When I have said in essays that writing seems to me like inhabiting a tent, I've stressed the freedom that gives. However homeless or exiled you feel, the tent offers you shelter. The paper tent, the pages of a novel, can be scrunched up, when necessary, and hidden in your fist. When you are ready, you open your palm and your paper house is ready to enclose you once more.
For Margaret Atwood, the tent forms a fragile defence against the wilderness. Her writing describes "the howling that's going on outside". She cannot see through her paper walls, and so she cannot be exact about the truth outside (interesting to compare this with Virginia Woolf's image of life as a semi-transparent envelope) and does not want to venture into the wilderness to check its details. But she carries on, obsessed with her "graphomania" in a flimsy cave, this scribbling back and forth "over the walls of what is beginning to be a prison".
She knows that her "doodling" is a kind of armour, a kind of charm. The wild creatures come closer: "a loose tent-flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edged gap you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining in the light from your burning paper shelter, but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?"
"The Tent", the strongest of the miniature fables in this volume, offers a writerly credo of sorts. The other little tales in this wry collection function as torn-off scraps of tent fabric, fluttering like urgent flags to draw our attention to the strange and hostile world in which Atwood thinks we live. Sometimes she sounds as sibylline as Doris Lessing. She can imagine the end of the world with wit and panache and criticise humanity for its rush towards disaster just as she can also invent a sibyl who is ambivalent about prophecy, about being a sibyl at all.
She rewrites fairy tales, because the old versions will no longer do. Not for her Angela Carter's gothic gusto, Marina Warner's elegant fantasies of metamorphosis. Atwood gives us one dystopia after the other. In "Encouraging the Young", the witch in the gingerbread cottage is a cynical, ageing novelist luring her disciples with sweet, sugary dreams of fame: "I won't fatten them in cages, though. I won't ply them with poisoned fruit items. I won't change them into clockwork images or talking shadows. I won't drain out their life's blood. They can do all those things for themselves." In "Orphans", the narrator compiles a list of the ways in which the dispossessed try to take revenge. She concludes: "all observations of life are harsh, because life is. I lament that fact, but I cannot change it."
These are fine, original takes on ancient stories. Her updated versions of Salome and Helen of Troy, however, seem a little dull and stale. Feminist poets like Judith Kazantzis were rewriting those myths in the Seventies. Likewise, the satirical poem "Bring Back Mom" recalls Fran Landesman and Liz Lochhead. Angela Carter said that telling fairy tales was like making potato soup: no one correct recipe but many variants. Some of Atwood's potatoes are hotter and saltier than others. Completely in control of her material, she flavours her bleak little contes with her characteristic coolness, cleverness, satire.
One or two of these pieces, such as "Gateway", seem the transcription of dreams; allegories remaining frustratingly opaque. The tone of others verges on the dyspeptic, the sour. Why not? Atwood opposes sentimentality. How knowing she is; how quick. How easily she mocks herself, and us. She is our medicine.
Michèle Roberts's 'Reader, I Married Him' is published by ViragoReuse content