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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Tent by Margaret Atwood

I hated this book. Almost every minute of reading the bloodless short shorts and poems within it I spent waiting to get to something strong and vivid and Atwoody. Instead the stories are vague and unmemorable and are almost entirely in one of my least favorite voices: the mythmaker.

The mythmaker voice is almost always a distant first person and uses the word “we” a lot. The rhythm is slow and sing-song, all the better to lull one to sleep:
“The young look up at you, wide-eyed. Or maybe they look down at you: they’ve become very tall. How young are the young these days? It varies. Some of them are quite old. But they are still credulous, because you were there, once upon a time, and they weren’t.” (“Winter’s Tales”)

“The Heritage house is where we keep the Heritage. It wasn’t built for that—it was once a place where people really lived—but the way things need to be done was cumbersome, what with the water coming out of the well, and the light coming out of oil lamps and tallow candles, and the heat coming out of a stone fireplace, and then there were chamber pots to be emptied and the tin bathtubs to be filled.”” (“Heritage House”)

“But who are we now, apart from the question Who are we now? We all share that question. Who are we, now, inside the we corral, the we palisade, the we fortress, and who are they? Is that them, landing in their illicit boats, at night?...It’s a constant worry, this we, this them.” (“Post-Colonial”)

This voice is usually employed when there is no real story, and the author wants to add weight to a story that’s clich├ęd, characterless, or just plain boring, or wants to write an essay, but doesn't have enough facts. I realize that this entire short work could be taken as an exercise, but that doesn’t mean that I want to read it. Even I in a mood more indulgent toward such wifty tales, the themes matter and none of Atwood’s take on themes in The Tent—including aging, aging as a woman, the problems of modernity--did much for me.

The only good of this collection is its high object value. The cover and design are beautiful and it’s a great size for toting around. Why you’d want to I’m not sure.

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