Margaret Atwood | Critical Review by John Lanchester

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Margaret Atwood.
This section contains 1,175 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Lanchester

Critical Review by John Lanchester

SOURCE: "Dying Falls," in London Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 14, July 23, 1987, pp. 24, 26.

In the following excerpt, Lanchester provides a mixed assessment of the short story collection Bluebeard's Egg.

[The endings of Margaret Atwood's fiction] tend to leave things slightly in the air, and to present themselves to the reader for interpretation. The dystopian fantasy of The Handmaid's Tale was followed by a framing fiction—of the kind that is more usually put in front of a narrative—which pretended that what we had just read had been the material presented at an academic conference, centuries after the events depicted. The academic ended with a question: 'Are there any questions?' Many of the stories in Bluebeard's Egg implicitly ask the same thing.

The material treated in Bluebeard's Egg is largely conventional, consisting as it does of relationships of one kind or another (parents in the stories which begin and end the collection, elsewhere first boyfriends, ex-lovers, new husbands: the usual). Her narrators are constantly interpreting themselves, their pasts and their relationships—a business that often goes on ruefully and after-the-event. The ideas behind this interest in the act of interpretation have been around for a little while now, and Atwood's focus on the subject is not flame-belchingly original. But the subject is an important one for her for reasons which can be discerned from little asides in the stories. When a boy gives an identification bracelet to his girlfriend, he misnames it an 'identity bracelet': she ponders a possible reason for the error, and then says: 'Another interpretation has since become possible.' The remark is more of a clue to her concerns than the interpretation which follows it: it gives us a sense of the way feminism has empowered Atwood to take familiar material and scrutinise it from a new perspective. The point about 'Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother', the first story, is that not so long ago, or to another writer, the moments would not have seemed to signify anything at all. Perhaps it is her Canadianness—the fact of coming from a country where you can say 'Yes, I am a liberal' without feeling ridiculous—which helps her to retain that combination of feminist ideas with an essentially traditional aesthetic which is one of her great strengths. 'If writing novels—and reading them—have any redeeming social value it's probably that they force you to imagine what it's like to be somebody else.' George Eliot might have said the same.

A flexible and thought-out moral and critical position is rare enough: Atwood is also a talented writer. She has a particular gift for aperçus which combine sympathy (for the character), insight (into the character) and a wry, ironic humour (which is often a matter of catching the reader's eye behind the character's back). She is very good at all varieties of rationalisation and minor deceit. Loulou, a sculptor, lives with a whole collective of male poets—very bad poets, too, we soon gather, though are never directly told. The poets use their more developed vocabularies to tease and bully her: when they call her 'marmoreal' she looks it up in the dictionary 'to find out whether she'd been insulted'. (The story's full title is 'Loulou; or, The Domestic Life of the Language'.) After sleeping with one of the poets for the first time, she had cleaned up his definitively squalid room for him. 'Bob looked on, sullen but appreciative, as she hurled and scoured. Possibly this was why he decided to love her: because she would do this kind of thing. What he said though was, "You complete me.'"

Moments like that provide much of the pleasure of Bluebeard's Egg; that kind of insight, and that kind of comedy, come very easily to Atwood. Perhaps too easily. There are times when it seems that characters are being described and events are being evoked rather mechanically, through a few carefully-chosen details and a well-modulated irony or two-giving a feeling that things are being made to happen in order to give the ironic tone of voice a work-out. In 'Scarlet Ibis', for instance, a character wheeled on to provide local colour on page 187 ('a trim grey haired woman in a tailored pink summer suit that must have been far too hot') changes her hair colour by her next appearance, two pages and about five minutes of narrative time later ('Christine talked with the pink-suited woman, who had blonde hair elegantly done up in a French roll. She was from Vienna …'). It's not a disastrous lapse, but for me it crystallised an unease with the way that what goes on in the stories sometimes comes to seem a consequence of the kind of narratorial voice Atwood has decided in advance to employ.

The title story shows her at her best. Sally is in love with Ed 'because of his stupidity, his monumental and almost energetic stupidity'; he is a heart doctor, 'and the irony of this is not lost on Sally: who could know less about hearts, the kind symbolised by red satin surrounded by lace and topped by pink bows, than Ed.' In plot terms, very little happens. We meet Sally as she stands looking out the kitchen window at Ed: their marriage is described (it's his third); we see that Sally, though brighter than her husband, is not as bright as she thinks she is; we watch the progress of the dinner party Sally was preparing (as in a lot of the stories, the background is filled in while the main character is performing a domestic chore). After the dinner party she walks into her study and sees Ed with his hand on her best friend's bum. Everyone acts as though nothing has happened.

While this has been going on, Atwood has been exploring Sally's attempts to understand Ed, whose wall-like stupidity makes him very enigmatic. Sally has been attending a night class in 'Forms of Narrative Fiction', in which the set text is an old version of the Bluebeard story: the class has been told to write the story from the point of view of any one character. Sally is inside a version of the Bluebeard story herself, of course, though she cannot realise it: the incidental ironies of the narrative all serve this larger structural irony. There is an unsummarisable richness about the thirty-page 'Bluebeard's Egg'. Many of Atwood's concerns are present in it, vividly dramatised: her interest in adapting and co-opting genre; relationships between women; the nuances of modern marriages and remarriages; the nature of female experience; what men are like. The climax of the story—as well as being thematically important (it presents Sally with a crisis of interpretation) and funny (in an adult and uncomfortable way)—is a moment of pure, dreamlike awfulness for the heroine, who is seeing happen what is for her the worst possible thing. The personal, for Atwood, is political—but it is personal too. Enjoyable though most of this collection is, 'Bluebeard's Egg' gives the reader a sense that Atwood has available a whole extra set of gears.

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This section contains 1,175 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Lanchester
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