Four Dancers, 1899, Edgar Degas.
in language there are always these “points,” these reflections; this is what makes it so rich and sticky, this is why so many have disappeared beneath its dark and shining surface, why you should never try to see your own reflection in it; you will lean over too far, a strand of your hair will fall in and come out gold, and, thinking it is gold all the way down, you yourself will follow, sliding into those outstretched arms, towards the mouth you think is opening to pronounce your name but instead, just before your ears fill with pure sound, will form a word you have never heard before…
Although I’d heard her name many times, I first encountered Margaret Atwood’s writing in an introductory English class at university. A poem, “The Immigrants,” a blend of pitch-perfect cynical insight and self-congratulatory sanctimoniousness, which I have since found to be the bywords of Atwood’s work. Oryx and Crake was mad and entertaining and alleviated much of the typical cynical drudgery through its hysterical and hyperreal science-fiction backdrop. The Edible Woman, Atwood’s first novel, was super cynical and depressing but felt deservedly so, painting an unrelenting image of how patriarchal structures of power restrict women’s choices and bodies in the most mundane and commonplace ways.
Dancing Girls is a collection of previously published short stories, compiled in 1977. As with The Edible Woman, one of the most shocking and distinctive elements of Atwood’s writing is just how old-world it feels—a couple worries about not being able to check into a hotel together, a mother calls her daughter “dear” unironically, casual racism and xenophobia is everywhere—but unlike in that novel, it feels less significant to the themes and more incidental (and thus cringeworthy) here. “The Man From Mars” in particular seems poised on the verge of being about the intersectionality of gender/class/race/nationality, but unspools into a melodramatic and uncomfortable debacle (because the man is just from Vietnam).
My biggest difficulty reading this collection was the fact that almost every single story is about the difficulty of a heterosexual relationship and how men and women are so different and can never be happy together. Margaret Atwood has contributed a lot to Straight Literature, and it was fascinating getting this glimpse into the heterosexual mindset and straight culture. But it was very tiresome for me to read yet another story about how a woman is inexplicably depressed and how it drives a man to resent her, or how a man takes a woman for granted and expects her to be his servant and how her ambition for agency dooms their relationship. I get it. Heterosexual relationships are fucked up. Men be givin’ ladies a hard time, and ladies ain’t blameless either. But nobody can ever get along or be happy.
My three favourite stories—”Polarities,” which is set in Edmonton and tells the tale of a woman slowly devolving into madness from the boredom and cold; “When It Happens,” about a middle-aged farm wife fantasizing about the collapse of civilization; and “Dancing Girls” itself, which is about an urban design student and her mysterious foreign housemate—are notable exceptions to this rule. (Although the first two admittedly involve thorny straight relationship dynamics in a lesser way.)
If you want to indulge in the apparently inherent drama of straight relationships and enjoy dreary meandering stories with no real conclusions, then this is the book for you! Otherwise I’d recommend you stick to our resident Canadian Literary Icon’s novels, which so far have proven far more coherent and expansive in their construction and content.