While some writers limit themselves to a particular mode of expression, others find that their voice is stifled through a single outlet. Canada’s prize-winning Margaret Atwood falls head over heels into the latter category. Since her 1966 debut as a poet, Atwood has extended her dominion to include nearly every form of literature imaginable. In addition to poetry, she has left her mark on both short and long fiction, criticism and the essay.
Now, with the publication of The Tent, Atwood begins to weave all of these different modes of expression into one. Under the guise of “fictional essays,” her latest work includes a mix of poems, short stories, prose-poems and illustrations. Ranging from a single paragraph to several pages in length, the 35 vignettes, including The Tent, address a myriad of modern issues with Atwood’s trademark mix of humor, horror and hope.
“You’re in a tent,” begins The Tent’s title sketch. “It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness.” In trademark style, Atwood chronicles the numerous pitfalls facing modern men and women. Her humorous, often allegorical tales address issues facing the environment, science, religion, feminism, politics and a veritable cornucopia of concerns.
In the satirical tradition of Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, Atwood’s writing makes us laugh while giving us chills. Her stories “Chicken Little Goes Too Far” and “Three Novels I Won’t Write Soon” address some of the most important social and environmental issues of our time with tongue planted firmly in cheek. While reading these pieces, you can’t help but laugh; afterwards, you can’t help but shiver.
What separates The Tent from other works of satire is Atwood’s ability to manipulate traditional stories and the fairy-tale form to suit her own, very modern, purposes. Salome, Chicken Little, Horatio and other legendary figures populate sketches addressing the pressing issues of the 21st century. “Chicken Little read too many newspapers,” Atwood writes in Chicken Little Goes Too Far. “He listened to the radio too much, and watched too much television. One day something snapped.” Utilizing the timelessness of these stories, Atwood’s allegories have the sort of power lacking in many contemporary works.
“Something has happened,” writes Atwood. “But how? Was it overnight, or has it been creeping up on us and we’ve only just noticed?” In striving to answer this question, Margaret Atwood’s The Tent paints a frightening picture of humanity “lost in the middle of an impenetrable forest.” The future of 21st century mankind is dark and uncertain, but if Atwood were to write its ending, “It would sound a note of plangent hope. I always like to end on those.”
Peter Chomko can be reached at email@example.com.