Making Everything Illuminated
ATWOOD’S WRITING HAS PROVED TO BE SO PRESCIENT‑ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE, THE PANDEMIC‑THAT SHE SEEMS OBLIGED TO DENY SHE OWNS A CRYSTAL BALL
ANN PATCHETT AND MARGARET ATWOOD BARE THEMSELVES IN THEIR NEW ESSAY COLLECTIONS, BUT MORE CRUCIALLY, THEY MAKE THE WORLD A MORE SCRUTABLE PLACE
EEssays published over years of a writer’s career reflect the ideas and explorations of a lifetime. When we try to discern a pattern in those compiled in a particular volume, we are like the stargazer who fashions 11 points of light in the night sky into a hunter carrying a dagger, followed by a dog. These Precious Days by Ann Patchett starts with “Three Fathers”, in which she describes the varying roles played by her own father and her two stepfathers in her life, and what each supplied in terms of acceptance, experience and learning. The book ends with a poignant but unsentimental essay on the lingering death of her biological father.
That may have been a deliberate pattern, or not. A more entertaining way to look at this writer’s shimmering essays is to compare them, as she has, to a series of snapshots taken when she is wearing a sleeveless gown, then a miniskirt, then a
low-cut dress, and so on. Put them together, and before you know it, she is naked.
In one essay, she writes of a very American rite of passage, the cooking and hosting of a Thanksgiving dinner for friends. Another is dedicated to her first and best inspiration—Charlie Brown’s Snoopy, whose boundless imagination, dramatic opening paragraphs, patient waiting by the mailbox, stoicism in the face of rejection letters, and musings on literature have taught many of us how to live the writerly life. Patchett enlarges on knitting, typewriters, childlessness, and the achievement of a pilot’s “unusual attitudes certification”. Mostly she writes about other writers, a lifetime of reading, and the audacity of opening a bookstore when all the number-crunchers have declared that books are dead.
The title essay is about her friend Sooki, who lives with her while being treated for pancreatic cancer, as the world around them begins to lock down. It is weighty, but no essay in this book stands alone. One illuminates the next, and Patchett’s friends and family weave in and out of them. In writing about others, she holds nothing back about herself. Soon that snapshot composite will be complete.
Margaret Atwood, a generation older than Patchett, was shaped by the prudence and parsimony of Canadian society immediately after World War II. Where Patchett bloomed in writer-friendly topsoil, Atwood sprouted through a crack in the rock. She was old when she was young, if we go by her early novels. But the comparative gravitas of Atwood alternates with unfailing humour in Burning Questions. This collection of over 60 essays, reviews and talks dating from 2004 onward contains a generous dollop of Atwood on Atwood, but for the most part ranges over a vast landscape featuring books of note, censorship, the endangered writer, the dangerous writer, bronze statues of writers, a translator’s dilemmas, the grotesqueness of Kafka merch, caterpillar infestations in the boreal forest, and zombies. The arrangement is purely chronological, and the author demonstrates her usual workmanlike analysis leavened with wicked sarcasm. Anyone she has to be deferential to is no doubt already dead.
Atwood’s writing has proved to be so frighteningly prescient—about reproductive slavery, climate change, and a forever pandemic—that she seems obliged frequently to deny she owns a crystal ball. Yet she seems now at her witchiest, with lightningstruck hair and prognostications to match. She is the un-Cassandra, and we look to her to warn us about the next disaster in store for our gormless species.
But we also read in order to understand Atwood herself, and how she came to synthesise her trademark compound of science and humanity. In her youth, she writes, she was averse to the idea that all good writers were high strung, and she worried that her own failure to have a nervous collapse was a sign of a substandard writer. Clearly, she hadn’t then divined her own future. ■
PATCHETT MOSTLY WRITES ABOUT OTHER WRITERS, A LIFETIME OF READING AND THE AUDACITY OF OPENING A BOOK‑ STORE WHEN MANY HAVE DECLARED BOOKS ARE DEAD