by Margaret Atwood.
Virago Press 2010 (1992)
— There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.There Was Once
This collection of stories cunningly play with reader expectations: they tease, they feint, they nick and draw blood. With a surgeon’s knife Atwood dissects common myths and tropes, performs autopsies on literary classics, male fantasies, human foibles and traditional fairytales. Then, reassembling the parts, she fashions tales that forces us to look anew at what we thought was the case.
The two-dozen plus three pieces in this slim volume are in large part succinct, some barely more than a page or so; others, only slightly less succinct, remorsely hammer home their point while pulling your leg; a few have as a starting or end point a poetic form.
And though some may be seen as taking a feminist standpoint I would argue they are as much humanist, inviting us to take a step back to see not just differences but also similarities, encouraging comprehension more than opposition.
Themes run from story to story. Traditional fairytales can be questioned, as in ‘There Was Once’ in which, anticipating cancel culture, objecting to every motif as politically incorrect can and must lead to a reductio ad absurdum; or in ‘Unpopular Gals’ in which one of Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters rails against being stereotyped. Literary greats are also parodied or put under the microscope: Gertrude reveals who really killed Hamlet’s father, a bat counters the bad press Dracula initiated, Raymond Chandler is partly rehabilitated in spite of his misogyny. There are also two tales with a theological tinge sitting back to back, and three treatments of the war poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.
Atwood warns us at the start of many of these pieces that she is deliberately and stoutly taking a contrary view: the Little Red Hen of the fable is more sarcastic than you expected — or is she? — and in ‘Epaulettes’ it’s suggested that any notion of pacifist world leaders rising to the top is pie-in-the-sky.
One of the most powerful pairings here comes with the litany of ‘Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women’ followed by an exposé of ‘The Female Body’ in its various forms as a male fetish. A couple of pieces on comes the exquisite ‘Making a Man’, disguised as a feature in one of those vintage women’s magazines. Its procedure is best illustrated by enumerating the sections giving readers tips to make, “in their very own kitchens and rumpus rooms, an item that is both practical and decorative”:
- Traditional Method
- Gingerbread Method
- Clothes Method
- Marzipan Method
- Folk Art Method
It’s evident that, although each narrative stands on its own feet, there is an echo of a greater narrative arc over them all. The final four or five pieces for example form a loose coda by being meditations on mortality, but they do so from different vantage points: anger in ‘Death Scenes’, fleeting memories of Albert Camus in ‘Four Small Paragraphs’, hunger for a life less finite in ‘We Want it All’, wonder at potential in ‘Dance of the Lepers’ and wonder at approaching old age in the titular story ‘Good Bones’. While she may wield the scalpel Atwood does so with great wit and humour, with fables, parables and prose poems revealing insights that range from caustic to sympathetic.