It has taken me a while to get to write this review of Atwood’s The Tent, but today seems more appropriate than ever.
Going around the news in Ireland at the moment is the story of the party wallaby. Last weekend at a 30th birthday party in some hotel nightclub in Dublin, a wallaby was introduced among the crowd. It was roughly played with on the dancefloor, given alcohol and possibly ecstasy. It did not survive. I was a bit shaken by the story, not only because of the death of an animal (I’m an animal lover), but also because this is one more of many examples of how sick the human race is. This is one example, but it happens every day and not only animals are victims but other human beings also.
One of the stories in the collection is called “Thylacine Ragout”. In the story, the Thylacine is a Tasmanian marsupial, extinct for so many years that “no one still alive had ever actually seen” it. Through a process of cloning, scientifics brought back the marsupial to life. However, it was bought by a rich person who ate it because “he wanted to be the only person ever to eat a Thylacine”.
This story as it is already makes a heavy comment on science and human values; however, there is even more to it. Shuli Barzilai, in her essay “Unfabulating a Fable, or Two Readings of ‘Thylacine Ragout'” (in Once Upon a Time: Myth, Fairy Tales and Legends in Margaret Atwood’s Writings, edited by Sarah Appleton), explains how at first she read this piece as a fable created by Atwood. Yet, led by curiosity, she did a bit of googling, which prompted more research. Barzilai discovered that the Thylacine is not a creation of Atwood, but an animal that really existed in Tasmania and disappeared as a result of colonisation. In the story, “they named [the Thylacine] Trugannini, after the last fully Aboriginal inhabitant of that island”. Indeed, Barzilai found out that Trugannini also existed and that her death (after much mistreatment from colonisers) became synonymous with the extinction of her race. Barzilai’s analysis is enlightening and reveals how much can be packed in such a short piece. “Thylacine Ragout” becomes a critique of power politics, colonisation and much more, as well as of science, humanity (as superior to Nature and in its will to control it), human values, etc.
There are many such pieces in The Tent: pieces concerned with the irrationality of human beings, with what we have done to our planet, with human greed and so on. Those pieces hand a mirror to ourselves and show us what has happened to society and the planet because of our so-called superiority since we are endowed with reason The tone is often ironic and sarcastic. One piece I particularly like in connection to this theme is “Faster”. In this piece, the narrator describes our desire to always go faster thanks to technological developments and then starts wondering what happened to our souls in the process since “they can only go as fast as a man can walk”. It seems that this is indeed convenient as the narrator concludes that: “That’s why we can go so fast: our sould don’t weigh us down”. The piece is only one page long but it tells a lot about our society.
Many other topics are touched in these pieces, as is not surprising with Atwood. One of these is the role of the writer who is gifted with a voice (see “Voice” for instance). In the light of Atwood’s critical writings this means a lot since Atwood thinks that the writer’s role is to show and lead readers to question society. She believes words are powerful and that we should use them as a way to resist and possibly to enlighten those who are over-protected and refuse to see what is going on around them.
Like Good Bones, The Tent is a collection of those short pieces (I say more on the genre in my review of Good Bones) which say a lot in a few words.
And here is a video of Atwood reading “Our Cat Enters Heaven”: