Thanks to some ordering stupidity on my part, I won’t be getting Atwood’s newest novel The Year of the Flood until the end of October. So I have had to make do with Murder in the Dark, a slim volume of “short fictions and prose poems”. One of my favorites was a piece called “Women’s Novels” which isn’t much more than a numbered list of observations, but it encapsulates all of Atwood’s insight, humor, and clever writing. A few of my favorite bits:
Men’s novels are about men. Women’s novels are about men too but from a different point of view. You can have a men’s novel with no women in it except possibly the landlady or the horse, but you can’t have a women’s novel with no men in it. Sometimes men put women in men’s novels but they leave out some of the parts: the heads, for instance, or the hands. Women’s novels leave out parts of the men as well. Sometimes it’s the stretch between the belly button and the knees, sometimes it’s the sense of humour. It’s hard to have a sense of humour in a cloak, in high wind, on a moor.
I like to read novels in which the heroine has a costume rustling discreetly over her breasts, or discreet breasts rustling under her costume; in any case there must be a costume, some breasts, some rustling, and, over all, discretion. Discretion over all, like a fog, a miasma through which the outlines of things appear only vaguely. A glimpse of pink through the gloom, the sound of breathing, satin slithering to the floor, revealing what? Never mind, I say. Never never mind.
Another piece called “Happy Endings” is a kind of “choose your own adventure” tale about relationships. After offering six different endings to follow the phrase “John and Mary meet” Atwood ultimately concludes:
You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don’t be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality. The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.
On bread: “The bread they offered you is subversive, it’s treacherous, it does not mean life.” Subversive bread. Fabulous.
The page waits, pretending to be blank. Is that its appeal, its blankness? What else is this smooth and white, this terrifyingly innocent? A snow fall, a glacier? It’s a desert, totally arid, without life. But people venture into such places. Why? To see how much they can endure, how much dry light?
The question about the page is: what is beneath it? It seems to have only two dimensions, you can pick it up and turn it over and the back is the same as the front. Nothing, you say, disappointed. But you were looking in the wrong place, you were looking on the back instead of beneath. Beneath the page is another story.
I could continue to quote, but perhaps, for the sake of copyright laws, I should encourage you get a copy of Murder in the Dark and read it for yourself.