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Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 1982-2004

by Margaret Atwood

For Moving Targets, her second collection of reviews, journalism, and occasional pieces, Margaret Atwood has elected to follow a strictly chronological organizing format. While this may seem simplistic at first glance, ultimately this approach unifies the volume and allows for the development of certain attitudes and shifts in Atwood’s world view even as the world changes around her.

As illustrated by the short, contextualizing introductions to each section, Atwood is keenly aware of her own opening to the world, and of the commensurate shifting of the world to her concerns. While she has always been vocal about her environmental concerns, for example, it has taken time for her “lunatic-fringe … environmental fretting” to become mainstream.

As Atwood outlines, the world has changed significantly in the past 22 years, changes that are reflected in her writing. The final section, “2001-2004,” begins in the Toronto airport on Sept. 11, with Atwood en route to New York. These later pieces are much more rooted in what Atwood calls these “times of crisis.” The section contains her (in)famous “Letter to America” (which seems, with a little hindsight, positively gentle), a look back on a family trip to Afghanistan mere weeks prior to the Soviet invasion, and a lengthy group review of books on the changing world of Islam (including Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran).

An elegiac tone pervades Moving Targets. A number of the pieces are remembrances of friends and fellow travellers now departed. Mordecai Richler gets a boisterous send-off in “Mordecai Richler: 1931-2001: Diogenes of Montreal,” while Carol Shields receives a career re-examination and appreciation in “Carol Shields, Who Died Last Week, Wrote Books That Were Full of Delights.” “Tiff and the Animals” is a moving and amusing tribute to Timothy Findley, while one of the earliest pieces is a remembrance of Marian Engel.

Even the more autobiographical pieces are touched by this tone of loss. “The Grunge Look,” an account of Atwood’s 1964 post-Harvard sojourn in England and France, reads, despite its humour, like a valediction, while “Great Aunts” is a fond tribute to the formative influences of family. While I would never suggest Atwood’s work has even approached sentimentality, these pieces are emotionally open in a surprising manner.

While the reviews collected here all demonstrate Atwood’s wit and breadth of knowledge and erudition, they are all somewhat of a piece. As she writes, “I still won’t review a book I don’t like, although to do so would doubtless be amusing for the Ms. Hyde side of me.” As a result, the body of reviews (including Angela Carter’s Burning Your Boats, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, and John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick) takes on an enthusiastic, rather than critical, tone.

One might also question the absence of any Canadian writers younger than Atwood and her peers from her critical writing. Is it merely a matter of Atwood being one of “the older folks” now, and therefore distanced from the work of these younger writers, or is it a matter of silent judgment? There is nothing in Moving Targets to support a guess in either direction.

While one might quibble with some of Atwood’s evaluations (I’d be curious whether her admiration of The Witches of Eastwick has abated in the past 20 years, for example), it’s difficult to find fault with such carefully constructed, well-founded arguments. What does come as something of a surprise is just how well this collection works as a whole. The pieces in Moving Targets can be read either individually or as a unit; either reading produces its own rewards. It’s impressive for such a disparate body of work to cohere so well, and a testament to Atwood’s considerable powers.