The Tent by Margaret Atwood

Would it be out of line to call Margaret Atwood a cranky old broad? It might not be PC, but it is essentially correct; and what’s more, I have a feeling it’s the kind of vulgar epithet she might wryly embrace given her current state of mind. As anyone who reads The Tent can see, her state of mind is fairly black.

Which is not to say that this is merely an exercise in nihilism. No, Atwood seems to be indulging in the age-old right of tribal elders to condescend to their unthinking juniors. Which is not to imply that what she’s saying is in any way redundant or unnecessary, merely that it won’t — it can’t — be properly appreciated. Atwood is after something much bigger than merely telling off the endless parade of whippersnappers swarming around her feet. The type of wisdom on display here is the type that seems at once self-evident and elusive. She’s trying to point out that the very existence of wisdom is a prerogative of age and experience, fundamentally separate from knowledge and intelligence. You don’t really gain an appreciation for anything until you’ve got fewer days ahead of you than behind you: this is the kind of truism that borders on cliché — or at least it’s a cliché when the young and virile book reviewer says it. The idea carries a different and far more substantial weight when it flows from Atwood’s pen.

The Tent is less a collection of essays than a loose conglomeration of prose poems (and a handful of actual poems) dedicated to the same subjects of mortality and historical inevitability. Sometimes it comes out in a burst of absurdist meter, sometimes a mythical allusion, sometimes an arch literary reference. This being Atwood, every allusion — be it a white-trash Helen of Troy in “It’s Not Easy Being Half-Divine” or Salome as a stripper in “Salome Was a Dancer” — carries with it the full weight of history as an active force, not just a clever implication. Just as in The Handmaid’s Tale or The Blind Assassin (to name just two of hers that work upon similar thematic framework), the idea of history as a seamless continuity — with the requisite acknowledgment that tragedy recurs throughout ignorance and is, therefore, repetitive, gratuitous and banal — weighs heavily on the reader. To be a writer, to reflect history (as Atwood has done consistently) as more than merely a blank mirror, but as a lucid interpreter, a fictional commentator, is to be stuck playing the role of an eternal Cassandra.

And really, what does it buy in the end? In “Voice” Atwood speaks of her voice — the essence of her writerly presence — not as a part of her but as a burden, an externally grafted attribute that obscures her individuality:

I was given a voice. That’s what people said about me. I cultivated my voice, because it would be a shame to waste such a gift . . . The voice bloomed. People said I had grown into my voice. Soon I was sought after, or rather my voice was. We went everywhere together. What people saw was me, what I saw was my voice, ballooning out in front of me like the translucent greenish membrane of a frog in full trill.

Even without the requisite Faust metaphor in the earlier piece “Bottle”, it’s hard not to see that Atwood feels as if she has lost something vital in having dedicated her life to art; the image of her voice as “an invisible vampire”, attached to her throat and drawing in her life’s blood, cannot be avoided. It is probably the most vivid metaphor in the volume.

It comes as no surprise to me that every advance review I’ve seen for the book has focused on these passages, the most overt references to her writerly career and her personal opinions thereon. But it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. Atwood has always taken great care in her work to differentiate between the act of telling stories — the voice we use to tell them — and the stories themselves. How many of her books end with the stories being forgotten, lost, discarded at the whims of capricious fate or an unreliable interpreter? The voice that tells a story is duplicitous and unreliable, always obscuring and obfuscating extremely simple concepts and ideas. As Atwood looks back over her career, what she sees is less the authority of her own voice than the quiet dignity of stories. The stories — any stories — would be great, she seems to say, if it weren’t for these damned humans always getting in the way of things and mucking about.

And ultimately, that’s why Atwood despairs, and also why she is compelled to continue forward despite every negative portent. Humans keep mucking about, keep ruining the planet and killing each other and getting into misunderstandings of all shapes and sizes. But she’s not going to be here forever, she doesn’t have to save our feelings, and the only responsibility she has is to go forward:

Why do you think this writing of yours, this graphomania in a flimsy cave, this scribbling back and forth and up and down over the walls of what is beginning to seem like a prison, is capable of protecting anyone at all? Yourself included. It’s an illusion, the belief that your doodling is a kind of armor, a kind of charm, because no one knows better than you do how fragile your tent really is. Already there’s a clomping of leather-covered feet, there’s a scratching, there’s a scrabbling, there’s a sound of rasping breath. Wind comes in, your candle tips over and flares up and a loose tent-flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edged gap you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining in the light from your burning paper shelter, but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?

Exercising her skill with extreme precision, utilizing clipped, brutally clear and concise language, Atwood marks the map that circumscribes the nightmares of modernity, of helplessness and futility, of mortality and the inevitable. If it weren’t for the dry, mordant humor with which she leavens the volume throughout, it would be almost unbearable.