Reviewed by J.S. Porter
Margaret Atwood speaks of writing as a vocation in which “the laying on of hands” occurs. “You receive your vocation and in your turn you must pass it on,” she says in Moving Targets. She generously passes on her experience in novels, poems, stories, children’s stories and works of non-fiction to future writers. Every 20 years or so, she scoops up her essays and reviews as a significant part of her legacy.
In Second Words, her first compilation of non-fictional prose, Atwood implied a hierarchy in the language-ladder: first fiction and poetry, then second level words, non-fiction. In Moving Targets, there seems to be a shift in sensibility that permits non-fictional work to be just as moving (emotional) and as elusively in motion as fictional creation. Words hit their targets or miss them. One writes with the urgency of the Ancient Mariner whatever the nature of the telling.
Atwood seems less inclined to judge genres as being superior or inferior and more inclined now to abide by Northrop Frye’s principle that creativity resides in the linguistic execution within a genre rather than in the genre itself. What matters is the performance on the page. And sometimes the frankness of non-fiction (that the hooded female figures in The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, were partly inspired by nuns and partly by Atwood’s purchase of a chador in Afghanistan) equals the charm of fiction’s tantalizing obliquity.
There’s so much alive and kicking in Moving Targets that most readers will find something to take delight in, whether it’s what mortifies Atwood (sexism), what she feels grateful for (George Orwell and the encouragement of great aunts), her film reviews (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and The Night of the Hunter), or her literary criticism (Lucy Maud Montgomery and Elmore Leonard.) She nods appreciatively to Dennis Lee and Thomas King, and eulogizes Al Purdy, Mordecai Richler, Matt Cohen, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Marian Engel, Timothy Findley and Carol Shields. Along the way, she pays homage to international literary stars like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and John Updike.
As much as she gathers in Moving Targets, she is not all-inclusive. I miss her sports articles on the Blue Jays. I miss her extended review in the Literary Review of Canada of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. There’s a shortened version here, but it’s not nearly as good.
Occasionally one quarrels with the selections. Her brief preface to The Canadian Green Consumer Guide might have been blue-boxed without loss. She makes similar and more effective points in her full-length review of Bill McKibben’s Enough.
Moving Targets is a surprise box. You don’t know what you’re going to get until you open it. But what you can count on from any Atwoodian performance is that you get humour (The Grunge Look on her first trip to Europe replete with passport photo and a pre-Raphaelite pose with two girlfriends provides it); you get bite (the political writing on the United States provides that); you get lines of perfect pitch and tone. On Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God: “[It’s] an egg of a book—plain, self-contained, elegant in form, holding within it the essentials of a life.” Who wouldn’t want that on a book cover? On Alice Munro: “I think I would recognize an Alice Munro story in Braille, even though I don’t read Braille.” Can you say it any better?
The unexpected delight of this surprise box for me is the power and cogency of Atwood’s political thought. Of her many disguises, political thinker is one that gets too little media attention.
Her diagnosis of the imperial dangers of the U.S. runs something like this: The Jolly Green Giant— at the moment not very green and not very jolly but admittedly still a giant— is on a rampage. Like Napoleon who invaded one too many countries, the U.S. over-grasp finds itself quagmired in Iraq. Increasingly it leans toward a kind of theocracy where, instead of false idols becoming gods, the god principle itself is made into a false idol. Can you be elected President if the word “God” doesn’t pass your lips every other minute?
Atwood sees an American public increasingly paralyzed by politically manipulated fear. “When did you get so scared?” she asks in “Letter to America.” The future she envisages consists of a few King Midases protected by a vast prison system and surrounded at home and abroad by serfs.
With her American ancestry, Atwood is in a good position to question and criticize the current direction of American policies, foreign and domestic. Her letter is scathing, but it doesn’t lack love for the noble dream of “the great Republic.”
She reminds readers that you need “a certain amount of nerve to be a writer, an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river” or to take on an empire. She hasn’t lost her nerve.
J.S. Porter is the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality.
- published in The Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 2, 2004.