- Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 1982-2004
Reading this latest collection of Margaret Atwood's non-fiction has been like revisiting my past. With her usual intelligence and perception, Atwood has captured the times through which we have lived, in Canada and the wider world. From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the American invasion of Iraq, from the death of Marian Engel to the death of Carol Shields, from new work by Italo Calvino to Studs Terkel's latest volume, from Alabama to Beechy Island, from Afghanistan to Australia ... what has she not seen or read, where has she not been? And how can I capture the scope of her observations or the passion with which she writes about our times or the ways in which a comment, image, or fact conjures up the past for me? [End Page 403]
Instead, I must single out just a few pieces that hit me hard and urge anyone interested in Atwood's work and life to read this volume with care. She provides us with fascinating glimpses into her process of researching and writing such novels as Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake, and along the way she reveals her literary preferences and influences and her acute political sensibility. But perhaps most important, she demonstrates her complex relation with her time and place, which may be rooted in Toronto but extends around the world. I will never understand how she does it all, the travelling, the novel and poetry writing, the speaking, while still producing the more occasional prose pieces collected here. Because of the personal tone and autobiographical information in many of these pieces, I feel close to the woman herself, as if getting to know her better.
Among the essays that I will cherish are her commemorative ones about writers like Engel, Shields, Matt Cohen, Mordecai Richler, Timothy Findley, and Gwendolyn MacEwen. We have lost so many fine writers over the past two decades and, while I know that, it comes as a shock to reflect on this loss. I confess that her piece on Marian Engel moved me to tears, but there is also a deep wisdom in Atwood's comment that 'a dying person can be thought of as dying or living. Marian thought of herself as living.' And her reflections on a trip in the Arctic that included a stop at Beechy Island turn a private lived moment into the stuff of myth when Atwood celebrates MacEwen, then gathers up a pebble that she would later carry to Gwendolyn MacEwen Park in Toronto and bury so that 'somewhere in the heart of darkest Toronto, its exact location known only to me, there's a tiny piece of geology brought all the way from Beechy Island.' Yes, a tiny piece of geology and a huge piece of cultural memory that links the mid-nineteenth century with the early twenty-first century, Sir John Franklin and the North-West Passage with southern Canada, and Gwendolyn MacEwen and Margaret Atwood with us. Atwood concludes this essay with a quotation from MacEwen's poem about Franklin called Terror and Erebus: 'So I've followed you here ...' and so I have, so we have.
But the essays in Moving Targets do not always appeal to memory and emotion. Some are hard-hitting warnings about the current mess of our world. The title of this volume is carefully chosen. Atwood's key targets are environmental degradation, religious fanaticism, political tyranny, and war, and while she comments on these all too familiar phenomena throughout the volume the four most politically astute pieces are 'Napoleon's Two Biggest Mistakes,' 'Letter to America,' 'Writing Oryx and Crake,' and 'George Orwell: Some Personal Connections.' History, Atwood reminds us, proves that 'when a whole population hates you, and hates you fanatically, it's difficult to rule,' and Orwell warned us about state surveillance, which Atwood notes is 'back again with a vengeance' after 9/11. But will those in power read these essays? I don't know, but I urge [End Page 404] you to...