Wilderness Tips (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Wilderness Tips, Margaret Atwood’s second volume of short stories, resembles Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories (1987) in its contemporary urban settings, its emphasis on the sexual power politics of human relationships, and its linkages between seemingly disparate events. The ten stories contain familiar Atwood concerns (consumerism, creeping Americanism), themes (survival, sexual exploitation, loss, and discovery), and motifs (landscapes, pregnancy, and abortion); but in their emphasis on survival and how characters “create” or write their stories, they seem closely related. The book is about tips on surviving, not in a geographical wilderness, but in a contemporary urban world that is a metaphorical jungle or wilderness. As in other Atwood works, the wilderness, both external and internal, is a multilayered “landscape” that art (such as the paintings in “Death by Landscape” or the True Romance prose in “True Trash”) attempts to capture. Atwood, moreover, offers “tips,” not formulas or recipes; survival in such a wilderness is tenuous at best.
“True trash,” the first of the stories, not only depicts Donny’s initiation into the sexual adult world but also “initiates” the reader into the landscape of Wilderness Tips. Set in the “wilderness” of Camp Adanaqui, the story seems to be a typical account of an adolescent boy’s rejection of his immature peers and his initiation into adulthood, but the story is also about ways of seeing and rendering experience. Through Monty’s binoculars, the young, voyeuristic campers spy on waitresses, who are caught and framed as objects; when an enlightened Donny later throws the binoculars into the lake, he changes his perceptions and is, almost paradoxically, rewarded by the elusive Ronette. Donny’s vision of Ronette is only partial, as the reader discovers at the end of the story.
The subject matter of “True Trash”—the lower-class waitress seduced by the upper-class cad and defended by a young admirer—is appropriate for True Romance, the magazine the waitresses jokingly read aloud, but the story transcends the purple prose of pulp romances. When Joanne, another waitress, meets Donny eleven years later, she learns that Donny is the father of Ronette’s child: “Joanne has just seen the end of the story, or one end of one story. Or at least a missing piece.” Joanne has control of the “story,” which could be entitled, in True Romance prose, “Sick with Desire,” but she realizes that the clichés do not apply. She ponders telling the “truth” to Donny: “The melodrama tempts her, the idea of a revelation, a sensation, a happy ending.” When she dismisses the idea, she ends the story, which seems to her outmoded, “an archaic story, a folk-tale, or mosaic artifact,” because she cannot emotionally continue the “story.”
“Hairball,” the second story, is both the best and the most representative story in the collection. Atwood’s protagonist is an editor who creates a Canadian journal, gives “life” and identity to her lover (who then replaces her as editor), and undergoes surgery for the removal of an ovarian cyst, which is an ironic parallel to and comment on the “birth” she has given her lover. She exacts her revenge for his betrayal by sending the “hairball” cyst to her former lover and his wife. Other Atwood themes and motifs include the power politics of gender, the “choosing eye” of photography, and the sense of being an exile, since the protagonist leaves Canada to work in England before returning to Toronto to edit the journal.
In “Isis in Darkness,” Atwood makes explicit the notion of woman as goddess/creator. The male protagonist is a pedantic academic and failed poet who worships the true poet, whom he identifies as Isis. Although he “cribs” from mythology, he can only define himself in terms of her mythology. While he realizes that he is no Osiris but only an “archaeologist,” he cannot acknowledge that he is like the other scholars who dissect her poetry and exploit her to advance their own careers. She is the goddess he serves with his omnipresent filing cards, which define him as they do Tesman in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890).
The male academic also appears in “Bog Man,” which concerns a real archaeologist, the body of a man preserved in a bog, and a young woman who is the archaeologist’s student, assistant, and lover. The academic, who seems superhuman to his assistant in the beginning of the story, eventually “collapses” and seems to her to be inferior to the bog man, whom he physically resembles. Early in the story, she suspects that her lover is “molding her mind,” but after their relationship ends, she molds and shapes him as she tells their story: “Connor, however, loses in substance every time she forms him in words.”
In “Death by Landscape,” the protagonist molds and shapes reality by re-creating the paintings that hang on her walls. The artistic landscapes mirror her mental landscapes, which...
(The entire section is 2084 words.)
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