Archive for the ‘margaret atwood’ Category

In which the real world comes knocking

July 28, 2010 Leave a comment

I have found myself recently underneath the sofa cushions, where I must have fallen when someone suddenly stood up. I also found myself clarifying my fond belief that fiction ought to be of the here and now.

Like most such beliefs, it’s based partly on carefully thought out ideas, and partly on what I like. Partly, it’s a question of what fiction is for, other than being for nothing in particular beyond itself. I have this notion that one of the things we do as writers is to record the language and the ideas of our time, and the best way to do that, it seems to me, is to address the present.

I’m well aware that historical fiction can address the present, but for the most part, it tells us such shocking things as that, for example, it was a good thing that women got the vote. I don’t think that wallowing in the challenges of the past does much to address the challenges of the present, although it does serve to keep old sloganeers in work.

Neither am I keen on dystopias. The nice thing about creating a dystopia, as a writer, is that nobody can come along and tell you that you’ve got it wrong. You risk creating a kind of cartoon world in your own head, a world that answers to nothing but your own ideas and prejudices. You risk, in short, becoming the fictioneering equivalent of a newspaper columnist or talk-radio host.

If fiction is to succeed, it needs ambiguity and nuance. You don’t get that unless you’re willing to admit that the world in your head is incomplete. If you write about the here and now, the real world should come knocking every once in a while to remind you that there are more things in heaven and earth, skippy, than you’ve dreamed up over a cold beer.

So along comes Margaret Atwood, in an interview at the Globe & Mail:

What is the draw for you to return not only to this dystopian future but to dystopias in general, as you did with The Handmaid’s Tale?

I’ve been involved with this for a long time [as a reader and student] and finally felt I was able to tackle it when I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. I finally felt I was able to write a book in this genre without falling into a lot of the traps of that kind of writing.

Presumably, one of those traps is turning into a talk-radio host. And one of the strengths of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is surely in the running for Best Canadian Dystopian Novel, is that it allows for nuance, even if there isn’t much ambiguity. Consider its reflection on “freedom from” vs. “freedom to.”

And then along comes news of The Extinction Club, by Jeffrey Moore, a novel set in the here and now of Moore’s simplistic imaginings:

Blood spilled in the Laurentian forests of Quebec has left a stain, and it’s spreading. The mountain lion, red wine caribou, bald eagle, wolf and wolverine have already been wiped out, or nearly, and now hunters are turning their attention to the lucrative—and illegal—black bear market.

Enter Nile Nightingale, a troubled man on the run who arrives in search of a rustic refuge, an off-the-map place where life is quieter, slower. He thinks he’s found it in the form of a run-down country church for sale. Until, that is, he stumbles upon something in its snow-covered graveyard, something that shouldn’t be there: a bleeding burlap sack, bound with red Christmas ribbon.

Inside is the slashed and beaten body of fourteen-year-old Céleste Jonquères, whose testimony put the hunters’ leader, a man who’s killed more animals than a hundred winters, behind bars.

Amazingly, this novel seems to be aimed at adults—people having sufficient life experience to suspect that Danger Bay wasn’t the real world—rather than at the YA market.

Having worked for outdoor magazines for over a decade, I know a lot of hunters. None of them resemble the sadists of Moore’s imagination, although those people do, no doubt, exist. Moore, who insists that everything is based on “actual practices in the wild,” seems to be more concerned with actual fantasies in his own head than with getting at the reality of human cruelty, alongside the parallel reality that we do need to eat.

But maybe the actual novel is more nuanced. Let’s check today’s review in the Globe: “In addition to didacticism and caricatured villains, the novel is also too blessed by convenience.”

Guess not. Indeed, the best thing Darryl Whetter can find to say about the novel is this:

His is not another plotless Canadian novel, nor is it merely one gun-filled chase through the woods after another. These gun chases are punctuated with compelling ideas, such as precocious Céleste’s theory that if penis enlargement became medically viable, violence, including violence toward animals, would decrease.

Darryl, I don’t know what the limitations of your reading have been, but that’s not a “compelling idea.” It’s a cliche.

Reality, it seems, never came knocking for Moore. But it came knocking today for me: perhaps my notion that writing about the here and now keeps you honest is a load of hooey. Perhaps you’re only as honest as yourself.