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Sunday, 25 November 2007

Review: The Tent, Margaret Atwood (2006)

Time Out is a London-originated entertainment magazine that has just been launched in Sydney (3 November). We used to buy it in Tokyo to find the right cinema showing the right movie. Lisa Mullen's review there of the book (no date, sorry) includes the observation that reading it is "a curiously intimate experience, like peering into Atwood's skull and watching her brain's synapses twitch and sizzle".

Mullen also calls the book a "beautifully packaged collection of oddities". Drawings by the author (reminding me of Orhan Pamuk's recent book of non-fiction, which also contains the author's illustrations) are scattered throughout but seem not to be used to a specific purpose. Like the structure of the collection itself, they are 'free-form' and not 'pointed'.

As to the "habitual Atwoodian territories", I'm hardly in a position to speculate. Nevertheless, the contents are definitely 'pointed' and do canvass 'issues', as fables habitually have done, over the millenia. In the old days a fable would serve to educate without attracting the unwanted attention of powerful men. Nowadays, perchance, it serves to achieve impact without seeming to instruct. Nobody likes being told something they don't already know.

Prose poem might also be a way to describe what's in here. If so, then these are either reworkings of old themes (Mullen's view) or first drafts of something still to come.

At this dim season of the year we hunger for such tales. Winter's tales, they are. We want to huddle round them, as if around a small but cheerful fire. The sun sets at four, the temperature plummets, the wind howls, the snow cascades down. Though you nearly froze your fingers off, you did get the tuplis planted, just in time. In four months they'll come up, you have faith in that, and they'll look like the picture in the catalogue.

This set me off on a tangent along which I bumped into my old friend, which starts on page 2883 of The Norton Shakespeare (edited by Stephen Greenblatt). Most scholars agree that The Winter's Tale (1609-11) is a fable detailing the vicissitudes suffered by Elizabeth I at the hands of her extraordinary father, Henry VIII. But it could equally be read as a prophesy of what would come, in 1660, when the prince returned to his grateful subjects.

In it, a young girl is abandoned on a distant shore because her father doubts his paternity. She falls in love and ultimately returns to her home. Her mother, also spurned by the jealous king, is likewise reinstated to her proper place.

There are, however, deaths.

Greenblatt's intro to the play starts by noting Ben Johnson's complaint about plays that "make nature afraid" (Bartholemew Fair (1614)). And certainly this and The Tempest, which debuted around the same time, are extraordinary in terms of the theatre, and what it could achieve.

Atwood seems, in her book, to be seeking an authentic voice and these prose poems seem to be ideal for the purpose. They make you think and their fragmented format and evocative language sidestep conventional demands in terms of plot, coherence and 'development'.

The book is, therefore, a new departure and, possibly, a new method for remaining attuned to the zeitgeist without overburdening the reader with explanations and justifications. A writer should never be asked to do this, but our preference, these days, for 'engaged' fiction, means this is a real danger.

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