Old Babes in the Wood: Stories
"a master storyteller"
Some of the stories included in Margaret Atwood's latest collection have appeared before, but the backbone of the book are the stories about one particular couple, Nell and Tig, their old age together and beyond. They're still young in a flashback in the first story, "First Aid," but only to show what a completely different era that was:
"There were personal computers then, of a lumbering kind. And printers: the paper for them came with the pages jointed together at top and bottom, and holes along the sides in perforated strips that you had to tear off. No cellphones though which was why Nell hadn't been able to text or call Tig and ask him where he was, and also what had caused the blood?"
The stories that follow focus on the end of their lives together and then the aftermath once Nell is left alone, in the strange territory of widowhood. But where the book really shines is in how it focuses on the power of storytelling itself. One of the debts the living owe the dead is to tell their stories, to keep their memories alive that way.
In "Two Scorched Men," the narrator is a stand-in for Atwood herself in the sense that all we know about her is that she's a writer.
"Both of them presented me with their stories that year. Since they knew what sort of a creature I was, they also knew—indeed they trusted—that I would someday relate their lives for them. Why did they want this? Why does anyone? We resist the notion that we'll become mere handfuls of dust, so we wish to become words instead. Breathe in the mouths of others."
And then she proceeds to tell their stories, to try to do them justice, to provide this one last deeply human service for them.
Another story in the last section of the book, "A Dusty Lunch," presents these memories as physical things left behind making the same demand for respect, for preservation. This time the narrator is Nell.
"What was the history? No one left to ask. But what business is of hers anyway? None, except that she's inherited it, like the silver teapot, the sugar sifter, the fish knives. Objects move from hand to hand, things get forgotten about, their meanings evaporate. What to do with the poems in their tidy folder? What to do with the parade sword leaning in a corner with the canoe paddles, or the Distinguished Service Order, which is in a cardboard box on shelf in the cellar, or the silver pins and official buttons, shrouded in velvet and still in Tig's chest of drawers? What about the silent people, some alive, some dead, who sit in armchairs but aren't really there, and the man hanging in the shower? Because they are part of it too."
How do we choose what's worth keeping, making into our own stories, what gets tossed out? From the broad perspective of old age, what wisdom have we gathered, what priorities end up mattering? Not surprisingly, it turns out to not be that different from what's important when one is young: listening to others, hearing what they have to say. The ending of "A Dusty Lunch" could serve as an ending for the entire collection, even though it's not the last story:
"I should give up. I'm the wrong person, Nell thinks. The wrong reader for you. I'm sorry. All I can say is: I hear you. Or I hear something. Or I'm trying to hear something. Yes?"
We read these stories the same way, trying to hear how they resonate with us. Some work better than others, but there's never a doubt that one is listening to a master storyteller.