Good bones * Margaret Atwood

I absolutely loved this mini book (87 pages in total), went through the stories in less than an hour and then had to re-read them (or some of them) to see the secret again.

It’s not easy, being a hen.

This is how one of the stories begins. And you think it’s about a fairy-tale about a hen that could talk. A hen that wanted to make her own loaf of bread.  She finds a seed (“finders keepers”), decides to plant it herself as nobody wanted to help (“all gone to the beach”) and waited until it grew and made more grains of wheat.

So, what were my options? I could have eaten that grain of wheat right away. Done myself a nutritional favour. But instead I planted it. Watered it. Stood guard over it night and day with my little feathered body.

Then she makes more and more until she has enough for flour to make the bread.

You’ve seen the pictures, me in my little red hen apron, holding the loaf with its plume of aroma in between the tips of my wings, smiling away.

And when it came to eating the bread, all of the people who were previously no-where to be found, the cat, the dog, the pig and the antelope (exotic, no), pipe back to life and say they want to eat the loaf too.

They meant it, too. They held out their paws, hooves, tongues, claws, mandibles, prehensile tails. They drooled at me with their eyes. They whined. They shoved petitions through my mail slot. They became depressed. They accused me of selfishness. They developed symptoms. They threatened suicide. They said it was my fault, for having a loaf of bread when they had none. Every single one of them, it seemed, needed that goddamn loaf of bread more than I did.

You can bake more , they said.

OK, as you can see – it was never about a hen. It was about the work put in and the lack of support and the people who appear out of thin air when a person meets with success and demand their share. I loved the hen story. All the other stories are in a way like this.

In an unexpected way, it helps to think of France in connection with Good Bones , for in describing the form of the stories, the closest I can come is the conte , that curious French form that is midway between parable, fairy tale, and story. The French speak of un vrai conte for an improbable story and un conte vrai for a true story. And there is the conte de bonne femme , or conte bleu , the traditional old wives’ tale, which Atwood might be said to have reinvented as the wise woman’s tale.

In Good Bones , Atwood rewrites the traditional Grimm characters: the little hen, the ugly sister, the harpy with her “coiffeur of literate serpents,” giving them contemporary voices. She plays with fairy-tale beginnings:

“There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest,” hilariously rewriting the story to meet the prescriptions of political correctness till the story disappears, as does its mystery.

There was once a middle-class girl, as beautiful as she was good –

— Stop right there. I think we can cut the beautiful , don’t you? Women these days have to deal with too many intimidating physical role models as it is, what with those bimbos in the ads. Can’t you make her, well, more average?

— There was once a girl who was a little overweight and whose front teeth stuck out, who –

— I don’t think it’s nice to make fun of people’s appearances. Plus, you’re encouraging anorexia.

— I wasn’t making fun! I was just describing –

— Skip the description. Description oppresses.

Atwood creates her own contes . One of my favourites is “In Love With Raymond Chandler.”

We would enter the room, lock the door, and begin to explore the furniture, fingering the curtains, running our hands along the spurious gilt frames of the pictures, over the real marble or the chipped enamel of the luxurious or tacky washroom sink, inhaling the odour of the carpets, old cigarette smoke and spilled gin and fast meaningless sex or else the rich abstract scent of the oval transparent soaps imported from England, it wouldn’t matter to us; what would matter would be our response to the furniture, and the furniture’s response to us. Only after we had sniffed, fingered, rubbed, rolled on and absorbed the furniture of the room would we fall into each other’s arms.

Somehow she always finds her eccentric way into the heart of the matter. Here she reminds us why we are attached to Chandler. He is not the detective writer of grisly murders and steamy sex, but the detective of furniture, of those antimacassars and mahogany desks, of bedroom suites. Two of the contes were commissioned by Michigan Quarterly Review for special issues on the female and the male body. The first editorial inquiry to Atwood came as a request for a submission “entirely devoted to the subject of ‘The Female Body.’ Knowing how well you have written on this topic … this capacious topic.”

She is so quick that she immediately picks up the kernel of her tale, telling us of the aging of her capacious topic: “My topic feels like hell.” In the course of the tale, she shows how this topic, the female body, has been exploited and misused, by itself and by society; how it is used to sell and is sold. We know and need to know these things, but it is the wit with which this often overworked topic speaks that makes it fresh and disturbing.

“Alien Territory” is the male twin to this piece, and here she returns briefly to the tale of Bluebeard. This may be the single most slippery story in the whole repertoire of fairy tales, and it holds endless fascination for The Robber Bridegroom . Through decades of writing, she has continued to probe the story’s dark entrails. In “Bluebeard’s Egg,” the title story of her 1983 collection, she refers to the traditional version in which the three sisters, in sequence, discovered dismembered bodies of previous wives in Bluebeard’s castle. In the version she invents in Good Bones , the third sister finds a small dead child with its eyes wide open locked in Bluebeard’s secret room. The narrator, whose motive, like that of many modern women, is to heal Bluebeard, obviously has no idea how far down into his psyche she will have to go to do so.

Atwood insisted that “The Female Body” and “Alien Territory” were to be called not essays, but “pieces.” They are driven by a deeply moral imagination, and fraught with warnings: as a civilization we are destroying ourselves.

The Female Body is made of transparent plastic and lights up when you plug it in. You press a button to illuminate the different systems. The Circulatory System is red, for the heart and arteries, purple for the veins; the Respiratory System is blue, the Lymphatic System is yellow, the Digestive System is green, with liver and kidneys in aqua. The nerves are done in orange and the brain is pink. The skeleton, as you might expect, is white. The Reproductive System is optional, and can be removed. It comes with or without a miniature embryo. Parental judgement can thereby be exercised. We do not wish to frighten or offend.

 

In the tour de force “My Life as a Bat,” the narrator decides it was better to be a bat than to be human. She hopes to be a bat again. Reincarnation as an animal would be “At least a resting place. An interlude of grace.”

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And from Bats to Dracula is only a small jump. I loved that one too: Oh Dracula, unlikely hero

And Atwood offers an evocative vision, through a bat’s eyes, of a world in which there are still goddesses in the caves and grottoes. When asked by The British Defense and Aid Fund for South Africa to donate a manuscript for sale at Sotheby’s to assist students in South Africa and Namibia, Atwood donated “My Life as a Bat.” It carries the full weight of her ironic vision of our collective human achievement.

In Good Bones , Margaret Atwood may insist that the reader look at hard truths, but she never forgoes her belief in magic and the transformative powers of the imagination. As she once said, we may not be able to change the world, but we can change our way of looking at it. Some of her magic is to be felt in the way she chisels her stories to an adamantine brilliance. Few modern writers are as off-beat and funny; few can orchestrate images of such stunning precision; few can be as wise.

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