Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood
If he had to date it, Richard pinpoints this Thursday as the day his marriage was finally over. Even though he and Mary Jo went through the form of apologizing, even though they had more than a few drinks and smoked a joint and had dislocated, impersonal sex, nothing got fixed. Mary Jo left him soon after, in quest of the self she claimed she needed to find. She took their son with her. Richard, who hadn’t paid that much attention to the boy, was now reduced to nostalgic, interminable weekends with him. He tried out several other women, but couldn’t concentrate on them.
Atwood seems to write everything. Novels, stories for children, works on history and literature and poetry. But this 1991 volume was my introduction to her short stories. Stories, for the most part, about the middle-aged, obsessed by their own or by our collective pasts; stories about people trying to come to terms with their individual realities. The wilderness of the title is, undoubtably, the space which we, as adults of the contemporary world, have carved out for ourselves.
The short-story is in constant danger and yet it is always a delight to come across a well-written volume of them. I suppose publishers don’t like them because they don’t sell well. Or perhaps it is more that modern publishers don’t know how to market them. They prefer novels, the single theme, an obvious genre, something the publicity department can shout thrilling, violent and sexy about. Or something they can compare with their competitor’s latest best-seller.
In each of these ten stories Atwood is virtuoso. She can be grimly comic, tender, savage, sophisticated, satirical, terse, disturbing, joyful and stylish. But she is never less than irresistible and she always has an eye for the details we tend to skim over. It is as if she takes you by the shoulder and pulls you back, saying: ‘Take another look, it’s better than you think.’
This is from the title story:
George would like to go to bed with Pamela, not because she is beautiful – she is much too rectilinear and slab-shaped for his tastes, she has no bottom at all, and her hair is the colour of dried grass – but because he has never done it. Also, he wants to know what she would say. His interest in her is anthropological. Or perhaps geological; she would have to be scaled, like a glacier.
Altogether, then, a great collection from Margaret Atwood, surely one of the most accomplished of living writers. Even if you’re one of those strange people who usually shun the short story, you’ll enjoy this volume. There’s something here for everyone.