A review of The Tent by Margaret Atwood

This is an interesting collection, as much for the quality of Atwood’s writing, which, in itself, never falters, as for what she tries to say. But it never reaches full fruition. It needs more synthesis, more culling, and more development so that the work comes together towards a unified purpose.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Tent
By Margaret Atwood
March 2006, hardcover, ISBN 0-7475-8225-4, A$29.95

Prolific, multi-skilled, and ever insightful author Margaret Atwood has justly earned her place as one of the most well known living authors. The demand for new material from her must be extraordinary. Her latest book, The Tent seems to have been pulled together as a kind of between-novel filler from pieces she’s published, interesting if slightly naïve drawings, and a few unpublished reflections, poems, thoughts and occasionally, what appear to be sketchy beginnings. Reading these in their original context, for example, “Tree Baby,” “But It Could Still,” and “Something Has Happened,” in New Beginnings or “Our Cat Enters Heaven” in Brick they are thought provoking and upbeat, fusing humor with pathos; dignity with blackness. However, united together in this little, but attractively presented book, and perhaps read in a single hit, the work comes across collectively as cranky, and rather negative reflections on the difficulties inherent in fame, and the pain of being a famous woman writer. In other words, there is a definite whining buzz to this work which makes the reader think less of their sometimes hysterically funny lightness, and more about the author’s chip.

That’s a shame, because I’ve very much enjoyed the work when I’ve come across it elsewhere, and it is possible to imagine these as lovely little gifts, given in a spirit of generosity to collections like New Beginnings where “Something Has Happened,” “Tree Baby,” and “But It Could Still,” provide a unique take on the Indian Ocean Tsunami tragedy, looking through the eyes of a survivor and hoping/projecting a positive future; a beginning:

What new name will they give it, this child? The one who escaped from your nightmare and floated lightly to a tree, and who looks around itself now with a baby’s ordinary amazement? Now time starts up once more…(150)

Read on its own in Harper’s Magazine, the title piece “The Tent” is a richly detailed metaphor for the tenuousness of the writer’s world. It has the terrifying feel of the apocalyptic distopia of Oryx and Crake, and although the reader is aware right from the start that this vast and unsettling wilderness is no more than an extended metaphor, so powerful is Atwood’s writing that the reader is in the tent, shivering from cold, fearing the dogs and howlers, and writing through the burning paper, “because what else can you do? (146)” But then we are pulled up by its conjunction with “Time Folds,” a very short reflection on the futility of life and the pain of death, or from “Nightingale,” which proceeds it. “Nightingale” is one of the weaker pieces in the book, suffering from a surfeit of introspection and the unconstructed insular feel of someone’s raw dream. Both “Time Folds” and “Nightingale” draw power from “The Tent,” removing the illusion of camaraderie, and of being included in the world Atwood creates. Instead it becomes just another whine on the pain of the writer’s life. It is another dream we don’t quite understand. Or another beginning, in need of more depth for the piece to holds its own.

Other pieces, such as the previously unpublished “Three Novels I Won’t be Writing Soon,” are quite funny. From “Word Zero,” “Spongedeath,” to “Beetleplunge,” the ever ready Amanda and Chris prepare for challenge from a number of unlikely sources. This was longer than many other of the pieces in this book, and I felt in some ways, tongue firmly rooted in cheek, that Atwood was actually enjoying herself, winking at the reader rather than whining at her, which made this a pleasurable interlude. Other tongue-in-cheek work like “Heritage House” or “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation,” are also enjoyable, and fully crafted:

Com back, come back, oh Mom,
from carziness or death
or our own damaged memory –
appear as you were:

Queen of the waffle iron,
generous dispenser of toothpaste,
sorceress of Mercurochrome,
player of games of smoky bridge
at which you won second-prize dishtowels (109)

In some ways, this too could be read as allegory. The selfless mender of the “holes in the world” mom, hiding all the ugliness in her apron craft is not too different from the preyed upon writer, producing silky work from inside her ugly tent. That this old-fashioned pre-feminist “mom” should mirror the wise old Cassandra of “Voice” or “Bottle II,” is an interesting twist which adds unifying depth to the book. It isn’t just the writer’s voice which is an “invisible vampire” sucking out the writer’s blood. It is the reader, made to sit in the uncomfortable position of ‘burden,’ like the child author of “Bring Back Mom.” We too want the writer to go back to being invisible. To submerge herself into craft and not let us know how painful it is. The knowledge is unsettling, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing:

That was when you heard the voice. My voice, to be precise. It was a small sibilant voice, like the rustling of old corn husks in a breeze, or of dried leaves kept for eons in a cave. It was a hissing, like steam escaping fitfully from a fissure in damp mud. An underground sound, hinting of unknown pressures, of unknown powers. It was an enticing whisper. (38)

However, there are simply too many unfinished prose poems in this work for it to hold together. Pieces like “Faster,” or “No More Photos,” just don’t have enough words to draw the reader in. They may be the beginning of something, or the end of something, but as they stand, there is really nothing to hold the reader’s interest. Others, like the sharp parody “Chicken Little Goes Too Far,” “Horatio’s Version,” or “King Log in Exile,” are lighthearted and fun but read, again, in the context of this book, rather than on their own, as writing exercises. Write Hamlet from Horatio’s point of view. Write a modern story from the point of view of a log in a pond. Make sure it ends with a sardonic note on our times: “New he is draining the pond. Soon it will be turned into desirable residential estates.” (123)

This is an interesting collection, as much for the quality of Atwood’s writing, which, in itself, never falters, as for what she tries to say. But it never reaches full fruition. It needs more synthesis, more culling, and more development so that the work comes together towards a unified purpose. On their own, the developed pieces are terrific, but the sketchy half written pieces take power away from the good ones. The sardonic anger towards the writing gift, towards the useless world as it stands, and above all, towards the bloodsucking and ungrateful reader also makes these pieces seem more unpleasant than they ought to feel. It’s worth reading anyway, because there are plenty of gems, and the writing is tight and always informed thoroughly by history and thought. Just don’t expect to feel good afterwards. Even when the pieces are meant to be funny and upbeat, there is an overriding whiney and irritated overtone that is hard to take.