Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Good Bones and Simple Murders

For some considerable years, our neighbor to the north, O! Canada, has stood on the brink of a Nobel Prize for literature. There were two stalwarts, Mordecai Richler and Robertson Davies. Each in his own way had one of the major requirements--an impressive body of work--and a sense of mischievous humor that, while not a major requirement for the Nobel selection committee, is a commanding strength for a writer. Humor.

Alas, Richler and Davies are no longer among the living and that also is a requirement.

Closely nipping at Richler's and Davies's heels, much of a piece with my splendid ACD/Aussie Shepherd mix, Sally, come two worthies, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. Try taking that into your neighborhood pub: "So which Canadian writer is more likely to get the Nobel, Munro or Atwood." Go ahead, try it.

Although my vote would be for Munro, I do think Atwood has a splendid chance, enhanced in many ways because of her attitude and her acerbic wit. This does not mean I think Munro lacking in edge or humor; it does mean that Atwood has written and published Good Bones and Simple Murders (Doubleday/Nan Talese), a book written from a place of the sheer pleasure of her own powers, a book for all writers of fiction--and for many readers of fiction.

Good Bones and Simple Murders, a collection of short, pointed pieces, is like Sally, a splendid blend of edge, experience, and a sense of the way things really are. Like the haiku, it becomes the power of pith, full, one is tempted to say, of pith and vinegar. In its concision, it becomes wit--the bright blue arc of writerly and verbal power--writ large; it transcends itself.

One of the entries, has Queen Gertrude giving her son, Hamlet, a piece of her mind, knocking the moody young prince flat on his ass. She has also featuring a bat in once episode, delivering a lecture on how Bram Stoker got Dracula as wrong as George W. got Iraq wrong. My own favorite in Good Bones and Simple Murders, one I am about to rush off to class with to share with my students, is "Unpopular Gals," in which the narrator is the ugly sister, "The one the other mothers looked at, then looked away from and shook their heads gently." Well, she's certainly strong, they said, but that didn't help any.

The ending is what gives the piece its final lift-off into memory:

You can wipe your feet on me, twist my motives,
around all you like, you can dump millstones on my
head and drown me in the river, but you can't get
me out of the story. I'm the plot, babe, and don't ever
forget it.

A writer such as Atwood, edgy, gritty, wise, is herself not to be forgotten and that, as though it needed repetition, is what we aim at when we shoot our own works off against the night sky, hopeful of some splash of color, some moment of the spectacular that will stand out among the other asteroids, planets, and stars.

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