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Critical Review by James Wilcox
SOURCE: "The Hairball on the Mantlepiece," in The New York Times Book Review, November 24, 1991, p. 7.
Wilcox is an American-born short story writer and novelist whose works include Modern Baptists (1983), North Gladiola (1985), and Miss Undine's Living Room (1987). In the following review, Wilcox generally praises Atwood's Wilderness Tips, but finds some of the prose awkward and over-mannered.
In "Hack Wednesday," one of the most engaging stories in Margaret Atwood's third volume of short fiction, Wilderness Tips, a middle-aged newspaper columnist sizes up men in an unusual way: "She can just look at a face and see in past the surface, to that other—child's—face which is still there. She has seen Eric [her husband] in this way, stocky and freckled and defiant, outraged by schoolyard lapses from honor." This uncanny ability applies just as well to Margaret Atwood herself. Almost every one of the 10 stories in this collection superimposes the past upon the present in an unsettling, often startling manner, which conjures up a sense of the mysterious in even the most banal relationships.
The first story, "True Trash," a deceptively easygoing coming-of-age tale, accustoms us to the author's bold leaps in time. Set mainly in a summer camp on an island in Ontario's Georgian Bay, "True Trash" gives us a leisurely account of teen-age waitresses' fitful interaction with the "small fry" and counselors at Camp Adanaqui.
But it is only in a flash-forward of 11 years, when the former schoolboy camper Donny has dropped the last syllable from his name and grown a beard, that the story begins to take shape. During a chance encounter with him in Toronto, Joanne, a former waitress at the camp, begins to put together the missing pieces in a real-life True Romance story—or rather, as one of the waitresses called this type of magazine, True Trash. "The melodrama tempts [Joanne], the idea of a revelation, a sensation, a neat ending." But she is too sophisticated now for such a pat, "outmoded" story, and withholds from Don a revelation that would make him seem a True Trash character.
Information withheld gives a contemporary twist to another basically old-fashioned tale. In "Death by Landscape," also set in a Canadian summer camp—Manitou is for girls, though—the mysterious disappearance of Lucy, one of the campers, during a canoe trip brings the disparate elements of the story into sharp focus. Cappie, the owner and director of Camp Manitou, cannot live with the unknowable. As Lois, Lucy's best friend, realizes later when she is a grown woman, Cappie had a desperate "need for a story, a real story with a reason in it; anything but the senseless vacancy Lucy had left for her to deal
This yearning for meaning in a post-modern world is further explored in "The Age of Lead," Here the past that confronts Jane, a financial consultant in her 40's, is not just her youth. While watching a television program on the exhumation of a member of the Franklin expedition that was lost in the Arctic 150 years ago, Jane recalls her touching friendship with Vincent, a designer she had known since high school. Whereas it is eventually learned why John Torrington, the 20-year-old petty officer on the expedition, died, 43-year-old Vincent's recent death from "a mutated virus" cannot be explained by modern science. As Jane muses upon the two deaths, the more personal theme emerging from her school days with Vincent is united with the story's larger concern with indeterminacy: "She felt desolate…. Their mothers had finally caught up to them and been proven right. There were consequences after all; but they were the consequences to things you didn't even know you'd done."
If the frozen corpse of the petty officer seems "like a werewolf meditating," so too does the 2,000-year-old man discovered by a peat digger in "The Bog Man" appear "to be meditating." Here again the past confronts the present in what at first seems a merely sensational, irrelevant way. Julie, a naïve Canadian student in love with her married archeology professor, goes to Scotland, where she endures boredom, "congealed oatmeal" and "rock-hard lamb chops" in order to be with her lover on a field trip. Trying to escape the boredom, Julie ventures out to the bog, where she is upset by the sight of the well-preserved corpse. This unearthing of the past seems to her "a desecration. Surely there should be boundaries set upon the wish to know, on knowledge merely for its own sake." Not surprisingly, she follows her instinct of leaving the past—or rather, the inconvenient parts of the past—buried when she later, as a mature, twice-married woman, tells the story of her affair to her women friends. "She leaves out entirely any damage she may have caused to Connor…. It does not really fit into the story."
Other characters in Wilderness Tips are more honest as they "sift through the rubble, groping for the shape of the past." In "Isis in Darkness," a professor tries to revive the magic power that words held in his youth by writing about a brilliant woman poet who once had him under her spell. "Uncles" introduces us to Susanna, who ascends with the speed and ease of a romance-novel heroine from lowly newspaper obit writer to celebrated radio and television interviewer. Though she has considered herself a well-loved, deserving woman, the publication of a former colleague's memoir causes Susanna to wonder if she has "remembered my whole life wrong."
Kat, like Susanna, enjoys a slick rise to the top, though hers, in "Hairball," is more easily explained. "When knives were slated for backs, she'd always done the stabbing." What would otherwise be an all-too-familiar tale of comeuppance in the dreary world of fashion magazines is given an uncanny aura by the presence of a benign tumor, dubbed Hairball, which Kat has preserved from an operation and given a place of honor on her mantelpiece. "The hair in it was red—long strands of it wound round and round inside."
Like the red-haired bog man and the frozen corpse haunting "The Age of Lead," the pickled tumor opens up another dimension, revising the story of Kat's life in a way over which she, for once, has no control: "Hairball speaks to her, without words…. What it tells her is everything she's never wanted to hear about herself. This is new knowledge, dark and precious and necessary. It cuts."
Well constructed as these stories are, some may seem to belabor their themes with built-in explanations. At times, we're told what to make of the inexplicable, and such wonderful anomalies as the bog man or the frozen petty officer may wind up as too-convenient symbols. Now and then, the language itself can be troubling. In Ms. Atwood's previous collections, Dancing Girls and Bluebeard's Egg, the prose was supple, finely tuned with a variety of inflections. But in Wilderness Tips the stylized repetition of words and phrases ("Jane doesn't watch very much television. She used to watch it more. She used to watch comedy series") can seem mannered. And for a writer so abundantly talented, there are patches of curiously flat, unimaginative narrative, where we might encounter someone going "cold with dread" or bad luck gathering around a summer camp "like a fog."
These reservations, however, do not apply to such complex, beguiling stories as "Wilderness Tips" and "Hack Wednesday." In "Wilderness Tips," the same themes are in evidence, but handled more deftly, with a buoyant irony that can keep even so ponderous an image as a sinking passenger liner afloat. Instead of a bog man or a dead English sailor, Ms. Atwood here serves up a roguish Hungarian émigré with the Anglicized name of George. The first time he visited Wacousta Lodge, the rustic lakefront house belonging to Prue's staid family, "he was led in chains, trailed in Prue's wake, like a barbarian in a Roman triumph…. He was supposed to alarm Prue's family." Nevertheless, Wacousta Lodge is conquered by the "barbarian" when George marries Prue's more docile sister Portia.
Browsing one day through the lodge's bookshelves, George comes across a book, published in 1905, called Wilderness Tips. "The book itself told how to do useful things, like snaring small animals and eating them—something George himself had done, though not in forests." This casual aside, suggesting so much about George's savage past, sets up a useful counterpoise to his wife's New World innocence. Portia "wishes she could go back a few decades, grow up again. The first time, she missed something … some vital information other people seemed to have." Here again is the familiar theme of life stories seeming incomplete because of missing information. But it is in many ways a willful ignorance that Portia lives with, refusing to explore the barbarian's own wilderness with any of the tips so conveniently at hand.
The barbarian hovering on the periphery of "Hack Wednesday" is perhaps the most disconcerting alien in this collection. It is Manuel Noriega himself, "his round face pocked and bleak as an asteroid." How Ms. Atwood works him so naturally into her tale of a middle-aged newspaper columnist at odds with her editor is storytelling at its best. Here a vision of the past helps bring about a sense of forgiveness, riot in any facile way, but with a tough-minded good humor that makes Marcia the columnist, one of Ms. Atwood's most appealing characters.
This section contains 1,598 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)