Margaret Atwood’s new collection of fiction has a fabulous title, “Old Babes in the Wood,” and a fabulous cover whose design elements — fonts, colors, images — both echo and wink at her award-winning books “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Testaments,” and “Cat’s Eye.” The irreverent title and witty jacket accurately convey the vibe of this marvelously funny and mischievously wise collection.
The 15 stories, many published previously, are separated into three titled sections. The first, Tig & Nell, contains three stories about or from the perspective of Tig and Nell, a long-married couple. The second section, My Evil Mother, has eight stories from a wide range of voices, in a panoply of styles and modes. The final section, Nell & Tig, contains four ruefully humorous stories about how Nell copes with widowhood.
The collection is nothing if not various, and it provides ample runway, in its myriad surfaces and angles — like the features of a skateboard park — for Atwood to show herself as nothing if not vital and virtuosic. All her tricks and skills are apparent: She does first person, third person, dialogue, personae, with flawless dexterity. She ranges from the comic to the tragic to the tragicomic, from the existential to the absurd, the contemporary to the historical with verve and poise.
For a collection about aging, loss, and death, “Old Babes in the Wood” is remarkably buoyant. It zings and zips with energy, crackles with wit, radiates dynamic intelligence and playful charisma. Now 83 years old and a recent widow, Atwood writes with an exuberance, precision, and unabashed vitality that writers decades younger would kill for.
The idiom is used advisedly, as murderous impulses, a wicked delight in the macabre and the grotesque, witches and erstwhile witches animate the pages of this collection. “My Evil Mother,” the titular story of the collection’s second section, is a masterpiece of deadpan humor and gothic zest. But there is something deliciously off-kilter about the sensibility from the book’s opening lines.
The collection begins with an enigmatic scene that raises many questions and suggests many possible scenarios. In “First Aid,” Nell returns home to find the front door open, the car gone, a trail of blood ending in a “blood-stained carrot, one end severed.” This mystery turns out to have a simple and unfrightening explanation, but others are not so easily solved or resolved. The essential mystery of life, of people, of experience rings through the collection even as its characters and author play sleuth, archivist, excavator of their individual and cultural pasts.
In the second story, “Two Scorched Men,” Nell tells tales of two dead men, both World War II veterans, who shared their troubling stories with her because they trusted that she “would someday relate their lives for them.” The double frame — a story about how real lives will be storified — orients the collection’s pervasive concern with how we situate events, inflect anecdotes, choose genre and tone in the accounts we make of our own and others’ lives. One man “told this [story] as if it had been a caper, a prank,” but in the retelling, Nell “frame[s] it otherwise.” Narrative stance — parody vs. homage, humor vs. sincerity or earnestness — figures also in the next story, “Morte de Smudgie,” in which Nell composes an elegy for her and Tig’s dead cat via a rewriting of Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur,” featuring Smudgie as the dead monarch.
Many of the stories center around spirits and the spirit world. In “The Dead Interview,” the spirit of George Orwell converses with Atwood in an interview Q&A format. The portentous title of”Metempsychosis: Or, The Journey of the Soul,” is belied by the uproariously funny content of a story narrated by a feisty snail forced to inhabit “the body of a mid-level female customer service representative at one of the major banks.” Baffled by the oddities and absurdities of human behavior, the snail notices that its “human casement… pronounce[s]… the word rectify a lot,” scoffs at the human obsession with money and mirrors, and ponders the meaning of suffering.
Suffering both small and large affects all of Atwood’s characters, and the pitfalls and perils of being a woman in a patriarchal society animate many of the stories. “Death by Clamshell,” narrated by the dead Hypathia of Alexandria, muses on both the extreme violence of her public execution and the ways she’s become a symbol, a feminist icon, a heroine of plays and novels, and the subject of poems — with the double bonus of having escaped “the indignities of extreme old age.” In “Airborne: A Symposium,” a group of old friends, academics and feminists, gathers at one member’s house for afternoon drinks and conversation that ranges from book covers to female identity and feminism old and new.
The ultimate quartet of Nell and Tig stories addresses how Nell is “managing to cope” now that Tig has died. In “Widows,” Nell writes two letters to a well-meaning friend, the first a mordant rejection of “senior” cruises or social pleasantries, marked by a refusal to accept or offer platitudes about grief, aging, loss, and death. The second, much shorter, begins: “it’s nice of you to ask how I’m doing” and ends “stay safe.” Guess which one she actually sends? “Wooden Box” describes her confrontation with the clothing, objects, papers, and memories her late husband has left behind. In “A Dusty Lunch,” as she paws through strange and unsettling documents in Tig’s desk, Nell asks: “What was the history? ... No one left to ask. But what business is it of hers, anyway? None, except that she’s inherited it, like the silver teapot, the sugar sifter, the fish knives. Objects move from hand to hand, things get forgotten about, their meanings evaporate.”
In the magic of her fictive creations, Atwood holds objects still momentarily, allowing us to examine them, searches for meanings that are transitory but not inconsequential, finds them in the light of our desire to know, like matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. These stories are sometimes screamingly funny, sometimes wrenchingly sad, but always deeply invigorating. In “Old Babes in the Wood,” Atwood, zooming along in her prime, revels in her formidable powers. In the original song, “these two little babes/ Got lost on their way.” This old babe is blazing new ways to get lost on the path of life, and in the process showing how when it comes time to “lay down and die,” one’s own life, like an inherited teapot or sifter, might truly be lost but not forgotten.
OLD BABES IN THE WOOD
By Margaret Atwood
Doubleday, 272 pages, $30
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy” and “The Critic’s Daughter.”