My first Atwood short story. Fairly long approximately 6000 words long. This length allows a fair amount of third person P.O.V. switching as the ‘hidden’ narrator which feels a lot like Ms Atwood such is the strength of her voice to ‘inhabit’ each of the different actors on the stage. The stage in this instance being a particularly creepy ‘new money’ lodge built in the Canadian wilderness which is more David Lynch than Twin Peaks and makes one wonder if Atwood influenced the young Lynch at all.
The story even ends with a ‘almost’ drowning scene that could have come straight from a Lynch movie although Atwood is sufficiently skilled to leave the ending open-ended.
In between we are first introduced to post-war emigrant, gangster and falsely named ‘George’ who only reveals his Hungarian roots with an accurate Hungarian curse mid story. It soon apparent that all the ‘actors’ Atwood assembles are in some way symbolic and deliberately set against the ‘wilderness’ for a reason.
The three sisters (muses…goddesses etc) represent the three states of womanhood….aggressive, academic and victim. Atwood’s seminal study of Canadian Literature ‘Survival’ focused on the victim theme in literature and also delineated a lot of the minor themes brushed up against in passing through this story. Atwood is no slouch in minor detail opening up wide vistas as in her description of the grandfather’s bookcase and the book which gives the story its title. (There is however no actual book called ‘Wilderness Tips’ apart from the author’s own which a neat trick to defeat all but the most diligent Googler).
The characters are not filled in too much but reflect the psychologies attached to them the least satisfying being the depiction of the office-bound ‘weak’ man of brother Roland. I never quite lost the feeling that Atwood was sermonising here and never sufficiently suspended my disbelief to get involved in the plot which boils down to bad man sleeps with all three sisters as he bound to by his nature.
Atwood isn’t above some sharp poking of the male psyche whenever able as the collection of essays ‘Curious Pursuits’ attests. Indeed the collection contains one essay actually titled ‘Writing the male character’ which makes Lionel Shriver look like a wallflower.
‘George’ is a sinister depiction of a lizard like consumer of both people and property. His inner thoughts do not quite ring true but Atwood is using a broad brush to make her point. George represents the ‘machine’ in the garden to paraphrase Leo Marx and like the serpent in this natural ‘Eden’ of the Canadian wilderness represents all that bad in the male destruction of nature.
‘Token Woman’ (her words) Atwood spits venomously in the essay about male character where she defends the depiction of ‘bad’ men rather than pandering to fake’new men’ well before the term coined. This fine if we sufficiently engaged to believe in the character but not when it a poison pen portrait or a stand in for a character as here. The most creative act he makes in the entire story is to have sex with the remaining not ticked off sister.
The female characters are interesting especially the ‘proto-feminist’ intellectual and therefore obviously least ‘sexual’ Pamela. Is not Atwood here demonstrating the kind of cliched viewpoints she so pointedly rails against? Set against her is the sexually voracious Prue and the demure,homely Portia……all obvious cyphers for states of mind. The rest of the stories in the collection famously depicted various literary figures who had helped or hindered Atwood and she settled old scores
Hints of this waspishness abound in Pamela’s sharp questioning of every word…’news or olds’, or in Prue’s ‘there is a need to be nasty’. One can almost taste the scorn on the character’s tongue coming direct from the puppet master here.
Most interestingly one could read the entire tale as one woman’s various natures treading between the hunter gatherer and the home-builder. Maybe it is really an academic feminist essay on how does the female intellect prosper in the ‘wilderness’ of male dominated modern and literary life….outside of the steel and glass towers, the wars of blood and oil. In this respect Atwood seems to suggest with her ending that the women always compromise rather than fight and that is how it ends with the line..manifesto?
She would be invisible, of course. No one would hear her. And nothing has happened, really, that hasn’t happened before.
The women survive…which was the title of the literary study.. SURVIVAL in the real wilderness of words.