Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces 2004-21, by Margaret Atwood, Chatto & Windus, 496 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1784744519
You could take the title of Margaret Atwood’s 2006 collection of related stories, Moral Disorder, and apply it to the present state of the world, with the opening story in that book, “The Bad News”, standing for all the overwhelming intimations of disaster coming at us from every side. Wars, terrorist attacks, authoritarian regimes, global warming, endangered species, pandemics, the rise of the religious right, Donald Trump … the list is extensive. Burning questions indeed, and all confronted head-on, with wit and perspicacity, in the current selection of Essays and Occasional Pieces, by an author whose most sobering insights come with an edge of brio.
Can we save the planet, she wonders; and decides we can, but only if right action is taken now. Can Feminism triumph? Yes, but only if it steers a rational course and doesn’t insist on women being right even when they’re wrong. (“Am I a Bad Feminist?” Atwood asks at one point: but of course she isn’t; her views on women’s position in society are firmly grounded and thoughtfully applied.) Can democracy survive? Yes, but only if the middle ground pulls up its socks and rallies to its support.
Many of the pieces included in Burning Questions originally saw the light of day as addresses presented to this or that academic, environmental or literary institution, and duly begin “I am truly honoured to have been invited …”; “Very pleased to be delivering this tribute to …”. With the conventional openings out of the way, however, and the audience lulled into a state of muted expectation, the speaker is free to stir things up with her striking digressions – “Browne’s prescription to cure baldness involved rubbing roasted moles and honey onto your head” – and jocular admonitions: “Don’t go jogging in cougar country. They might mistake you for prey.” Sometimes the playful approach carries Atwood too far along the line of whimsy, as in the essay “Earthlings”, in which a visitor from a distant planet – in the guise of “a short, elderly, frazzle-headed female human person” – ponders the question of human rights, and indeed the mystery of humanity itself: “What are these humans?” Well, among many other defects, they are not benignly configured, that’s for sure. They have “an alarming tendency to butcher others of their kind”. Gender inequality comes conspicuously into their social disarrangements too.
The “Earthlings” ploy can be seen as a reflection of Atwood’s relish for works appearing under the heading of science fiction. There are long appreciative articles here on Ray Bradbury, for example, and Ursula le Guin (“whom “we lost … when we needed her most”). Indeed, the collection opens with a talk devoted to the theme of “Scientific Romancing”, which treats the history of the genre (Jules Verne, HG Wells etc) as well as putting in a plea for other, more or less unexalted types of fiction, such as the spy thriller, detective novel, adventure story, ghost story, or even vampire farrago. Atwood is thoroughly at ease with definitions and distinctions. Her own celebrated novel of 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, comes into the category of speculative fiction, she says, not science fiction, even though it’s set in the future (not too distant) and concerns a dire regime (not involving anything that hasn’t happened somewhere in the world, in some era of the past). “Dystopia” is the word, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four the inspiration.
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1939, and has spent the greater part of her life purveying strong opinions alongside highly-charged, humorous and unnervingly pertinent novels and short stories. She’s an astute observer of social foibles and anomalies, and a scintillating and serious literary analyst. She has – among other things – the history of Canadian literature at her fingertips; and here, in slightly sardonic mode, she affirms her affection for that quintessential icon of childhood reading, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908). Montgomery’s eponymous heroine is perhaps the most endearing embodiment of the intrepid orphan figure beloved of children’s authors, with her staunchness, quaint ways, temper tantrums, carroty hair and all. The book, unfortunately, spawned a lot of sequels of increasing banality, and Atwood, exasperated by the drift of these, can’t resist envisaging an unlikely extension of the Green Gables story. Her tongue-in-cheek version features Anne Shirley’s “sexual downfall and her subsequent brutal treatment at the hands of harsh male clients”. Well really! Sociologically closer to the trends of the time this scenario may be, but it is fearfully at odds with the apple-pie niceness of the original. Actually, however, when it comes down to it, Atwood attributes some of the first book’s success to a darker element underpinning the captivating narrative. You’d have to read closely to spot it, but it’s there, in an implicit nod to LM Montgomery’s own less than sunny childhood experiences as a semi-orphan in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island.
Staying with Canadian women writers ‑ Atwood devotes some attention to a couple whose reputations burgeoned in the mid-twentieth century, a time when the two of them, separately, garnered literary awards “like Little Red Riding Hood picking daisies”. They are Gabrielle Roy and Marie-Claire Blaise, and they seem to have gone all out to distinguish themselves in the field of misery fiction. Their common themes are poverty, adversity, and the unspeakable suffering of ill-omened women. The fifteen-child family inhabiting a Montreal slum, the cruelty, neglect, overcrowding, hunger, unwanted pregnancies, squalor and hopelessness, all presided over by a female described (by Atwood) as “a dreary pain in the neck”: that’s Roy. Then along comes Blaise, with her novels populated by cold, mean-hearted grandmothers, girls shoving their brothers’ heads into a vat of boiling water, houses burnt to the ground, mothers incinerated, suicides dangling from trees at every turn … I could go on. Atwood claims to find a lot of this “quite funny”, but I confess I fail to detect any hint of a Cold Comfort Farm type of levity from the summaries provided here. It’s true that I have not read these authors – and I intend to keep it that way.
But Alice Munro – ah, Alice Munro. Here is a Canadian writer whose fictions have the shape of reality but also an inexplicable strangeness which is very enticing. Atwood has included in Burning Questions a couple of articles applauding the richness and originality of her fellow-author’s output, her keen eye and ear and unsurpassed ability to transfigure the ingredients of small-town life in provincial Canada. At one point she has the two of them, herself and Munro, contemplating a bronze statue in honour of the latter, and conceding, “It’s really pretty good.” A cautious evaluation, not – what is alien to both of them – an over-hasty reaction.
Alice Munro is one person in Margaret Atwood’s pantheon, and another is the prescient and fearless nature writer Rachel Carson, whom Atwood designates “a pivotal figure of the twentieth century”. Carson’s “momentous book” Silent Spring alerted readers in the early 1960s to the terrible cost, in terms of environmental harm, of incontinent use of pesticides and other chemical recipes for eventual devastation of the natural world. Silent Spring was both chilling and challenging when it first appeared, and it provoked an outcry among scientists and others committed to the pursuit of destructive policies. We now know where their greed and short-sightedness have led; we can’t say a warning note was not sounded.
Margaret Atwood is an illuminating and robust commentator with an urge to galvanise or disarm her readers, which she does by an abundance of charm, energy and common sense. Her priorities are clear and unassailable. If she doesn’t have an unwavering feminist agenda, for example, she is nevertheless on the side of insubordinate women, from witches and termagants to go-getters in every field. She is more an appreciator than a critic – except where criticism is called for – and a couple of pieces collected in Burning Questions pay tribute to the work of her late husband, the novelist and ornithological enthusiast Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019. Singling out his Bedside Book of Birds for informed assessment, she describes it as “an entertainment for the mind and a stimulant for the soul”. This favourable appraisal is followed by a reminiscence of their early life together in a farmhouse dating from the mid-nineteenth century, and haunted (unfortunately she doesn’t tell us by whom, or what). As an experiment in country living, complete with ancient horse, unlucky farm animals and birds including a mad peacock, baby daughter, wonky tractor, constant stream of visitors, exploding tins of food, trouble in the basement and the chicken coop, it proved too much in terms of nerves and stamina. A return to the city was planned and carried out. (The rural interlude provided effective material for Atwood’s fiction though.)
The autobiographical strand running through the “burning questions” of Atwood’s title adds a measure of zest and fascination. It encompasses social history too, by detailing – often with wryness and dryness – the author’s experience of certain ideologically dispiriting eras of the past. The “back-to-the home” time of the 1950s, for example, with women prescribed an unsatisfactory lifestyle founded on a husband, four children, a bungalow, a washing machine, and “Total Fulfillment through having discarded your brain”. For those, like Atwood, who kept their brains in good working order and heeded Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, alternative ways of arranging their futures presented a rather more rewarding prospect.
As a young person living in Canada in the 1940s – winters in Toronto, summers up in the woods of northern Ontario and Quebec – Margaret Atwood grew familiar with a variety of childhood illnesses of greater or lesser ferocity: some of them shortly to be wiped out, or at least brought under control, by inoculation and then vaccination. The point of the essay “Growing Up in Quarantineland” is to stress that the current Covid pandemic has an ancestry, and also a good chance of going the way of smallpox or the Black Death. Connecting things up and enlisting aspects of the past to elucidate the present: this is an essential element of Margaret Atwood’s modus operandi, whether it works overtly or covertly. John Masefield’s description of a First World War battlefield, for instance, might put us in mind of the crisis in Ukraine; and – to go back even further – Byron’s line about “man [marking] the earth with ruin” reads as a pungent early allusion to environmental ravages. (Though he stops short of anticipating the total pollution and decimation of species we’re now faced with.) Margaret Atwood has these and other particular issues and enormities at the forefront of her mind. But whatever she tackles (and her range is wide) she brings to it an inimitable faculty for being both stimulating and entertaining.
Patricia Craig’s most recent book was Kilclief & Other Essays. It was published by Irish Pages and was reviewed by Eve Patten in the September 2021 issue of the Dublin Review of Books.