Wednesday, 1 April 2009

5. Margaret Atwood - 'In Search of the Rattlesnake Plantain' (1987)

Rich, literary in style - attuned to the minutiae of behaviour and characters in a way not quite seen previously in ASSAD. Description instantly draws attention to itself: 'hard fungi with underlines like dewed velvet sprouting from them.' (Margaret Atwood, Bluebeard's Egg, Vintage, 1987, p.229)

Atwood's story is about as far from pulp genre fiction as possible; the more immediate thrills offered there - or the cosmic, as in HPL - are disregarded. There is even a dig at Agatha Christie - 'when I am re-reading a bad Agatha Christie dating from the war' Albeit a dig at the middlebrow generic*. This is a piece most characteristic of what is popular with the literary praetorian guard today, and with a substantial body of readers; it is sophisticated, focused on human relations and delicate symbolism.

This story was chosen simply as it was the shortest in the book and I am pushed for time today - I have got lesson plan and associated survey results to compile for a final teaching-observation I am undergoing tomorrow. This is all unfair on it, but that can be the way of things; hence, this piece being relatively cursory. I can certainly say that I enjoyed this, in its quiet way; a hushed, doleful study in the transient: humanity going on to mirror the nature that the narrator's father always fears is ebbing. Some of the stuff on memory is not really that far from Beckett-Pinter territory, but dwells longer on the observational side of things. The father could almost be one of Beckett's tormented old men - Henry in that implacable piece for radio, Embers (1959), for example. His influence on the narrator, his daughter, is quietly unsettling: 'I have lived with this list all my life, and it makes me uncertain about the solidity of the universe.' (p.232) The uncertainty of memories and old age are explored with a clear, unsentimental writer's eye; there is a deadpan, absurdis bathos to the presence of Scottish Life magazines at the end, to preface the carefully uncertain resolution.

Overall, nice to have a low-key piece of deliberately literary writing for a change of pace. The crucial concern is to juxtapose mankind and nature as similarly affected by temporality: 'Birches have only a set time to live, and die while standing.' (p.229)


* I am willing, as is in the spirit of this exercise, to try out any writer at all and give them a due chance. At present, I cannot say I am rushing to read AC; Sayers, Reg Hill and Sjowall & Wahloo will do for the moment, crime-wise, at least in terms of full-length novels.

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