Margaret Atwood is a virtuoso of the key change, and her range of key is nowhere better demonstrated than in her short stories. At one level, the changes arc effected through shifts of vocabulary: in each story the language of the protagonist – an adolescent, a political activist, a housewife suppressing anxiety through facetiousness – evokes an entire world. But the profounder key changes are heard within each story. Atwood is coldly hilarious in her observation of ritual, but beyond the detail of her characters’ ways of coping she has a deep sense of what cannot be coped with, the mysteries that can’t be encompassed in the gathering of detail alone. We see two characters driving in a car; one of them (the narrator’s mother) overcome by shame because the cat she is holding has pissed all over her lap. Her discomfort is comic, but its true absurdity eludes her. Suddenly she and her companion are seen from on high, driving not on a simple country road but ‘in a straight line that takes them over the Atlantic and past the curvature of the earth, out through the moon’s orbit and into the dark reaches beyond’.
What is oddest, of course, is that many people manage to ignore such mysteries; some of them even manage to be cheerful. But even the bustling cheerful ones, those for whom decision is natural and events seem to run in sequence and consequence, are likely to be struck at moments by a ‘dread that seeps into things’. Some – more self-conscious – go in search of formulae: a psycho-analyst finds ‘reality so unsatisfactory – so unfinished, so sloppy, so pointless, so endless’. For others, dread emerges in a sudden sense of entrapment, an inability to speak out from within the body’s shell or to penetrate the surface of other people.
One woman carries in her ‘inner world ‘an image of her husband, Ed, held there ‘like a doll within a Russian wooden doll’, but ‘in Ed is Ed’s inner world, which she can’t get at’. In another marriage, dragged downwards by some inexplicable undertow of catastrophe, a wife struggles to make her husband ‘see what she really looks like’ (‘How was I supposed to know what you want?’ says her husband, failing to order breakfast). A girl’s arm gets caught in the door of a street car; unbeknownst to the driver, she is dragged down the street. ‘The most frightening thing must have been not the pain but the sense that no one could see or hear her’. In another story, a woman has ceased to relate to men except as the subject of her portraits: she draws their surfaces, but is tired of ‘situations’, of the ‘broken dishes, accusations, tears’ which she has ‘tried and found lacking’. She has reduced her relationship to the world to witnessing the sunrise: only the chilly, thin sunlight ‘reaches’ her. Elsewhere, a man finds that women in general are visibly shrinking: they have become paler, more silent. And as they recede so too does his world. The frogs in his garden that once joyfully signalled spring are found to have lost their music. ‘The voices coming from the darkness below the curve of the hill sound thin and ill.’
The characters in many of these stories are trapped in the obsessive present tense of their own thoughts; in the midst of bustle they are becalmed, waiting vainly for ‘action’. The world passes by them in a series of coloured slides; they fail to perceive where the real ‘action’ is taking place. Action is in the pulse of the earth that is ‘trembling imperceptibly beneath the feet of the old men in cardigans and tweed caps raking their lawns’. For some, this is a source of faith, and those who constantly renew their contact with earth and moisture may still be granted grace. The last story in this collection, ‘Unearthing Suite’, is a marvellous parable on this theme. An elderly couple – the narrator’s parents – have an inexhaustible enthusiasm for communion with the world, freezing water, forest, insects, earth. Their energy is rewarded. One day they marvel at the discovery that a rare bird has left a giant dropping on their roof. ‘For my mother … this deposit of animal shit is a miraculous token, a sign of divine grace.’
This mixture of the absurd and divine is characteristic of Atwood’s stories. A ripple of mirth always undercuts her solemnity. Yet there is real pathos in what emerges as the central theme of this collection. The voice of the narrator in ‘Unearthing Suite’, who chooses to ‘translate the world into words’ rather than ‘come to grips with it’, is echoed in the first story, ‘Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother’. In this story, Atwood pays tribute to her mother’s world – now irrecoverable except in the detail of its ornament- in which activity still made sense, dread had not yet seeped in. It is a world from which the narrator is irreparably estranged, but her mother, turned away in her tasks, vacuuming round her daughter’s immobile feet, registers only in some un analysed distress that her daughter has failed to be as ‘busy and productive’ as she. The source of the narrator’s listlessness, her ‘entropy’, is not here a failure to perceive what is happening in the world: on the contrary, she perceives it too well. Looking at a photograph of her mother as a young girl, linked jestingly arm in arm with her friends, the narrator is struck by cold horror:
‘Behind them, beyond the sea or the hills or whatever is in the background, is a world already hurtling towards ruin, unknown to them: the theory of relativity has been discovered, acid is accumulating at the roots of trees, the bull-frogs are doomed. But they smile with something that from this distance you could almost call gallantry, their right legs thrust forward in parody of a chorus line’.