Margaret Atwood’s Old Babes in the Wood: Stories
Old Babes in the Wood: Stories
Margaret Atwood’s first fiction since 2019’s Booker Prize winning The Testaments and her first story collection since Stone Mattress (2014), these fifteen stories are a master class in how to write, a rollicking good time, and a deep exploration of human relationships—the damage we do to each other and the ways we come together. Delving into Atwood’s work feels a bit like coming home—you can trust her to tell a good story and not make any gaffes along the way. There are stories here that weren’t always what I wanted to read (aliens!) and some that strained my patience a bit but even when I’m not interested in the subject matter (George Orwell), Atwood’s writing keeps me reading. There are no dropped notes here. There’s awkwardness, there are bruised toes, and wattle-necks, and there is also such a skillful writing of grief that I’ll be recommending this collection to most everyone I know who’s lost someone. And that’s a lot of us these days. Although some of these stories have appeared before in various places—including the title story (April 2021 in The New Yorker)—even stories I’d read before continued to draw me in on a second or third time through. I’ve read some complaints that the collection doesn’t hold together overall but to me, that’s just lazy reading. We’ve all become so used to reading “a novel in stories” or fully “linked” stories that we’ve come to expect easy connections in every collection we read. Like much fiction coming out this year, COVID is present here, as is the climate disaster, but rather than in the foreground, these horrors are simply part of life: changes in the way we interact with each other, a character’s observations on mortality, or complaints about the weather. These stories focus more on being human—our fragility and our mortality. As one character muses: “A few more degrees of warming and we’ll go up in smoke…but maybe not till after I’m dead.”
While there is an obvious through line in the collection with a return to Atwood’s characters Nell and Tig, there are other touchpoints here that are both timeless and current. Expected feminist themes appear throughout, but there are also explorations of masculinity: the war-ravaged men in “Two Scorched Men” and Tig’s father, “the Brig,” in “A Dusty Lunch.” As Nell muses over the Brig’s papers, she wonders: “What was it like to live with a man who was only half there? The other half was off somewhere else, left behind on the other side of the Atlantic in a ravaged landscape that couldn’t be mentioned.” Nell discovers a folder in the Brig’s papers, “Father’s poems,” and a letter from Martha Gellhorn—a skillful way of delving into Tig’s father’s deeply repressed emotions while also giving the reader an introduction to Gellhorn’s work. The war in both stories is World War II but, as Atwood writes, war is never really over, “the war in Europe was finally over. Insofar as it has ever been over.” Atwood is adept as ever at connecting history with our current times: I was rereading this story while the news played softly in the background—a discussion of horrors in Ukraine, Russian soldiers, and German tanks. Another story “Freeforall,” seems at first like a continuation of the Gilead narrative. First Mother Sharmayne Humboldt Gray is an eighty-year-old who, although proud of her work to save the human race from extinction by a deadly virus, also pities “the grooms” in her breeding program—young boys given the option of forced marriage or “celibacy and the War Games.” It’s both a continuation of this theme of the damage the world does to men (and boys) and a troubling of overly simplistic binary feminist narratives.
There are a few stories that read almost as exercises in storytelling: an entertaining sendup of the Decameron’s Griselda in “Impatient Griselda”—as told by an alien who resembles an octopus speaking to horrified humans. There’s also a first-person narrative featuring the often-fictionalized Hypatia of Alexandria. As an aside, it’s a bonus in reading Atwood that we get to (re)discover interesting historical women. In musing on her own horrific death (by oyster shells), Hypatia asks, “Which is better, I ask myself, a puddle or a sunset? Each has its charms.” Later in the collection as Tig slips into dementia, it’s hard not to remember this statement. In the oddly entertaining, “Metempsychosis: Or, The Journey of the Soul,” a snail is killed and his soul flings out into the ether and ends up inside a young female customer service representative named Amber. Aside from the exercise of seeing the world from a snail’s point of view, there is also some interesting information including, snails love beer and enjoy threesomes. In “My Evil Mother,” the narrator grows up believing her mother is a witch and learns some important lessons, to be respected is better than to be liked and “to be careful what I myself wished for, because whatever it was might materialize, and not in a form that fulfilled my hopes.”
In reading many of the female-centered stories in this collection I was struck by how few contemporary stories are written about older women and how much we can learn from their perspectives. In my own life, I’m lucky to have connections with strong women over seventy and Atwood’s characters, as always, ring true. There are the aging second wave feminists in “Airborne: A Symposium”: longtime friends and academic colleagues who are working to set up a fellowship while also discussing the increased polarization in “the groves of academe.” As Myrna keeps up an internal dialogue she wonders “Why is time slowing down on her?” and Leonie, who has cancer, discusses her funeral while downing gin. In “Bad Teeth,” Csilla and Lynne argue about the 1960s, Lynne telling us that Csilla is “a strategic liar, being a memoirist.” For Lynne (and perhaps Atwood), being older means that “You’re off the hook for almost everything.” And Csilla asks, “Why not enjoy the ride? It’s going to end sooner or later…Look good in your coffin.” Which reads as more upbeat than Myrna in “Airborne” musing, “It’s far too late for vanity. Nobody cares what you look like, not anymore.”
Of course, the strongest thread in this collection is found in the Nell and Tig stories, deftly writing the life of a long loving marriage through moments in the past and present. In “First Aid,” Nell contemplates—hilariously—the many life-threatening moments she and Tig survived and how unprepared they were. She muses, “if you could foresee, would that be better? No: you’d live in grief all the time, you’d be mourning things that hadn’t happened yet.” In “Two Scorched Men,” Nell talks about telling stories, “We resist the notion that we’ll become mere handfuls of dust, so we wish to become words instead. Breath in the mouths of others.” It’s in moments like these that the line between Atwood and Nell becomes blurred and that’s okay; she’s not only writing a story, she’s connecting with us as a fellow human. And we can feel the grief when she writes (as Nell), “I used to believe that having a good memory was a blessing, but I’m no longer sure. Maybe forgetting is the blessing.” In “Morte De Smudgie” Nell is trying to deal with the death of a beloved cat by “rewriting Tennyson’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ with Smudgie in the leading role.” As Nell says, grief can take “strange forms.” But this grief “hadn’t really been about Smudgie. It had been about Tig.” And of course, all of the Nell and Tig stories aren’t as much about their life together but about Nell’s grief: “You asked me how I was doing…No one wants an honest answer to that one.”
In a few weeks I’ll be traveling back to that place I was born, the Pacific Northwest, to meet up with family. We’ll be going out to the Olympic Peninsula to release my dad’s ashes into the Pacific. Since he died, there has been a lot of sorting through “stuff.” Reading “Wooden Box,” I was reminded of that (not so) small box in the back of my closet that holds some of my dad’s pipes, a diary, a flannel shirt or two. As Nell says in “Old Babes in the Wood,” “Parents ought not to die; it’s inconsiderate.” There is a way that some of us grieve that Atwood captures so very well throughout the Nell and Tig stories in this collection. Of course, she recently lost her husband of many years, the Canadian writer and environmentalist Graeme Gibson (1934–2019), and it’s hard not to connect these stories with her own grief. Perhaps that’s why they resonate so deeply—because she’s not only a brilliant observer but also not afraid to draw from her own grief. And I can imagine she’d begin riffing, as her narrators often do, on my usage of “lost”—it’s a word my parents joked about. The dead aren’t “lost,” they’re dead. But they’re also still here. Nell says, “The days of Tig. Over now.” But in a recent piece in The Guardian, Atwood says, “Are dead beloveds actually dead in any real sense of the word? Maybe not. Are cats what they seem? Hardly ever.” As Nell sifts through the things Tig left behind, she wonders “What does one ever do with these cryptic messages from the dead?” We can write stories. Instead of remembering only through grieving, we can “dial time backwards so we can spend a happier moment together.“ And whether or not the Nell and Tig stories are fictionalized memoir doesn’t really matter because, as Csilla says, “A story isn’t great because it’s true…It’s great because it’s good.” And these stories are very good indeed.