You probably already know how you’re going to feel about Margaret Atwood‘s newest collection of short stories,Old Babes in the Wood. That Atwood is a legend of the literary enterprise is of no debate, and this collection is a strong continuance of the daring, prickly, and deeply humane voice that has marked her work for decades.
Old Babes in the Woodis divided into three sections, two of which draw directly from Atwood’s shared life with her partner Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019. His passing is the clear catalyst of the sections “Tig & Nell” and “Nell & Tig,” which bookendOld Babes.Punctuating the saga of Tig and Nell is a symbolically torrential mid-section, which brings together a wildmenagerieof stand-alone short stories communing via theme, if not shared characters or even a shared planet. Together, this trifurcated collection is a profound meditation upon the cognitive dissonance of deep grief met during a watershed moment of revolutionary social upheaval.
The book opens to find Nell, in the 1980s, returning home to find her front door open, a trail of blood dripped through the house. Without a way to contact her husband, she fears the worst as she waits for his return. “How much waiting we used to do,” Nell recalls, narrating the scene from the present-day. “Waiting without knowing… Now it’s the first decade of the twenty-first century, space-time is denser, it’s crowded… Is that better, or worse?” Her husband later returns in a jolly mood, fresh stitches on his hand after a minor kitchen incident. But this hyper-vigilance becomes a constant for Nell—as a young woman, she has already begun to mourn her husband, long before he has passed. And life spent anticipating grief will always become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The ensuing stories comprise a beautiful archipelago of Nell’s memories of her marriage to Tig. The book’s closing piece finds a now-widowed Nell and her sister Lizzie lingering in “age-inappropriate bathing suits” on a dock that “they may not have to rebuild […] themselves; this one could last them out.” Behind them stands the cabin their late father built; everything around her a talisman of loss, but what can she do? “My heart is broken, Nell thinks. But in our family we don’t say, ‘My heart is broken.’ We say, ‘Are there any cookies?'”
Perhaps the greatest loss for Nell is the sense of reverence and whimsy that Tig brought to her life. “It’s a clear night,” Nell thinks as she stands on the dock in the dark, “no moon yet, and the constellations have a depth and brilliance you’d never be able to see in the city… Tig used to do this… He had a great capacity for being amazed…” Her own capacity for amazement has been dulled by grief. All that registers is decay. She thinks of how the cabin’s upkeep will, in time, be tackled by the “next gen,” when she and Lizzie are no longer there. Or perhaps posterity will neglect it—everything built by one generation can be so easily abandoned by the next.
The grief of others is also woven throughout this narrative. In “Two Scorched Men,” Nell recalls her landlord in France, an angry Irishman broken by his tours in WWII. “After running out of groups to denounce, he’d shut himself in his room and (I suspected) weep,” she remembers. “Today he’d be called a misogynist as a matter of course, but it seemed to me that his rages against women… were a subset of his general misanthropy. Mankind, including womankind, was a wreck.” By identifying the trauma lurking just below the surface, Nell tries to stave off would-be judges of his bad behavior, urging us to avoid superficial assessments and instead try to understand the intentions behind the actions we detest.
Later, in “A Dusty Lunch,” Nell recounts Tig’s childhood stories of his father cooking breakfast for Tig and his buddies during one of the sleepovers hosted at their family cottage. Below the surface of pancakes and summer memories, everything is in shambles: Tig’s father, a traumatized veteran, makes his “futile effort” of flipping pancakes while the family continues “enacting some vision of normality.” Later, after his son had grown and married, hallucinatory people appear in Tig’s father’s apartment, sometimes horrifically: “How many men do you think he actually saw hanging from trees, from lampposts, from telephone poles? It’s no wonder that at least one of them, with purple face and swollen tongue, has now turned up in the shower.”
Contrasting with the tidy, realist narrative of Nell and Tig’s marriage, the stand-alone stories in the mid-section ofOld Babesare wildly far-flung, though they riff on related themes. In “The Dead Interview,” Atwood herself interviews George Orwell‘s ghost. The transcript consists of lovely repartee as they touch upondisparatetopics such as anti-vaxxers, the January 6th uprising, social “cancellings,” and Orwell’s disappointed father, who lamented that Orwell had “thrown away [his] advantages” by becoming a writer. Later, the world-weary ghost of Hypatia of Alexandria opines in “Death by Clamshells,” “Many in your world have the idea that there has been progress since my day… I don’t know how anyone who has been paying attention can hold such a view.” Ventriloquizing Hypatia, Atwood asks if progress truly improves the human experience, or simply moves the old problems around.
The section’s most thematically distilled story, “Airborne: A Symposium,” depicts a group of older feminists convening in a living room for a committee meeting. Their conversation returns again and again to cancer, death, and their increasing sense that their time has passed, the younger generation willfully excluding them from the current efforts of social change. “We’re in the middle of aregimechange,” one of them remarks. “Wake up one morning, use yesterday’s password, off with your head.” Case in point: Their colleague is notably absent, as she recently used an ill-chosen metaphor at a public event. Now assuming herself to be “cancelled” following a flurry of angry social media posts, she has dropped out of the group for fear of sullying its efforts. The remaining members want to invite a younger woman to fill the opening, but suspect their solicitation (“an endowed chair for an emerging female”) is now passé. “Young women won’t like this chair thing, they’ll say it’s elitist.”
Atwood explores the way hungry up-and-comers sometimes attempt to prove themselves by rejecting the gains of the previous generation and finds that, in so doing, they risk undermining the social progress upon which their work is predicated. Toxic conformity is one of Atwood’s grandest, most enduring themes, and she finds “cancel culture” to be an increasingly troubling phenomenon. Progress, she argues, depends upon empathy and contrarian thinking. This has become an increasingly personal issue for Atwood, who signedHarper’s2020 “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” and has sometimes found herself in hot water for defending controversial views of identity and gender politics—particularly the view that gender-neutral language risks undermining women’s rights. Atwood’s underlying frustration is palpable, and the sharpest moments ofOld Babes in the Woodprovide staunch rebuttal against ageism disguised as activism.
In its explorations of both profound grief and changing cultural mores,Old Babes in the Woodis understandably rife with its author’s disparate preoccupations. Does it all work? Admittedly, the shifts from realism to sci-fi—and back again—are abrupt, but the thematic concerns largely hold everything together. Likewise, will her rebuttal to “cancel culture” prove convincing? That’s harder to say. To some readers, it will likely come off as sour grapes, the reflexive critique from someone who has been on the receiving end of unwelcome criticism. To others, it will be a clarion call, timely and bravely made. Classic Atwood, the consummate dismantler, fighting the system once again.
But such sectarian interpretations miss the mark, for they attempt to export the text into whatever preconceived ideals the reader brings to the table.Old Babesattempts to defy this reductionism by reminding us that beauty and ugliness alike are rooted in confusion, overwhelm, and brokenness. In the end, Atwood argues that grace, patience, and respect will always prove far more healing to society—and to the individual—than conformity, and it is in this timeless argument thatOld Babes in the Woodfinds its most resounding success.
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Seth L. Riley received his MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University and lives near Seattle with his wife and children. He is working on a novel and would love to hear from you at email@example.com.