The Tent by Margaret Atwood
In college, just a little bit before the registrar started reminding me that I couldn’t just take English literature and economics classes at a liberal arts college, I took an introduction to creative writing course. The essay and the short story units went swimmingly, but I was stumped when it came to poetry. I have difficulty differentiating the impulse to write poetry from the impulse to write prose, so I decided to write a poem expressing a highly symbolic image that had been floating around my head for a decade or so to see if that was the poetic impulse. A blue, masked beast tells a tall girl that he will eat her one day; she replies that he eats everyone eventually. The beast represents time, perhaps eternity, and the girl represents humanity in general. It’s about accepting mortality on a personal and a cosmic scale.
I thought the poem was pretty clear without having to spell it out, as I just did, so I was startled when someone in the class bluntly stated, “Well, it’s about sex,” and several people agreed. There’s always room for interpretation—after all, that’s where I run riot every day of my life—but the fact that I had to explain the poem told me that I had failed in my mission. I tried again with another poem focusing on the things I constantly repeat to myself (don’t touch your face, stand up straight, other people are people too, so on and so forth) to keep myself grounded and aware. The general consensus was that it was the voice of an overly critical mother. That’s hardly what anyone wants to hear about their personal mantras.
The point is, fiction and poetry offer a way of communication that is truer and sharper than nonfiction, but it is intensely difficult to master. My friend Elle (who now does science with robots) once asked me how I can identify good writing. I gave her an answer along the lines of “I know it when I see it”, but, after reading and digesting The Tent, I think I can give her a better answer. Good writing is writing that communicates the most in the right amount of words. This does not mean the least—I have a two page excerpt from Evening’s Empire about the history of modern music in my commonplace book because the entire thing is essential. I’ve talked before about an eye for detail, which falls under that: knowing that the right, singular detail can tell more about a character than, say, a physical description. (Did you know we have no idea what Legolas’ hair color is? And yet I can weep over his friendship with Gimli.)
A prime example of this definition of good writing would be the work of Margaret Atwood, and The Tent finds the impish Canadian writer working in miniature. It feels like a collection of small clippings from Atwood’s expansive imagination, pieces that didn’t grow into novels or short stories. One piece, “Three Novels I Won’t Write Soon,” directly invokes that with its title. There’s a few pieces of poetry included, like “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation” and “The Animals Reject Their Names”, but it feels like a formatting difference rather than an entirely different approach. It’s sharp, a little wicked, and very true. Even the unassuming “Clothing Dreams”, where the narrator relates a recurring nightmare where she sorts through a clothing store, ends on “Whose life am I living? Whose life am I failing to live?” (8). The whole collection has that feeling, of a dream that scrapes your subconscious so closely it’s almost painful, like someone probing your gums too far.
Dream is exactly the word I want to use: these pieces are more impressions than impressive. Three, however, stand out as more fully-formed than their siblings. “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation” is about adult children yearning to be able to take someone for granted and drain their resources as they did to their mother. “Plots for Exotics” has a man of color go down to the plot factory and ask to be a main character; the man at the plot factory balks, so the gentleman asks to work at the plot factory, so he can provide more roles for “exotics.” It’s a great expression of the barriers to representation in the media. “Our Cat Enters Heaven” is, perhaps, a little less sharp than the former two stories, but there’s something so striking about the image of God being a cat that it’s sticking with me.
Bottom line: The Tent is a small collection of small pieces, whose size belie the impact of Atwood’s pointedly sharp pen. A prime example of good writing.
I rented this book from the public library.