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Holly Lisle's Vision

Book Review

Good Bones and Simple Murders
By Margaret Atwood

 Reviewed by Jim Francis

2002, Jim Francis

While Margaret Atwood's little book Good Bones and Simple Murders (published 1994; ISBN 0-385-47110-6) is, strictly speaking, not a book on writing, it contains many pointers for writers. It appears to be a collection of her writing exercises, which the blurb inside the front cover says defy easy characterization.

To reach a point in a writing career when a book of writing exercises can be published (and not recognized as such) must be gratifying. Perhaps it can teach us about the way this Booker Prize winner hones her writing skills.

For instance, in the chapter "Unpopular Gals," she turns the fairytale world upside down by writing from the viewpoint of the bad characters. The viewpoint character of the "Ugly Sister" proclaims her true love for the prince, and her hatred for the lovely one, who has only the attribute of beauty and need do nothing but sit around and be adored. The Wicked Witch from Hansel and Gretel threatens to sue for libel. After all, the children were abandoned as an offering; at least that's her story and she's sticking to it. A lot can be learned from an "Evil Stepmother," who complains about her bad reputation but says, "You can wipe your feet on me, twist my motives around all you like, you can dump millstones on my head and drown me in the river, but you can't get me out of the story. I'm the plot, babe, and don't you ever forget it." In those few words, if you think about them, you have a view of Ms. Atwood's thoughts on that slippery beast, the plot.

She takes commonplace tales and turns them on their heads. In "The Little Red Hen Tells All," she gives amusing thoughts from the Red Hen's point of view. Further on, Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, says her piece. In the chapter "There Once Was," we find a backhanded slash at political correctness in describing character. She starts, "There was once a poor girl who..." and then gets into argument with herself on the various aspect in the statement. "What color? Black, white, red, brown, yellow? -- I've had enough of white. Dominant culture this etc," and rips the whole statement apart.

She presents her insights on gender and genre. Men's novels are about men; women's novels are also about men. Men's magazines have women's bodies on the cover; women's magazines have women's bodies on the cover. Her thoughts on women's novels delve not only into subject matter and her reading preference, but also the phraseology used and the kind of words she says "I go mad for."

The woman wanders into even stranger areas. Dead tree stumps in the water become wild aquatic animals waiting to snare unsuspecting boaters, and in their turn can be caught, butchered, and stored in the freezer. She includes a hilarious chapter, a take-off on women's magazine articles, on "How to make a man from scratch." She calls the product something "practical and decorative to have around the house. Five methods of creation are given from traditional to the folk art."

This is not a book on writing, but a book in which Atwood reveals how she mines her brain for its understanding of fiction, on how it begins and where it goes. She does not attempt to wonder about the why of fiction, leaving that  to the reader. She has a chapter in praise of stupid women. Why? Because they make good characters. And also because they give rise to good complications.

Her view on the "topic" of the female body: "I get up in the morning. My topic feels like hell."

She gives her view of humans from the point of view of The Planet of the Moths. "Liking Men" is said to be possible if only the effort is made. With an imaginary short love affair with Raymond Chandler she explores the seamier side of a woman's character.

The book is enjoyable, puzzling, and deeper than can be revealed by a fast glance. It's a book full of nuances and hints recognizable by another writer as being dredged from deep inside the author's mind. What is to be made of three pages of thoughts brought on by the contemplation of a piece of bread, or three pages contemplating the blank, white page that confronts all authors? And the thoughts on the Angel of Suicide; is that angel the companion of all writers? She has also dug from within for thoughts on dying and death. There are thoughts on "Good Bones" that behave badly and ache.

No, not a book on writing, but a book by an award winning writer (including two Canadian Governor General Awards) that should interest writers and help them to understand their art.

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than twenty-five books and now has a book out on writing. The title Negotiating with the Dead is a reference to departed authors. I await it with some trepidation, wondering whether or not it will spur me on to greater efforts.