by Margaret Atwood
(out of print)
"Catch it. Put it
in a pumpkin, in a high tower, in a compound, in a chamber, in a house,
in a room. Quick, stick a leash on it, a lock, a chain, some
pain, settle it down, so it can never get away from you again."
Reviewed by Pauline Masurel
is a collection of Atwood’s very short prose. It's packed with a
variety of tiny fictions that are funny and wordy by degrees,
containing everything from almost-essays to full-on rewritten fairy
tales. The book affected me deeply on first reading because its
existence gave me confidence that the short-short form could have
wings. It represented an aesthetic validation that a writer so
well-respected for her novels and poetry not only worked in the form,
but also allowed the pieces to be collected in this book.
Obviously, one could be cynical and say that anything Margaret Atwood
wrote, even a volume of her shopping lists, would get
published. But when I read this book it was the first time
that I’d encountered anything remotely like it and the discovery felt
good. There were strange metaphorical creatures, punchy in-your-face
narrators, characters from Shakespeare, a smattering of science-fiction
aliens and surreal hobbies such as log-hunting.
In Unpopular Gals
an "ugly sister" got her turn to speak in the first person rather than
being side-lined in the third person as an anonymous plot device.
"You can wipe your feet on me, twist my motives around all you like,
you can dump millstones on my head and drown me in the river, but you
can't get me out of the story. I'm the plot, babe, and don't
ever forget it."
Or, in another story, "This month we'll take a break from crochet
string bikinis and Leftovers Réchaufées to give our readers some tips
on how to create, in their very own kitchens and rumpus rooms, an item
that is both practical and decorative... When worn out, they can be
re-covered and used as doorstops." The story is entitled Making a Man. Ouch!
The tone of these pieces ranges from this sort of bitter sarcasm, to
the dotty glee of, "An affair with Raymond Chandler, what a
joy! Not because of the mangled bodies and the marinated cops
and hints of eccentric sex, but because of his interest in furniture."
And on into a poignant lyricism that pleads for peace and the
protection of the earth.
"What we want of course is the same old story. The trees
pushing out their leaves, fluttering them, shucking them off, the water
thrashing around in the oceans, the tweedling of the birds, the
unfurling of the slugs, the worms vacuuming dirt. The zinnias and their
pungent slow explosions. We want it all to go on and go on
again, the same thing each year, monotonous and amazing, just as if we
were still behaving ourselves, living in tents, raising sheep, slitting
their throats for God's benefit, refusing to invent
plastics. For unbelief and bathrooms you pay a price."
was first published in 1992. That was before Jim Crace’s wonderful
confection, The Devil’s
Larder, dished up sixty-four brief fictions as a
"cumulative novel". It was long before Dave Eggers put
short-short stories in The Guardian Saturday magazine and made them
trendy. It was also before terms such as "flash fiction" or
"micro-fiction" emerged to describe the tiny-but-perfectly-formed
story. Of course, it wasn’t the first distinctive book ever to
be built from small packages. Witness Raymond Queaneau’s experimental Exercises in Style
or Italo Calvino’s Invisible
Cities. But even with better-read hindsight, the
knowledge of its predecessors doesn’t change my joy at finding a
collection which does individual, quirky things on a frugal word-count
and has such close attention to language and voice. Good
Bones gave me permission to at least attempt to do the same
with my own fiction.
This year Virago have produced a new edition of Good Bones. Try
it for yourself. Get your teeth into these tiny stories and pick each