MARGARET ATWOOD renders visual, aural, and
tactile events in such crisp, surprising language that her images crackle off the page; readers experience her work viscerally. Her fictions focus all attention on everyday debris -- dustballs, disposable diapers, used clothing, scarred linoleum -- until the objects come to be emblems for the words that describe them, and the words themselves wield an immutable power. Atwood wrests this power from her language and uses it to unmask the fragmentary, disconnected nature of human attempts to speak.
In her recent novel, Bodily Harm, Atwood's heroine feels trapped and isolated in her traitorous body. The stories in Dancing Girls continue to explore the frightful otherness of the body. The opening lines of "Giving Birth" describe the body's separate self: "there is scant gentleness here, it's too strenuous, the belly like a knotted fist, squeezing, the heavy trudge of the heart, every muscle in the body tight and moving, as in a slow-motion shot of a high jump, the faceless body sailing up, turning, hanging for a moment in the air, and then -- back to real time again -- the plunge, the rush down, the result." In the best of these subtly crafted stories -- "Hair Jewellery," "Lives of the Poets," "When It Happens," "The Man from Mars" -- Atwood portrays the body as a retreat of sort a hospitable sidewalk bistro, a foreign observation post.
Many of these stories concern alienated couples whose lives together weave a fabric of habitual irritation, mixed and missed signals, and edgy misunderstanding, what one character calls "this long abrasive competition for the role of victim." One protagonist speaks "in the angular, prodding, metallic voice she cannot change because everyone expects it from her, if she spoke any other way they would think she was ill." Another worries about commitment to a lover, "making a decision that would lead inevitably to the sound of one's beloved shaving with an electric razor while one scraped congealed egg from his breakfast plate." In Atwood's world, familiarity corrodes communication, intimacy makes us careless and cranky with each other.
The startled, mesmerizing, elevated speed of Atwood's prose derives in part from the way she frequently structures her sentences as rhythmic, rapid-fire, stringy, comma-splice sequences: "For once the sky is out, there's a breeze, I'm walking through the ellipses and arranged vistas of the park, the trees come solidly up through the earth as though they belong there, nothing wavers. I have confidence in the grass and the distant buildings, they can take care of themselves, they don't need my attention on them to keep them together, my eyes holding them down." Usually these sentences work to a crescendo, then focus their ironic weight on mundane objects: "One of us should just get up from the bench, shake hands and leave, I don't care who is last, it would sidestep the recriminations, the totalling up of scores, the reclaiming of possessions, your key, my book."
The real subject of these stories is language itself, words as talisman and icon. One heroine, exhausted from parting, considers "the words we have hurled at each other lying spread in fragments around me, solidified." Atwood portrays a poet "crouching at the kitchen table, worrying away at a piece of paper, gnawing words, shredding the language." Her narrators pare words as though they were apples. Yet words also have a creepy power: "Words ripple at my feet, black, sluggish, lethal." Language is "rich and sticky . . . you should never try to see your own reflection in it; you will lean over too far, a strand of your hair will fall in and come out gold, and, thinking it is gold all the way down, you yourself will follow, sliding into those outstretched arms, towards the mouth you think is opening to pronounce your name but instead, just before your ears fill with pure sound, will form a word you have never heard before. . . "
Atwood bows to language as quagmire and bloodsucker. Yet her quirky personification of words has another face, one that ultimately achieves primacy in her awesome, chiseled prose. The poet who gnaws on words in her kitchen asks herself, "Did I really believe that language could seize me by the hair and draw me straight up, out into the free air? But if you stop believing, you can't do it any longer, you can't fly." In this collection of tales about survival and failed speech, Atwood not only flies, she breathes a purified ether.