It’s been a while since I’ve read a bit or Margaret Atwood. Last book of hers I’ve devoured like this was Margaret Atwood * Moral Disorder Book review and that pretty much summed up in short stories what I love about Margaret Atwood. Stories about the existential depression of human life, about how love and sex don’t have to be related and the complicated relationships between men and women.
I, on the other hand, have a devious mind and little sense of guilt. My guilt is about other things.
Wilderness Tips was an absolute joy to read. Depressing in specific areas, funny in others, filled with despair and hope in other parts. Each story exemplifies a split second in a person’s life that changes them forever. They grow from immature and naive to mature and harsh in just a few pages and all of the stories ended up being dark with themes of loss, missed chances, blunders, and sad comprehension.
Sex has been domesticated, stripped of the promised mystery, added to the category of the merely expected. It’s just what is done, mundane as hockey. It’s celibacy these days that would raise eyebrows.
The stories in this collection follow women and men in their journey through life. The women are artists, poets, word builders, painters. The men are pudgy, cheating, always going through a mid-life crisis or considering their next conquest. They are all a bit stereotypical but within the pages you can spot bits of the author and if you look close enough, bits of yourself. While the themes are all dark all ten of the stories had the same truth that rings true in every reader’s life. Time flies by quickly, changes occur, choices are made but in the end it is you that has to live with the consequences.
The melodrama tempts her, the idea of a revelation, a sensation, a neat ending. But it would not be an ending, it would only be the beginning of something else. In any case, the story itself seems to her outmoded. It’s an archaic story, a folk-tale, a mosaic artefact. It’s a story that would never happen now.
These are stories that start around a camp with a waitress getting pregnant with one of the boys. The stories then morph into treachery, dwelling on the disillusionment with men, haunting experiences of love affairs gone wrong.
I loved a few stories in this book. One was “Hairball” with Gerald who became Gerry, then Ger. A woman transformed a man into a stylish version of himself, then he dumps her and takes over her job. He was a Canadian stiff suit in charge of a woman’s magazine who hired our heroine to do the center pieces. She was in England before that and I had to laugh at her description of English men. It does apply!
Like, for instance, English men. Charm the knickers off you with their mellow vowels and frivolous verbiage, and then, once they’d got them off, panic and run. Or else stay and whinge. The English called it whinging instead of whining. It was better, really. Like a creaking hinge. It was a traditional compliment to be whinged at by an Englishman. It was his way of saying he trusted you, he was conferring upon you the privilege of getting to know the real him. The inner, whinging him.
That was how they thought of women, secretly: whinge receptacles. Kat could play it, but that didn’t mean she liked it. […]
She was too smart, of course. The English men were very competitive; they liked to win. Several times it hurt. Twice she had abortions, because the men in question were not up for the alternative. She learned to say that she didn’t want children anyway, that if she longed for a rug-rat she would buy a gerbil. Her life began to seem long. Her adrenalin was running out. Soon she would be thirty, and all she could see ahead was more of the same.
The women that Margaret Atwood depicts are not the domesticated type. They travel, they love art, they write poems. They are mistresses but never wives.. unless it’s a last resort.
The Bog Man
In the story “The Bog Man”, Julie is Connor’s mistress. Their relationship ends in the middle of a swamp in England when Julie realises that her idealised version of the man she was with had nothing to do with the reality of things. I loved this story too. Connor is married and has children (men usually bring it up during the first few dates to get consent on their cheating)
At the time, Julie did not think the wife and the three kids and the dog had anything to do with her and Connor. She was too young to make such connections: the wife was as old as her own mother, almost, and women like that did not really have lives. She could not picture Connor in any context other than the motel rooms they would sneak into, or the apartments of Julie’s friends, shambling, cheap apartments furnished with mattresses and decorated with egg cartons painted black nailed to the ceiling and with Chianti-bottle candle-holders.
She did not think of him as having an existence apart from her: the wife and kids were just boring subsistence details, like brushing your teeth. Instead she saw him in glorious and noble isolation, a man singled out, like an astronaut, like a diver in a bell-jar, like a saint in a medieval painting, surrounded by a golden atmosphere of his own, a total-body halo. She wanted to be in there with him, participating in his radiance, basking in his light.
This ideal painting she has in her mind is not the same as reality and when reality comes calling, Julie will have to wake up and face the music. It happens to her in the bog. She imagines the bog-man’s life, how he died, how his life must have been. The relic takes shape and becomes more interesting than the live researchers staring down at him. Julie even fantasises about her family.
Connor’s theory was that these rings were not merely large harmless primitive calendars, erected for the purpose of determining the solstices. He thought they were the sites of ritual human sacrifices. This should have made them more sinister for Julie, but it did not. Instead she felt a connection with her ancestors. Her mother’s family had come from this part of the world, more or less; from somewhere in the north of Scotland. She liked to sit among the standing stones and picture her ancestors running around naked and covered with blue tattoos, offering cups of blood to the gods, or whatever they did. Some bloodthirsty, indecipherable Pictish thing. The blood made them authentic, as authentic as the Mayans; or at least more authentic than all that clan and tartan and bagpipe stuff, which Julie found tedious and sentimental. There had been enough of it at her university, enough to last her for a while.
As her relationship goes, her status is closer to an understudy rather than a lover. As he is explaining things to her, she zones out and suspects him of being “very pedagogical.”
Julie has started to suspect him of trying to mould her mind. Into what, is the question. As she knits, she makes a mental list of other things that get moulded. Steamed Christmas puddings, poured-concrete lawn dwarfs, gelatin desserts, wobbly and bright pink and dotted with baby marshmallows. Thinking of these reminds Julie of her own mother, and then of Connor’s wife.
As she starts thinking about “the wife”, her status as a lover in a soul-bonded relationship seems to suffer. She can place a picture over the image of “the wife” and “the wife” is no longer remote. She is in their bed as their making love, always at the periphery of her vision.
She didn’t bother then, but she’s bothered since. Tucked behind the driver’s licence there’s the whole family group, in colour, taken on the lawn in summer: the wife, huge in a flowered dress and squinting; the three boys, with Connor’s red hair, squinting also; the dog, a black Labrador that knew better than to look at the sun, its tongue out and drooling. The ordinariness, the plainness of this picture, offends Julie deeply. It interferes with her idea of Connor, with his status as romantic isolate; it diminishes him, and it has made Julie feel, for the first time, cheap and furtive. Extraneous, auxiliary.
She has Connor’s children, forming together with them a single invincible monster with four heads and sixteen arms and legs.
Thus ensues a psychological fight for Connor – that Connor himself is not aware of. But as the idea of “Connor- the person” becomes more rounded, Julie starts seeing him without the rosy glasses on and sees him as he really is. A middle aged man with a wife and children who is cheating.
Julie has never before thought of him as middle-aged, but now she can see that there might be a difference between her idea of him and his own idea of himself.
And the desire for him quickly dissipates as he is no longer a God, a knight is shining armour. He is a man, a flawed man.
His stroking does not excite her. It irritates her, like sandpaper, like the kneading paws of a cat. She feels that she’s been demoted, against her will. […] He kisses her. His mouth feels separate from him; soft, moist, coolish. It feels like uncooked bacon.
She knows now that it’s over and she asks him the question that she knows he will be unable to answer, to marry her. He is dumbfounded, he can’t react so she asks him to go for ice and then locks him out of the bedroom. She runs away from him and ends the relationship.
She’s crying because she no longer wants to marry Connor. She no longer wants him. The divinity is going out of him, like air. He is no longer a glorious blimp, larger than life and free in the heavens. Soon he will be just a damp piece of flabby rubber. She is mourning his collapse.
When she meets him later, she does not recognize him. His descent into mediocrity, where she lifted him up from, is complete.
His eyes look sunken and also too bright, a little wild. Is this what she’s changed him into, or was he always like that?
When Connor becomes just a distant memory, a story she tells others, she remembers him differently still and through the prism of experience and old age, she does not know how to interpret her young age folly.
Was it about the way she had been taken advantage of, by someone older and more experienced and superior to her in power? Or was it about how she had saved herself from an ogre in the nick of time? But Connor was not an ogre. She had loved him, uselessly. This was the painful thing: that she had been so wrong about him. That she was capable, once, of such abject self-deception. Or still is, because in some way she still misses him; him, or her own mistaken adoration. The story has now become a story about her own stupidity, or call it innocence, which shines at this distance with a soft and mellowing light. Connor, however, loses in substance every time she forms him in words. He becomes flatter and more leathery, more life goes out of him, he becomes more dead. By this time he is almost an anecdote, and Julie is almost old.
The act of retelling a story is in fact enough to alter memory as you are no longer recalling a memory but telling a story based on how an edited story you told yourself looked like. And he becomes less and less important with each retelling and the only thing that remains is how he made her feel and how he made her believe in something otherworldly for a while.
Death by Landscape
In “Death by Landscape”, Lois remembers her best friend Lucy who disappeared during camp days and suspects a suicide. Her friend Lucy was never found but Lois remembers her by purchasing landscapes similar to the place where Lucy disappeared.
How could you ever find anything there, once it was lost?
She looks at the paintings, she looks into them. Every one of them is a picture of Lucy. You can’t see her exactly, but she’s there, in behind the pink stone island or the one behind that. In the picture of the cliff she is hidden by the clutch of fallen rocks towards the bottom, in the one of the river shore she is crouching beneath the overturned canoe. In the yellow autumn woods she’s behind the tree that cannot be seen because of the other trees, over beside the blue sliver of pond; Lois’s apartment, in the holes that open inwards on the wall, not like windows but like doors. She is here. She is entirely alive.
I loved this story, about a girl raised by a careless mother and her brothers, the girls’ uncles. The men chip in and buy their sister and their niece a lovely house, bring food for Sunday dinners, help out with the lawn and help raise the little fatherless girl. The girl’s mother is not interested -she does not clean after herself and has little interest in raising the girl. The only time she steps in to do some mothering is when Jane reaches adolescence and has to be told about being with boys and the consequences they have..
She had been a mistake, she had been a war baby. She had been a crime that had needed to be paid for, over and over. By the time she was sixteen, Jane had heard enough about this to last her several lifetimes. In her mother’s account of the way things were, you were young briefly and then you fell. You plummeted downwards like an overripe apple and hit the ground with a squash; you fell, and everything about you fell too. You got fallen arches and a fallen womb, and your hair and teeth fell out. That’s what having a baby did to you. It subjected you to the force of gravity.
That’s why Jane never married. Jane loved one boy and that boy died and with him died her last hope of being with someone. She now lives in solitude, waiting to die.
Everything in here looks ownerless. Her toaster oven, so perfect for solo dining, her microwave for the vegetables, her espresso maker – they’re sitting around waiting for her departure, for this evening or forever, in order to assume their final, real appearances of purposeless objects adrift in the physical world. They might as well be pieces of an exploded spaceship orbiting the moon.
Not depressing at all 🙂
‘Uncles’ was one of my favourites, I loved those three solid, dependable, adoring uncles who cocooned Susanna’s childhood and lavished her with care and love. And then the contrast with old ‘Veg’ who pulled out the rug from under her feet, and caused such a shift in Susanna’s thinking. It was just a great story.
“Weight” is the story of how a relationship with a married man starts off. She knows what they’re going to say and how guilty they’ll feel while doing it, but not doing anything to stop it. She’s single and she doesn’t know why. She thinks because she might have been waiting for her big romance, her true love. She has a story already set apart for the unavoidable question.
“How is it that you never got married – an attractive woman like you?” I shrug my shoulder pads. What should I tell him? The dead fiancé story, lifted from the great-aunt of a friend? No. Too World War I. Should I say, “I was too choosy”? That might scare him: if I’m hard to please, how will he manage to please me?
“I was married once,” I say, sadly, regretfully. I hope to convey that I did the right thing but it didn’t work out. Some jerk let me down, in a way too horrible to go into. Charles is free to think he could have done better. There’s something final about saying you were married once. It’s like saying you were dead once. It shuts them up.
The story then turns towards Molly, a friend of hers who got married to a guy who was really jealous and ended up killing her after assuming she was having an affair with a co-worker (a gay co-worker).
“We aren’t talking rational here. Then he started saying I was going to leave him.” “And were you?”
“I wasn’t. But now, I don’t know. Now I think I am. He’s driving me to it.” “He’s paranoid,” I said.
“Paranoid,” said Molly. “A wide-angle camera for taking snapshots of maniacs.” She put her head down on her arms and laughed and laughed.
“Come over tonight,” I said.
“Don’t even think about it. Just do it.”
“I don’t want to rush it,” said Molly. “Maybe things will work out. Maybe I can talk him into getting some help. He’s been under a lot of strain. I have to think about the kids. He’s a good father.”
Victim , they said in the papers. Molly was no victim. She wasn’t helpless, she wasn’t hopeless. She was full of hope. It was hope that killed her.
The next story in the book is called like the main title, “Wilderness Tips”
“Wilderness Tips” puzzled him. “Wilderness” he knew, but “tips”? He was not immediately sure whether this word was a verb or a noun. There were asparagus tips, as he knew from menus, and when he was getting into the canoe that afternoon in his slippery leather-soled city shoes Prue had said, “Be careful, it tips.” Perhaps it was another sort of tip, as in the “Handy Tips for Happy Home-makers” columns in the women’s magazines he had taken to reading in order to improve his English – the vocabularies were fairly simple and there were pictures, which was a big help.
I didn’t particularly like this one – it was about a guy who manages to get rich by smooth talking rich people into donating for his cause – Communism Oppression in Europe, and then ends up marrying the sister of the woman he’d been dating only to screw around with every other woman he meets. The story is told from the wife’s point of view and how she feels invisible to him, married off to young to know better.