Wilderness Tips – Margaret Atwood

I keep forgetting how much I like short stories. No surprise really, a great deal of the appeal of the short story is in its ephemeral nature, its digestibility. There are not a great many short stories which I remember with more than passing clarity, Whenever I set myself to reading them, however, I find it a remarkably charming experience.

There is something so satisfying about sitting down and reading a story, start to finish, with not a breath outside. There are a couple novels which I’ve found so utterly engaging that I’m unable to put them down but, for the most part, reading a novel is a protracted experience, usually strung out across a week or two. You can live in a novel. Short stories don’t quite get in your head the same way but, in an expert writer’s hands, they are capable of absolutely magical things.

One of the saddest things about the state of fiction today is the dwindling market for short stories. Used to be you could find them all over, mostly in magazines. I am never unsurprised when I see how many brilliant writers (Atwood included) were published in Playboy, of all places. Strange. Hopefully the Internet will continue to grow as a means of distribution, and we’ll see a resurgence. Heck, I’d like to put up a lot more of my own short fiction right here.

Never mind me, though. Let’s talk about Margaret Atwood. Mind you, she’s not an easy writer to talk about. A difficult person to pin down, with a broad and accomplished career that seems at a glance to have veered about quite wildly.

I only recently discovered Margaret Atwood, so I’m hardly an expert. The only two novels of hers which I’ve read, Orxy and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale are both a sort of science fiction. They’re full of brilliant luminous writing, and succeed both as literature and as speculation. Handmaid’s Tale, in particular, is a bit of a masterpiece – despite a few rough edges. It is one of the few books to drive me to tears, and to real anger. My understanding, though, is those books were aberrations in the tapestry of Atwood’s career, and that her oeuvre mainly consisted of more conventional fiction.

Well, I just finished reading Wilderness Tips – her 1991 collection of short stories – and I’m starting to suspect that very little of Atwood’s fiction, sci-fi or not, can be called conventional. The stories range in degrees of the bizarre, from the wildly weird Hairball to more down-to-earth stuff like Hack Wednesday. For the most part, I found each one of these stories to be magnificently constructed and hugely rewarding.

The title, though taken from one of the weaker stories in the collection, applies well enough to the whole body. There is a sense, even in stories with an exclusively urban setting, that the wild is never far off, always encroaching, always threatening to swallow up the lives of these time-harried characters. Several of the stories, True Trash, Death by Landscape, Wilderness Tips, The Bog Man, The Age of Lead, draw directly on the fearsome majesty of unpeopled – untamed, you might say – land to draw into sharp focus the narrowness of their subject’s existences. Quite a few of these stories deal with the insignificance of individual lives, often ending with a short summation of the protagonist’s life as it is eclipsed by age and mortality. The natural world eating lives whole, and all the affection of story nothing more than a flicker in the wooded night. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing.

I’ve noticed that Atwood quite often makes use of a kind of gently meta-fictional linguistic self-reflexive… something. I don’t really have a word for it. I saw it a lot in Handmaid’s Tale, and again in many of these stories here. There is a character in the titular Wilderness Tips who finds a magazine of the same name and ponders, just as I did, what exactly is the meaning of the title. True Trash is also named after an in-story publication, and further ruminates on the nature of the “trashy” narrative. There is a sense that the characters are questioning language, and the ability of language to make real. They question the malleability of their own existence, when that existence can be defined only by language. One gets a sense of them as half-aware that they are characters in a story, and unsure how to interact with the framework of their being. It’s an interesting technique, one which I don’t think I’ve ever really run across in any other writer’s work.

I never know how to end these things. I guess I could try and come up with some pithy witty summation, some clever turn of phrase to tie it all in a bow. Do I need a conclusion? Do I need an end for what is, to be honest, a directionless blurb of a thing? Shall I offer some final conclusion on the book, or – as if this were a proper review, and my opinion sought after – a recommendation of some kind? Fine. I recommend Wilderness Tips, and all of Margaret Atwood’s writing. I recommend it to you, and I recommend it to myself.

Knock yourself out.

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