Good Bones
 by Margaret Atwood

1992,  hardback
(out of print)

reprinted by
2010, paperback

"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

Good Bones 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."
Good Bones 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 one clean.

Read a story from this collection in  Writer's Almanac

Pauline Masurel writes short (and even shorter) stories that she produces by recycling secondhand words. If you care about reducing linguistic landfill then you could do the same.  Why build anew when there are so many existing phrases that we could disassemble and use as resources to construct fresh fiction?

Pauline's other Short Reviews: Erin Pringle "The Floating Order"

Jim Crace "The Devil's Larder"

Mark Budman, Tom Hazuka (eds) "You Have Time for This"

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

Carson McCullers "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"

Jeffrey Eugenides (ed) "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead"

Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith, Sarah Wood (eds) "Let's Call
the Whole Thing Off"

Ben Tanzer "Repetition Patterns"

Paul Meloy "Islington Crocodiles"

Dan Rhodes "Anthropology"

Frank Burton "A History of Sarcasm"

Various "Ten Journeys
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Margaret Atwood is a highly-acclaimed Canadian novelist, poet and short story writer whose work has received many awards including the Booker Prize.