Loss, complex emotion pervade the pages of Margaret Atwood's short stories

January 05, 1992|By Joan Mooney

WILDERNESS TIPS.

Margaret Atwood.

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

227 pages. $20. The new collection of short stories by the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is a book for her fans and newcomers alike. The narratives are filled with complex emotion, often overlaid by a sense of loss.

Ms. Atwood has a natural talent for presenting believable and sympathetic characters in a few pages. Her protagonists vary widely from story to story, but many are rebels past the first flush of rebellion. Most escaped an Anglo-Canadian background, often an era before feminism and the birth control pill that now seems like another world. They do not regret this stodgy past, but the new freedom has brought its own problems.

This is true of "Weight," one of the most affecting stories. The narrator, a middle-aged woman named Jane, has learned to be the manipulator, a role previously played by men. She is having lunch at an expensive restaurant with a rich man; she hopes to persuade him to contribute to a battered women's home. It is called Molly's Place, after a close friend of Jane's, a lawyer who was murdered by her husband. The shadow is present throughout the story.

The lunch is not just an elaborate way of asking for money; it also is a prelude to an affair, or at least a proposition. Jane is experienced in affairs with married men; they are unthreatening. But a note of desperation underlies her cynicism: "Once a month I wake in the night, slippery with terror. I'm afraid, not because there's someone in the room, in the dark, in the bed, but because there isn't." The story ends poignantly, revealing Jane's mixture of vulnerability and defiance.

The characters in "Hack Wednesday" are more immediately appealing. Marcia and Eric are an older Canadian couple: he, a retired history professor outraged about the state of the world; she, a "human interest" columnist for the local business weekly. Eric, furious about the United States' imperialistic policies, refuses to buy food from south of the border and periodically pickets the American consulate.

The new editor of Marcia's newspaper, Ian, is unhappy with the grim turn her column has taken lately, covering issues such as malnutrition in kindergartens, wife-beating and child abuse. "Businessmen don't want to read about this stuff, about people who can't work the system. Or so Ian says."

But the story is more complex than this opposition of worlds in Marcia's life. She finds herself defending Eric against a friend at the paper who is patronizing him; she decides the only reason she has not had affairs is that she is lazy. At the end, the narrative projects into the next day: Marcia's children from an earlier marriage will come home from college for Christmas, and she will feel a sense of loss and unpreparedness for her current stage of life.

In "Hairball," the protagonist, Kat, becomes more likable as the story progresses. She keeps her surgically removed ovarian cyst in a jar of formaldehyde on her mantelpiece and names it Hairball. Her married lover and boss, Ger, thinks this is disgusting, but somehow the action suits her personality. Kat had been the designer of an avant-garde fashion magazine in London, and Ger lured her back to Toronto, her hometown, to work for her new magazine. Like many of the stories in this collection, "Hairball" is about compromise and self-knowledge, learning that life is not as straightforward as presumed by the young and idealistic.

Most of the stories are, in one way or another, about the relationship between men and women. Some of these relationships are almost archetypal, as with the young student having an affair with her older, married professor in "The Bog Man." But Ms. Atwood always gives the story a twist. In this case, the young student has grown up, married and divorced, and periodically tells this story of her innocent youth to friends. "The story is now like an artifact from a vanished civilization, the customs of which have become obscure."

All of the stories in "Wilderness Tips" contain an awareness of the immense changes in North American society in the past generation. In each, we see them through the prism of a different character and set of circumstances. Margaret Atwood does a masterful job of drawing us into her many worlds.

Ms. Mooney is a writer living in Washington.

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