Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The loneliness of men

Full title: Good Bones
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction, collection of short-short stories
Attributes: 160 pages, paperback
Publisher: Virago (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)


What’s impressive at times in this collection of short-shorts is the extent to which men are left alone. In “Man at Sea”:
“women are replaced by water, by wind, by the ocean, shifting and treacherous.”
In “Alien Territory” (a story as dazzling as a birth), an alternative is on offer – the alternative to the patriarchal rise to prominence (the accepted version, that is). Here, too, men are alone in an almost odious invention of the species, alone and isolated, alone with nothing but their bare preconceptions:
“Five guys standing outside, pissing into a snowbank, a river, the underbush, pretending not to look down. Or maybe not looking down: gazing upwards, at the stars, which gives us the origins of astronomy.Anything to avoid comparisons, which aren’t so much odious as intimidating.And not only astronomy: quantum physics, engineering, laser technology, all numeration between zero and infinity. Something safely abstract, detached from you; a transfer of the obsession with size to anything at all. Lord, Lord, they measure everything: the height of the Great Pyramids, the rate of fingernail growth, the multiplication of viruses, the sands of the sea, the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. And then it’s only a short step to proving that God is a mathematical equation. Not a person. Not a body, Heaven forbid. Not one like yours. Not an earthbound one, not one with size and therefore pain.When you’re feeling blue, just keep on whistling. Just keep on measuring. Just don’t look down.”
So yes, indeed, these are stories in which, by and large, men get the sour end of the stick, if such thing could be said to exist; if anything else really exists beyond the unforgiving voice that’s telling their stories.
”I’m being unnecessariuly brutal, you say. Too blunt, too graphic.” (“Hardball”)
These are alternatives that have never been taken seriously, what with war and manly loneliness and pride and lack of sympathy, substitute-narrations which here and now are ceasing the day, stealing the show. “Why do men want to kill the bodies of other men?” A question – fundamental like a lot of other questions asked throughout the volume. And by way of a reply, a list of possible reasons (called “traditional reasons”):
“Loot. Territory. Lust of power. Hormones. Adrenalin high. Rage. God. Flag. Honour. Righteous anger. Revenge. Oppression. Slavery. Starvation. Defence of one’s life. Love; or, a desire to protect women and children. From what? From the bodies of other men.”
This is in the same story, “Alien Territory,” a text divided into seven parts, each with its own take on what a man’s body is or might be. A story which takes things so seriously they often seem comical, in their nonfictional plainness (and, of course, plenitude).
“Magazines for women have women’s bodies on the covers. Magazines for men have women’s bodies on the covers. When men appear on the covers of magazines, it’s magazines about money, or about world news.”
Margaret Atwood gives here away stories that read in the glimmer of a second or two. Half narrations, half riddles. Half serious nonfictions, half mad fantasy. Short-shorts, as many generic enthusiasts will call them; or incantations, poems-in-prose; but stories that feel seriously worked out (in the good sense of the word), their muscles sculptural and showing through, the artful hand of their author returned over and over upon their lambent bodies of words. Most importantly, though (as seen right here, one hopes) – with a style that grows contagious, a style that makes one speak with the cadences of the very stories one has just read. Good Bones. Very good Bones. If Bones were your dog, this would sound like an encouragement. Wouldn’t it?
“Today I speak to my bones as I would speak to a dog. […] Good bones, good bones, I coax, wondering how to reward them; if they will sit up for me, beg, roll over, do one more trick, once more.There. We’re at the top. Good bones! Good bones! Keep on going.”