The accelerating pressure of time is a palpable force in the psyches of Atwood's characters in this collection. The majority of the pieces involve figures who are looking back over their lives, usually elegiacally but sometimes with downright bitterness or uncomprehending confusion. Repeatedly, the past proves its power to live on in the present in mysterious, sometimes deforming, ways. Richard, the middle-aged professor of "Isis in Darkness," has just decided to commit himself to a retrospective study of the work of a poet named Selena, a friend who had long epitomized for him the artist's quest for aesthetic and intellectual authenticity. Her slow descent into alcoholic disillusionment and literary marginality speaks to him of a martyrdom he avoided by choosing instead the safer, if soul-deadening, path of the tenured university hack. Marcia, the central consciousness of "Hack Wednesday," also broods over where her career finds her, although she is compromised not so much by earlier choices as by the changes in journalism that subordinate ethics and social responsibility to tacit corporate censorship. She poses a threat to the paper's new management and will be punished, she realizes, "For being as old as she is, for knowing too much."
Many characters do not quite gain Marcia's overarching vantage point in looking backward, for their sights are really still fixed on the present, with the past remaining a confused jumble—they have yet to forge the narratives that will permit them a point of coherence or at least rest. Susanna of "Uncles" is faced with the challenge of making sense of a recently published kiss and tell book by a former colleague who resents her status as a television celebrity even though he has facilitated it. Now nearing forty, she suddenly questions her favored status among men dedicated to her welfare— the legacy of the doting uncles who oversaw her fatherless childhood: "Maybe I've remembered my whole life wrong.. . Maybe I've been wrong about everyone."
Others understand the illusoriness of any quest to unlock past mysteries. In "Death by Landscape," Lois, a widow, realizes that there will never be a resolution to the eerie disappearance of a classmate decades earlier during a summer camp excursion. Unlike the camp director who imposed a narrative order on the event at the expense of truth and Lois's reputation, Lois herself looks toward pictorial art—the landscape paintings she collects—to mirror the ambiguous "tangle" that is life, with its "great deal of foreground that goes back and back, endlessly, involving you in its twists and turns . . . [T]his is where Lucy is . . . . She is entirely alive."
While Lois knows that there is no empirical solution to the most vexing human puzzles, some of Atwood's characters do not even know the right questions. In "True Trash," Donnie, a young man in his mid-twenties, is denied the news that as a fourteen year old summer camper he had fathered a child by the...
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