Wilderness Tips, by Margaret Atwood
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 🙂