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Wilderness Tips, by Margaret Atwood

with 8 comments

Reading Wilderness Tips pretty much confirmed what I’d suspected about Margaret Atwood for a while now, which is that the lady can do no wrong. At least in her writing. I just seem to love it no matter what, even if some of the stories themselves don’t appeal so much to me plot-wise (title story, I’m lookin’ at you). Does this set me up for unfulfilled expectations the farther I delve into her repertoire? Perhaps, but I haven’t been let down yet.

The stories in Wilderness Tips all share a certain longing, regret, and despair at the passing of time and opportunities missed. I guess they’re all kind of downers, but I never felt too completely trammeled by the pain of them. I also sensed in these stories as well as some of her other books, especially Cat’s Eye, that many of Atwood’s characters have a really interesting and complex relationship with feminism and the women’s movement of the ’60’s and ’70’s, which interests me. I’m tempted to attribute this tension to the feelings of Atwood herself, though I know that’s not quite fair and could be completely inaccurate. In any case, lots of her women protagonists encounter the the women’s movement at some point in their lives and seem supportive to some extent, but though they don’t feel at home in “a man’s world” they never seem to feel quite at home amongst other women, either. It’s become a dream of mine to be able to sit down and have a conversation with Atwood about this some day!  

Anyway, the highlight of the book for me was definitely the story Hairball. Oh, how i love it. It is so disturbing, so sickeningly sweet. It’s about a 30-something woman, Kat, who’s in the fashion business but losing her edge. She has been having an affair with a co-worker who she has shaped in her own image. She has made him stylish, successful, and now he is poised to usurp her power. At the same time, she has a benign growth removed from her body, and develops a real fascination with it. It sits in a jar upon her mantelpiece, and as Kat begins to lose control, she comes to depend upon this separate part of herself–this “hairball”–as a sort of emotional leverage, and when she decides to enact revenge upon her backstabber, she knows just how to use Hairball to her advantage.

Sound gross? IT IS. IT IS SO GROSS. So so gross. But also really satisfying, and so perfect, in the end. Upon finishing, I wanted to laugh, cry, and do it all again immediately. I brought this book home with me for the holidays so that I can share this story with family and friends (it’s okay, they expect this sort of sadism from me ;)). I would love to film their reactions as they read, as I have no doubt their facial expressions will be priceless. Anyway, read this story, if you dare. But not on a weak stomach 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

December 21, 2010 at 7:11 pm

8 Responses

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  1. This post is really interesting to me for two reasons:

    1. I’m intrigued by the emotion of disgust and how that’s presented in literature, especially in matter-of-fact presentations where the reader is likely to be grossed out but the character isn’t, necessarily. Sounds like the hairball story is a great example!

    2. I am very hot-and-cold with Atwood, so it’s interesting to hear from someone who feels so passionate about her! I loved The Blind Assassin, and Handmaid’s Tale is, you know, an Important Feminist Book, but others of hers I haven’t loved. I like what you say about her characters’ conflicted relationships with the women’s movement, though. I’m thinking Cat’s Eye would be a good next Atwood to try.


    December 21, 2010 at 8:09 pm

  2. Yes, Hairball fits that scheme perfectly–I would definitely try it if that’s your interest!

    I haven’t read the Blind Assassin yet, but it’s next on my Atwood list. Which of her books haven’t you liked? I’m curious.

    I would love to hear your thoughts about Cat’s Eye, if you do read it, and the strained relationships between the girls and women in the book!

    Emily Jane

    December 21, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    • I didn’t love Handmaid’s Tale, despite its Important status (although I do think it’s an interesting conversation-starter), and I liked The Edible Woman even less. Also tried Oryx & Crake, but in general I think I’m more a fan of her realistic than her dystopian/sci-fi books.


      December 22, 2010 at 5:23 pm

      • Fair enough, I’m not a big sci fi/dystopia fan myself, so I haven’t really considered Oryx and Crake, though I did like A Handmaid’s Tale when I read it. And I’ve heard similar opinions about The Edible Woman. Hmm.

        Emily Jane

        December 22, 2010 at 6:33 pm

  3. Umm… kinda grossed out actually. I have a bit of a weak stomach. Perhaps I will read some of her other work first 😉


    December 22, 2010 at 12:46 am

    • Sorry Amy, didn’t mean for my comment itself to be very repulsive, but it was hard to write about such a gross story without being gross about it! I think you might really enjoy Alias Grace, actually. That’s where i’d recommend you start if you haven’t read her before 🙂 Or with A Handmaid’s Tale, of course, which is a “feminist classic”!

      Emily Jane

      December 22, 2010 at 4:06 am

  4. Hairball…sounds really gross, but reminds me of one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories, “Calliope” in Dream Country, which features a bezoar from a girl who ate her hair. Hm.


    December 22, 2010 at 1:03 am

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