IF PEOPLE were cities, Margaret Atwood would be Toronto. Everybody I know has an opinion about Toronto: World Class Metropolis or Hogtown. It's hard to be neutral about Toronto, or objective. Same with Atwood: she has been mythologized and simplified into the Great Northern Harpy on the one hand, and Saint Peggy, the Voice of Woman, on the other.
But Margaret Atwood is not a city, or a commodity, she's a writer, and each of the things she makes is a new thing. So it might be best to forget for a moment that Good Bones was written by a Canadian icon. What kind of a thing is it? It's a damned interesting thing, a collection of some 2 7 short pieces, part fiction, part essay, part virtuoso turn. In its various parts it is brilliant, annoying, cynical, hopeful, funny, sour, imaginative, bleak, clever, dull, and profound. The first half dozen pieces offer reflections on stories and telling, by playing with voices and point of view. "Gertrude Talks Back" gives Hamlet's mother a voice the Bard denied her. In Atwood's hands Gertrude is an earthy, no-nonsense mom who gives Hamlet the talking-to he's been needing for the past several centuries:
And let me tell you, everyone sweats at a time like that, as you'd find out very soon if you ever gave it a try. A real girlfriend would do you a heap of good. Not like that pasty-faced what's-her-name, all trussed up like a prize turkey in those touch-me-not corsets of hers. If you ask me, there's something off about that girl. Borderline. Any little shock could push her right over the edge.
Such play with voices is one of the major pleasures of this collection. The Little Red Hen gets to speak her mind ("It's not easy, being a hen"), as does The Ugly Sister ("put the stress on ugly"). Atwood does a lovely send-up of both gender politics and women's magazines with a little five-part essay called "Making a Man": "This month we'll take a break from crocheted string bikinis...." This sort of thing in other hands is more often drily witty than it is genuinely funny. Atwood makes it both. Much of the book is in deadly earnest. Several pieces, for instance, tackle the precarious health of the planet. The strongest of these is "We Want It All," a powerful meditation on our greed for Earth's beauty and for consumer goods:
We want it all to go on and go on again, the same thing each year, monotonous and amazing. just as if we were still behaving ourselves, living in tents, raising sheep, slitting their throats for God's benefit, refusing to invent plastics. For unbelief and bathrooms you pay a price.
One of the problems with Atwood-as-icon is that it simplifies her into attitudes, ignoring the quality of her writing. Then it simplifies the attitudes. To take an obvious example, Atwood has frequently been accused of (or congratulated on) malebashing. Yes, there's a certain amount of male-bashing in Good Bones. Atwood is, among other things, a satirist, and satirists bash. She bashes pretensions, stupidity, cruelty. In fact, there is something very Swiftian about both her savage indignation and her ability to stand perception on its head. But she is not just a satirist. She is able to look at the inner lives of men with a sympathy far removed from satire. In "Alien Territory" she writes of certain men that
They have their angers. They have their despair, which washes over them like grey ink, blanking them out, leaving them immobile, in metal kitchen chairs, beside closed windows, looking out at the brick walls of deserted factories, for years and years. Yet nothing is with them; it keeps faith with them, and from it they bring back messages.
At her best, Atwood can truly make the words dance. Here's how that piece ends:
Because one night, when the snow is falling and the moon is blotted out, they could put their empty hands, their hands filled with poverty, their beggar's hands, on your body, and bless it, and tell you it is made of light.
When Good Bones stumbles, it's most often because of too much calculation. Parts of the book read like exercises in creative writing. In "Poppies: Three Variations," Atwood implants the words (verbal landmines) of the opening stanza of "In Flanders Fields" in three very different stories. Clever as anything, but dead at the heart. Sometimes a writer's gifts can do her in. Atwood has a gift for cleverness, which needs on occasion the restraint of an editorial hand.
The book's title piece says a lot well - about mortality and art and age and inheritance:
You have good bones, they used to say, and 1 paid no attention .... Now they are growing into their own, those bones. Flesh diminishes, giving way to bedrock.
Margaret Atwood - the writer, not the icon - has good bones.