Margaret Atwood | Critical Review by Peter Kemp

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Margaret Atwood.
This section contains 805 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Peter Kemp

Critical Review by Peter Kemp

SOURCE: "The Atwood Variations," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4675, November 6, 1992, p. 20.

In the following review, Kemp praises Good Bones as a "sample-case of Atwood's sensuous and sardonic talents."

Pocket-sized and with sturdy covers, Good Bones looks a bit like a sketchbook in which an artist might jot caricatures, cartoons, preliminary studies, trial pieces and quick little exercises in catching the essence of a subject or delineating it from unusual angles. The miscellany with which Margaret Atwood fills its pages is, in fact, a writer's equivalent of this: a collection of lively verbal doodlings, smartly dashed off vignettes and images that are inventively enlarged, titled, turned upside down. Playing with the conventions of her narrative craft is a frequent pastime. Fiction's motives and motifs are outlined with witty flourish.

"Bad News", the opening piece, is a fantasia about the appeal of disaster tales. It's followed by a monologue in which The Little Red Hen, clucking with indignation, retells the story of her thrifty response to the grain of wheat as a cautionary tale of put-upon domesticity. Elsewhere, Gertrude gives her version of what happens in Hamlet, and an Ugly Sister and a Wicked Stepmother put in a good word for themselves. Political correctness is lampooned in "There Was Once", as the reciting of a standard fairy-tale gets subverted by progressive emendations and bowdlerizings. With sly funniness, a litany, "Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women", lists everything fiction owes to unwise females. As it catalogues the contributions to literature of "The Muse as Fluffball", aspects of genres like the fairy-story or the Gothic tale are captured in thumbnail sketches of impressionistic brio: "trapped inside the white pages, she can't hear us, and goes prancing and warbling and lolloping innocently towards her doom … incest-minded stepfathers chase her through ruined cloisters, where she's been lured by ruses too transparent to fool a gerbil."

In other places, Atwood's pen prods verbal raw material around to see what it turns into in differing contexts. Three brief stories each incorporate, in the order they occur in the verse, the words of a stanza from John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow". The title work, which ends the book, is a series of virtuoso variations on the phrase, "good bones", using changing connotations—fine bone structure, hallowed relics, strong bones—to chronicle the phases of a life.

In its weird poeticizing of physiology, that piece is typical of many in the book (as well as some of the most haunting passages in Atwood's novels). Bodily life, male and female, is inspected with jaunty acumen, and a cool eye is sent playing over its representations in fiction, sculpture and painting. These sections often call to mind that Atwood's father was an entomologist. Her stance in them sometimes jokily emulates scientific distance and dispassion, though her spoof zoologies of the human being and its gender habits soon mutate into sequences of gaudy, ingenious metaphor.

"No freak show can hold a candle to my father expounding Nature", Atwood wrote in an autobiographical essay in Bluebeard's Egg. In Good Bones to achieve and heighten a similar sense of the extraordinary, a vantage-point much favoured is that of the extra-terrestrial. "Homelanding" acquaints the inhabitants of another world with the behaviour-patterns peculiar to Earth's "prong people" and "cavern people". In "Cold-Blooded", extra-planetary lepidoptera observe the activities of the "blood creatures" so surprisingly dominant on Earth, and note crude resemblances to their own patterns of pupation and metamorphosis: "At some indeterminate point in their life cycles, they cause themselves to be placed in artificial stone or wooden cocoons, or chrysalises. They have an idea that they will someday emerge from these in an altered state, which they symbolize with carvings of themselves with wings."

Death isn't the only phenomenon to receive this Martian treatment. One piece, "Alien Territory", narrates the events of birth in terms of an adventure tale. Another turns the travelling of sperms towards an ovum into a science-fiction epic: "the mission becomes a race which only one may win, as, ahead of them, vast and luminous, the longed-for, the loved planet swims into view…."

Some of these flights of fantasy float away into buoyant humour. Gravity holds others closer to such global concerns as over-population, war and ecological catastrophe. As in Atwood's novels, the pervading style is fluently accomplished, fluctuating between amusement and seriousness, allowing mockery to meld affectingly into poetry: a meditation on bats moves with easy skill, for instance, from exuberant burlesque of the Dracula myth—"O flying leukaemia, in your cloak like a living umbrella"—to tender, exact evocation of the mammals "dank lazy half-sleep of daytime, with bodies rounded and soft as furred plums … the mothers licking the tiny amazed faces of the newborn". Mingling the incisive and the colourful, Good Bones makes a marvellous miniature sample-case of Atwood's sensuous and sardonic talents.

(read more)

This section contains 805 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Peter Kemp
Follow Us on Facebook