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The Tent

by Margaret Atwood

Some of the earliest examples of women’s writing can be found in Renaissance “miscellanies,” or notebooks in which women copied, composed, and emended poems and brief bits of fiction for their own pleasure and edification. That these collections were not originally intended for publication does not make them any less fascinating; indeed, it is their in-the-moment, intimate, miscellaneous qualities that are so compelling.

I’m tempted to place Margaret Atwood’s latest offering in this same category, although it seems obvious that the short pieces included in The Tent (many are less than five pages in length) were meant for publication from the outset. Still, besides the trademark Atwoodian irony (old school in the best sense of the term) and wordplay, there is a charming sense of improvisation and open-endedness to the prose and structure here that suggest intuition more than premeditation. Also attractive – perhaps especially so for diehard Atwood fans – is the way she juxtaposes her status as a venerable author with her own human vulnerabilities and mortality throughout these rants, reckonings, drawings, retellings, and requiems.

The narrative voice throughout The Tent most closely evokes the archetypal character of the crone. Unlike the pure maiden or nurturing mother, the crone feels free to speak her mind, embracing the seedier, darker emotions and dystopic visions that accompany the end of life. Although never explicitly named, it is this wise, uninhibited, often sharp-tongued female narrator whose soul animates the book. In “Gateway” and “Time Folds,” this voice wanders in an unfamiliar afterlife, and wonders at the way time loops back on itself. And in “Encouraging the Young,” an exploration of the perils of mentorship and fame, she opines, “The young are not my rivals. Fish are not the rivals of stones.”

But if Atwood is indeed writing with one foot planted firmly in the grave, or else waggling her toes somewhere beyond it, she is neither stuck in limbo nor half-suffocated by her subject matter. The author calls to us instead from a mulchy, fabled netherworld teeming with spirits, earthworms, heroines, and gods, in which death and dream mingle, flirt, and often intertwine.

It would be easy to dismiss these mini-musings as confections less worthy of readerly or scholarly engagement than Atwood’s fat, award-garnering novels. It is a mistake, however, to discount the appeal of a writer negotiating the tightrope of story-making sans safety net. Throughout The Tent, the author bucks convention, kicking against aesthetic restraints and received critical interpretations with a riff on post-colonialism, a glimpse into cat heaven, a tongue-in-cheek yearning for the old-fashioned mothers of yore, and a delightfully wry list of the plots available to “exotic characters.”

Like the authors of the original miscellanies, Atwood often twists established fictional paradigms to suit her fancy. In “Horatio’s Version,” the famous Shakespearean sidekick experiences writer’s block and then becomes a news reporter, placing Hamlet’s story in the context of a long and bloody human history of one-upmanship. And in Atwood’s contemporary reworking of the apocalyptic Chicken Little story, our plucky (if panicky) activist hero is finally outwitted by the unscrupulous developer Hoggy Groggy and his hitman Foxy Loxy.

The Tent’s loose notebook quality, however, means that not every story or fragment is entirely deserving of inclusion.Still, the few weak elements here are overshadowed by pieces such as “The Animals Reject Their Names and Things Return to Their Origins,” an eight-page poem that begins by casting off stereotypes and associations, builds to a lament on the subject of human squander, and culminates in the inevitable wiping clean of the universal slate. This poem alone is worth the price of admission.

Although thematically and technically disparate, the stories in The Tent do eventually come full circle. The notion of storytelling as a futile imperative dominates the title tale, with the narrator, huddled in a paper tent, writing on the walls to protect loved ones and keep the howling world at bay. And yet, “It’s an illusion, the belief that your doodling is a kind of armour, a kind of charm, because no one knows better than you do how fragile your tent really is.”

However, it’s the more hopeful “But It Could Still” that rounds out the book, with the narrator’s understanding of death and despair serving as precursor to release and renewal. Busy planting tulip bulbs on the darkest day of the year, she wonders: “What would you call them if they were in a story? Would they be happy endings, or happy beginnings?” It is this mix of paper-thin authority and empowering uncertainty that informs The Tent, and perhaps best describes the work at which Atwood has excelled throughout her career.