Telling You All About the World: Margaret Atwood’s Good Bones and Simple Murders

Margaret Atwood is the kind of writer who pays very close attention to the world, observing the banal and the comfortable, and writing about it in such a way as to expose what makes the everyday of the Western world really weird and uncomfortable. Atwood deals with the possibilities of the world, the terrifying possibilities, and loves them: embraces them, holds them out for all to see, and asks her readers to consider how those possibilities came to be. In books like The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood takes stock of the present state of the world and extrapolates into the future, presenting a portent of disturbing things to come. Good Bones and Simple Murder, a collections of very short stories, prose poems, and illustrations, is no less unsettling, even as she tackles themes that recur in her other works: here, Atwood takes stock of everything from common fairy tales and folk songs, to traditional gender roles and sexual exploitation, to alien encounters, to death scenes and murder scenes to Raymond Chandler’s furniture preferences. But even as she renders the familiar world disturbingly unfamiliar, Atwood speaks directly to her reader, drawing him in with a plainspoken, even conversational style peppered with “yous” that seems to border on second person narration.

“Happy Endings” is a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure for a relationship built on assumptions. The story begins with “John and Mary meet. What happens next? If you want a happy ending, try A.” The piece continues in lettered sections, each section growing more complicated, more unhappy, more convoluted. In B, the narrator says, “You’ll notice that he doesn’t even consider her worth the price of dinner out…” (51); in F, the narrator says, “If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary… Remember, this is Canada. You’ll still end up with A.”  At the end of the “Happy Endings,” the narrator chastises the reader for wanting something so fake as a happy ending; instead the narrator offers an “authentic ending”: “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die” (55-56). The presumptions of the story are referred to in pithy, offhand ways: In B, the narrator says, “Crying is bad for your face, everyone knows that and so does Mary but she can’t stop” (52); in C, the narrator says, “Freedom isn’t the same for girls…” (53).

“Liking Men” is a meditation on the merits of men that begins in first person and shifts subtly to second person. The narrator at first acknowledges the danger of men and instructs her listener to focus on men’s shoes and here the narration shifts:

“You contemplate the shoes, shined but not too much… and you begin to relax… You think of kissing those feet, slowly, after a good scrubbing, of course… Cheered up, you start fooling around. Footgear, you think…” (85)

The story continues down through the line of footwear that point to increasingly sinister behaviors of men, brought to a halt, finally, by “Late the policeman will ask you what you did to provoke this. Boots were not such a bright idea after all” (86). By the end of “Liking Men,” the reader has come to inhabit the mind of the second-person narrator: the reader feels the fear brought on by what feet might involve, and asks the narrator’s defining questions: “Who defines enemy? How can you like men?” (86) When the story ends with a turn toward trying to like men on the day they were born, the reader follows, feels hopeful that this time might be successful, even having seen through the narrator’s eyes how frightening the process of liking men can be.

“Homelanding” serves as an introduction of humanity to some alien race encountered on another planet. The narrator explains herself and her people in six discreet, numbered sections. In the second section, she describes her physical characteristics, the act of eating. In the third section she describes sexual anatomy and the wars and controversies differences of anatomy have set off. She says, “It is considered impolite to mention [a lack of “prong”] openly to strangers. I tell you this because it is the breach most commonly made by tourists…” and then goes on to say, “I notice that you have similar customs” (134). This third section of this story reminds readers of Atwood’s power to observe and describe the politics of real life, to tell readers about it in order to distance themselves from it for a moment to rediscover and question practices and meanings. “Homelanding” wraps up in section six, with a message of the narrator’s compassion for her listener, of her dedication to communicating across a very deep divide that is ultimately bridged by the shared anticipation of death. In a nod to campy science fiction, the narrator says, full of compassion:

“I will never say to you, take me to your leaders… Instead I will say to you, take me to your trees. Take me to your breakfasts, your sunsets, your bad dreams, your shoes, your nouns. Take me to your fingers; take me to your deaths. These are worth it. These are what I have come for” (138).

Margaret Atwood renders the known world unknown, in a manner that makes her stories accessible, thought provoking, and frightening. And yet even as she draws readers into a conversation that questions their collective assumptions about the way the Western world works, about the values that undergird modern civilization, Atwood in Good Bones and Simple Murders also promises a dialogue that builds a new outlook on the world, and the future to come.

Works Cited: Atwood, Margaret. Good Bones and Simple Murders. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

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