Strange Things:
The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature

by Margaret Atwood,
160 pages,
ISBN: 0198119763

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The Class Clown
by Scott Ellis

Margaret Atwood isn't a scholar, as she notes in the introduction to Strange Things. At least not now; she graduated in the late 60s and never really went the career academic route. Her criticism, Survival, et al., shows the mark of that era, usually being thematic rather than formal. These four lectures given at Oxford are in that vein: "[T]hey do not deconstruct anything, they do not problematize texts...." and they don't do a lot of other de rigueur things.

What they do is give us a fascinating, quirkily funny ramble through the agile, capacious mind of one of Canada's most knowledgeable, sharp-witted enthusiasts. It's a stubbornly idiosyncratic mind: Atwood's work resists grad student pieties, whether thematic, feminist, or post-structural. Her prickly, detailed writing is never convincingly pigeonholed by ideologues.

Here, it's customary to call her a "Trickster"-if charges of cultural appropriation don't worry you. But why strain for mythic significance? In these essays Margaret Atwood is really a barely reformed Class Clown, the kind who knows and loves the material better than any academic timeserver and cheerfully pulls us down the byways of her interests. In other words, she's the best kind of teacher.

Of course, clowns are always in a dicey position with regards to the Powers That Be. And one of the most influential authorities on Canadian writing is the Margaret Atwood of Survival, nearly a quarter-century ago. Where does the 90s Atwood stand in relation to that zealous exponent of National Unity Through Culture? Well, she's considerably more at ease:

"But surely the search for the fabled Canadian identity is like a dog chasing its own tail. Round about and round about it goes, with the tail whisking out of sight, whereupon it proclaims the tail elusive, threatened, or absent. And yet, as everyone can plainly see, there is the tail, as firmly attached to the dog as ever...."

Relaxation lets Atwood stretch out and show her stuff: In Archilochus' terms, she always was a market-savvy fox, an observer of vagary and paradox, who knew her readership wanted hedgehogs with unifying designs. So this virtuoso of the odd and particular gave us stories that worked within (while often sharply commenting on) Canadian leitmotifs. Sometimes her writing worked too hard at staying on track.

Here she has a loose thematic framework that lets her include little-known stories like the Polaris expedition (like Franklin's, an ambitious Arctic sally, but ending in farce rather than tragedy) and one that says Wendigos eat frogs when they can't find humans. "Linoleum Caves", on the North in Canadian women's writing, is especially fine, tracing ironies both in women's circumstances and female deflation of male myths.

These talks, then, are more general currents, open to contradiction and divagation, than specific arguments. So the subtitle is a bit of a misnomer; Atwood's literary North is malevolent. But it's also welcoming, indifferent, comical, threatened, seductive, and always interesting.


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