OLD BABES IN THE WOOD: Stories, by Margaret Atwood
There are authors we turn to because they can uncannily predict our future; there are authors we need for their skillful diagnosis of our present; and there are authors we love because they can explain our past. And then there are the outliers: those who gift us with timelines other than the one we’re stuck in, realities far from home. If anyone has proved, over the course of a long and wildly diverse career, that she can be all four, it’s Margaret Atwood.
We’ve recently been reminded of her gifts as a futurist: Since Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985) has begun to feel, at least in the United States, less like a story of a bullet dodged than like an eerie foretoken of our not-too-distant fate.
Yet Atwood is equally lauded for novels like “Cat’s Eye” (1988) and the Booker Prize-winning “The Blind Assassin” (2000), which sweep us through the 20th century, shedding light on both collective and personal pasts.
Her short stories, like her novels, are as likely to be set in the ancient world or in 1930s Toronto as on a post-apocalyptic Earth. If you consider yourself an Atwood fan and have only read her novels: Get your act together. You’ve been missing out.
“Old Babes in the Wood,” the Canadian author’s ninth story collection — the first since “Stone Mattress” (2014) — comprises three sections: “Tig and Nell,” “My Evil Mother” and “Nell and Tig.” The first and last, seven stories in total, give us episodes from the marriage of a couple with grown children, taking us more or less chronologically up to Tig’s death and Nell’s life alone, which she likens to “being a student again … the same formless anxiety, the same bare-bones meals.” Even before Tig’s departure, loss suffuses these stories — the loss of a neighbor, of a beloved cat, of Tig’s father. They’re stories that look backward.
While that perspective isn’t new for Atwood, the lens seems to have changed. The characters in “Stone Mattress” looked back in bitterness or bemusement or nostalgia or even revenge — but here, people look back in grief.
The collection is dedicated in part to Atwood’s husband, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019. While Tig’s and Nell’s lives bear the glaze of invented details, stories like “Widows,” a short piece that’s simply a letter from Nell describing life after Tig’s death, feel immensely personal.
“Widows” is addressed to a friend who’s “much younger, although you don’t think so now.” But there’s a subtle sense in quite a few of these stories that they’re directed at a younger self — someone flummoxed by and unprepared for the changes of later life, someone who can only liken widowhood to student aimlessness. (Isn’t it odd, how aging turns out not to happen to old people, but to those who were so recently young?)
Given that the majority of her readership is younger than the 83-year-old author, the effect, even if unintended, of many stories here is that of wisdom from the advance guard. These are missives not from a speculative future, but from one we’re all headed for, if we’re lucky enough to survive. It’s a new kind of futurism from Atwood: calling back from just up the road, letting us know what lies in store.
It’s tempting to consider only Tig and Nell’s seven stories as one complete collection, in part because the nine middle pieces are so disconnected from the rest, and in part because while that middle section contains some of the strongest and most original stories, it also contains the wobbliest.
What a blast to relay their topics! A mother believes herself to be a witch; a snail’s soul fuses with that of a customer service representative; Hypatia of Alexandria tells a modern audience about her murder via clamshell; an alien, hired to entertain quarantined Earthlings during a pandemic, turns the legend of Patient Griselda into an unintentionally (for the alien) hilarious story of vengeance. The alien tells of a duke saddling up and riding to the rescue astride a snack. “Why are you all laughing?” he asks his audience. “What do you think snacks do before they become snacks?”
A number of these middle stories refer to Covid — either as a fact of the world (in “Bad Teeth,” two women have tea in the backyard because “at their age you have to be careful”) or a topic of conversation (in “The Dead Interview,” Atwood herself interrogates George Orwell through a psychic medium, and when he asks what she means by “anti-vaxxers” she answers, “It’s complicated”). In addition to the ambiguous “plague” that has led to quarantine in “Impatient Griselda,” there’s the disease in “Freeforall” that is “communicable through any sort of moist contact, including kissing,” and has forced humans into isolated groups where marriage is arranged. While it works as a story, this piece feels more like the prospectus of a novel that Atwood or one of her acolytes might one day develop — a world that deserves more than the 10 pages it’s allotted here.
A few of these middle stories reach for the present moment in other ways: The characters in “Airborne: A Symposium” struggle with changing mores in academia (“I find triggering triggering,” one says) while also reminiscing about fights in previous decades (“over womyn with a Y”). That particular story works beautifully in its bewildered juxtaposition of past and present feminism, but other pieces seem less committed to the project of examining the present world they invoke. The Covid invocations feel tacked on, and it’s in their somewhat unconvincing attempts at timeliness that these middle stories miss as often as they hit. They don’t feel carefully curated so much as collected from the disparate corners of Atwood’s mind.
On the other hand: Who cares?
Who on earth ever loved Margaret Atwood for her cautious restraint? She swings at all pitches, and sometimes she misses. (Her 2015 novel “The Heart Goes Last” lost me at the Elvis sex bots, but good God, it was fun.)
I’d be more tempted to dwell on the puzzle of that grab bag of middle stories being sandwiched between realistic, virtuosic, elegiac linked stories if the reasoning didn’t so simply present itself: This is Atwood. This is our four-faced Janus, who’s got one face turned to the past, one to the present, one to the future and the fourth inside a spaceship, telling stories about eating horses. Long may she reign.
Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel is “I Have Some Questions for You.” She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2018 book “The Great Believers.”
OLD BABES IN THE WOOD: Stories | By Margaret Atwood | 257 pp. | Doubleday | $30
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