Time-Telescoping Tales

I FIND it hard to dislike Margaret Atwood's fiction, or even to offer serious criticism of it. Thoughtfully feminist, ecologically sensitive, a clear-eyed observer of social trends from urban alienation to rural isolation, Atwood is one of those writers who seem to function as barometers of their times.One seldom feels one has wasted one's time in reading her. Often, one comes away from her work with a memorable insight or two. But I cannot say that I approach a new Margaret Atwood novel or story collection with a keen sense of anticipatory pleasure or excitement. Something about her gray, flat style communicates a damp, cold feeling of weariness, which is not simply the effect of her commitment to exposing the sometimes-depressing truth about living on an exploited, violence-prone planet, but also a l ack of energy and elan in the way she does what she does. Born in Ottawa in 1939, Atwood published her first book of poems in 1961, and now has about a dozen volumes of poetry to her credit. But it was the appearance of her novels throughout the 1970s and 1980s that gained her a wider audience. In poetry and prose alike, she has tackled a variety of modes, from the social realism of "Life Before Man" and "Bodily Harm" to the historical re-creation of her poetic sequence about a pioneer woman, "The Journals of Susanna Moodie," and her dystopic futurist fantasy, "The Handmaid's Tale," which was made into a film. "Wilderness Tips" is Atwood's third collection of short stories. Many of these 10 neatly constructed, present-tense narratives unfold backward or forward over several decades. The characters define themselves - or fail to define themselves - in terms of the way they and the world have changed over the years. The opening story, "True Trash," is set at a summer camp in the late 1950s, where a group of girls who have summer jobs as waitresses amuse themselves by reading and laughing at the stories in True Romance magazines. But life turns out to be more like fiction - even bad fiction - than they suspected. The innocent and not-so-innocent pleasures of summer flirtation and the scandal of a teenage pregnancy seem to lose their meaning over the years, however, as the story concludes: "You can do anything now and it won't cause a shock. Just a shrug.... A line has been drawn and on the other side of it is the past, both darker and more brightly intense than the present." The hard-driving heroine of "Hairball" also changes with - or even slightly ahead of - the times. She begins as a "romanticized Katherine," dressed by her mother in frilly dresses, then sheds the frills in high school to emerge as a "bouncy, round-faced Kathy ... eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad." At university, she becomes "Kath" in her "Take-Back-the-Night" jeans. By the time she runs off to England and lands a job with an avant-garde magazine, she's "sliced herself down to Kat ... economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail." Kat's toughness is shown to be a valuable asset, but in the hard-nosed world she's helped to create, even someone like herself can be tossed on the trash heap. Richard of "Isis in Darkness" meets Selena in Toronto in 1960. Like other young people who hang out at the coffeehouse there, Selena styles herself a poet. The difference is, her talent is real. Richard recognizes her quality and falls in love with her. It's not that he wants to marry her, or even that he feels the usual kind of desire for her. What he feels is a mysterious wish "to be transformed by her, into someone he was not." Richard marries a librarian and settles down to become an academic. But ev ery 10 years, Selena turns up in his life, first as a living reminder of an existence dedicated to poetry, later as a walking emblem of discouragement and despair. Schematic as it is, this story achieves a measure of poignancy lacking in some of the other pieces. The title story, about three sisters and the vaguely disreputable charmer who romanced the middle one but married the youngest, has a gloomy ending that left me as cold as its bloodless, stiffly drawn characters. Similarly, the childhood tragedy in "Death by Landscape" is such a literary cliche that any reader following the meanderings of this predictable story line would be more shocked if the troubled teenager had not met with misfortune on the camp canoe trip. In "Bog Man," a student's risque affair with her archaeology professor in the early 1960s is a story that keeps changing as years go by. At first, it's a tale she tells only in confidence and only to other women: a story about the mysterious ways of men. Later, she tells the story more freely, emphasizing its comical elements, no longer idealizing the professor and feeling now a touch of sympathy for his hapless wife. The more time goes by, the more comical and cynical the story becomes and the less rema ins of her original emotions. "Connor [the professor] ... loses in substance every time she forms him in words. He becomes flatter ... more life goes out of him.... By this time he is almost an anecdote, and Julie [the former student] is almost old." A similar process of disillusion is described in "The Age of Lead." As teenagers, Jane and Vincent mocked their mothers' joyless warnings about the dire consequences of deviation from the work ethic. But after the excitement of the 1960s and the expansion of opportunities for women in the 1970s, the 1980s fall like a ton of bricks: acid rain, urban decline, pollution, poverty, AIDS, and early death for many of Jane's contemporaries. "Their mothers had finally caught up to them and been proven right. Ther e were consequences after all; but they were the consequences to things you didn't even know you'd done." The bleakness of Atwood's outlook is underscored by the chilly third-person narration she favors: detached, slightly wry, often a little monotonous, but sometimes tightening to a dour sort of elegance. One can hardly fault Atwood for her pessimism or her resolutely pared-down style. But the vision offered here is a limited one: like a black-and-white television continuously tuned to nightly bad news. What must be commended, however, is Atwood's ability to evoke the passing of entire decades - to convey how it feels to live at a given time and how it feels to view it in retrospect - all within the brief compass of a short story.

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