"The Tent" is Atwood's third book in two months.

Her last one, "The Penelopiad," brilliantly reenvisioned Homer's "The Odyssey" from the viewpoint of the faithful Penelope.

Apparently, Atwood wasn't quite done with the epic, because here she reimagines Helen of Troy as the runaway wife of a middle-aged police chief. "Says it wasn't easy when she was growing up, being half-divine and all, but now she's come to terms with it and she's looking at a career in the movies."

Then Atwood ends the story a paragraph later, with the remark, "My bet is things will get serious. It's worth watching."

That happens a number of times in "The Tent": Just when a story is getting revved up, Atwood abruptly cuts the reader off and changes the subject.

This is not to say that the book is unaccomplished, or unpleasant to read, for that matter. There's plenty of wry humor, as in the essay when a narrator remarks that she's decided to encourage the young.

"I'll fling encouragement over them like rice at a wedding. They are the young, a collective noun, like the electorate. I'll encourage them indiscriminately, whether they deserve it or not. Anyway, I can't tell them apart."

Then there's the story that opens "Our cat was raptured up to heaven." For readers who love her "Bluebeard's Egg," there's plenty of fairy tale imagery (which reminded me of the late Angela Carter's dark reworkings of Grimm).

Other pieces in the collection reflect Atwood's longtime interest in feminist issues.

Take "Winter's Tales," which begins, "Once upon a time, you say, there were germs with horns. They lived in the toilet and could only be defeated by gallons and gallons of bleach. You could commit suicide by drinking this bleach, and some women did."

Then there's the poem, "Bring Back Mom: An Invocation," a work intended to extol both the desperation and the heroism of the pre-1970s housewife. (The poems are among the best entries in the collection.)

But only those completists who are devoted to Atwood and will love the idea of owning some of her drawings - or perhaps graduate students writing dissertations on the author - are likely to want to pitch "The Tent" on their shelves.

For the rest, the collection may be a little like Atwood's book-signing invention, a device she dreamed up which allows her to inscribe works for fans from 1,000 miles away: a bit too remote to be worth the time.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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