Archive for the ‘Margaret Atwood’ Category

Dancing Girls by Margaret Atwood ~1977. This edition: Bantam Seal, 1978. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7704-1531-1. 245 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10. A few too many misses for a really high rating.

*****

A collection of short stories written early in the career of Canadian icon Atwood.

I have an ambiguous relationship with Margaret Atwood, or, rather, her work. I greatly admire the real person; Atwood has become an outspoken and lucid critic of much of what is troublesome about Canadian societal, political and environmental issues. I have heard many of her interviews and lectures via our venerable CBC Radio, lifeline of many Canadian rural dwellers far from the bright lights of the cities which have absorbed the majority of the population in this vast and still-wilderness-filled land. Just thinking about her, Atwood’s distinctive voice fills my head; nasal, cynical, with a deadpan delivery that would make her a knock-out stand-up comic if she were ever to desire to switch careers at this late date.

But… I am not completely comfortable with much of her written work. I’ve read all the novels dutifully as they’ve appeared through the years, as a typical middle-aged, literate, Canadian liberal feminist (as good a description of my demographic as any) should. I can nod and smile knowingly during literary discussions with the local intelligentsia, though I add little to the conversation myself; I am very aware of my value as an audience to my much more vocal acquaintances and have no real desire to step into the conversational limelight myself much of the time; it’s simpler to stand by and listen…but I digress.

Atwood. How to describe my feelings? Well… ambiguous… I guess. There is no doubt that the woman can write. Her words flow, dance, surprise, shock – grand stuff indeed! But too often I put down the latest Atwood feeling a vague dissatisfaction. Are things really that bad? Are all of our relationships – friendly, familial, societal and particularly sexual and marital – as deeply flawed as Atwood continually portrays? A course of Margaret Atwood often drives me to the other extreme; to the literary arms of, say, Elizabeth Goudge, with her encouragements of perseverance and sacrifice rewarded, versus Atwood’s cynical view that it doesn’t really matter how hard you try, you’re pretty well screwed from the get-go. (I rather agree, but all in all, it’s not that bad; most of us muddle along with a fair amount of happiness despite the inevitable rough bits. Don’t we?)

But this woman can write.

Here is what you’ll find in Dancing Girls.

***  =  the ones I greatly enjoyed.

*  =  Worth reading.

The rest I rather wish I hadn’t subjected myself to, though opinions obviously will differ.

  • The War in the Bathroom – A week in the life of a woman who has apparently descended into some form of mental illness; she has split into two personalities; the intellectual (controlling) and the physical (responding). Typically depressing; not one of the gems of this collection.
  • ***The Man From Mars – An unattractive student is targeted by a stalker, “a person from another culture”.  I liked this one. Melancholy (of course!) but very well presented; cynically amusing; I can hear Atwood’s best voice loud and clear.
  • Polarities – A woman goes slowly mad. Dreary as the winter setting and the doomed relationships it describes.
  • Under Glass – Another doomed love affair. Sad, sad, sad.
  • The Grave of the Famous Poet – A journey becomes a metaphor for another imploding relationship.
  • ***Rape Fantasies – This one story is probably worth buying the book for. Four young women discuss rape fantasies. Atwood at her wickedly humorous best.
  • ***Hair Jewellery – Beautifully written. Another relationship unravelling, but the protagonist moves successfully on. Or at least so we think.
  • ***When It Happens – An elderly woman prepares for the end of the world. Haunting.
  • A Travel Piece – A travel writer on a trip that goes terribly wrong. Taps into all of my worst-case flight scenario fears. Wish I hadn’t read this one – personal nightmare stuff!
  • The Resplendent Quetzal – Too many details about an unhappy marriage and the petty meannesses that bitter people resort to.
  • *Training – A young man examines his motivations and innermost feelings as he deals with his family’s and his own expectations for his future.
  • *Lives of the Poets – This one feels autobiographical. Another relationship tragedy, enhanced by the futility of struggling artistic careers.
  • *Dancing Girls – Culture clashes in a rooming house.
  • ***Giving Birth – The ambiguities of expectant and new motherhood. Excellent.

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