Saturday, February 25, 2006

Voices on the Radio

Margaret Atwood’s The Tent is an odd and unsettling little book. It’s a collection of very short prose pieces that defy classification. They’re not short stories. The publisher’s catalogue refers to them as essays, but that’s not right either. I’m inclined to call them monologues or, in a couple of instances, dialogues. I tilt toward these descriptors because, although Atwood’s characteristic precision with language is amply in evidence here, these pieces rarely conjured up visual images for me. Reading the book, I felt as if I was sitting in the dark listening to voices on the radio, voices that alternately lulled me and spooked me.

I appreciate Atwood’s willingness to experiment but I found the results to be rather uneven. When the pieces work, they're very powerful. Most interesting to me were the ones in which Atwood turns stories and the very idea of story inside out. She employs a wry, dark humour very effectively to this end. For example, of the would-be hero and heroine of “Three Novels I Won’t Write Soon,” the narrator says:

Chris and Amanda are very likeable. They have straight teeth, trim waists, clean socks, and the best of intentions. They don’t belong in a book like that, and if they stray into it by accident they won’t come out of it alive.

Other standouts are “Orphan Stories” and “Horatio’s Version.”

But in other pieces, for example “Chicken Little Goes Too Far” and “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation,” the humour struck me as too broad, almost slapstick, the parody too easy. Voice alone isn’t enough to carry these pieces; they just never rose up off the page for me.

There are flashes of brilliance in The Tent but ultimately, as a whole, the collection left me unsatisfied.

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