- The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood
Coral Ann Howells's book is exactly what its title suggests: a companion. Neither handmaiden, following far behind the writer and her critics with overly respectful steps, nor master, leading the way and forcing the writer and her works into pigeonholes and places they should not be. Rather, a companion – of sound and agile mind as well as of engaging demeanour, able to keep pace alongside and offer lively conversation and insights along the way.
Howells's Cambridge Companion is precisely this. It assembles a group of widely respected Atwood scholars from home and abroad who [End Page 448] express their ideas in clear and jargon-free prose and either riff on the key themes of Atwood's works or provide an overview and commentary on some of the dominant trends in Atwood criticism.
Howells provides two introductory chapters on literary and biographical contexts for Atwood's work: five chapters devoted to major themes (power and identity politics, feminism, environmentalism, historiography, and nationalism); three to genre (poetry, short story, and dystopia). Appropriately nestled between theme and genre, for it is both and neither, is a chapter on humour by Sorbonne Nouvelle's Marta Dvorak. Northern Colorado's Sharon Wilson has the last word, focusing on dominant tropes in Margaret Atwood's writing and musing on the trajectory of her work to date. A chronology and list of selected readings provide useful tools for the researcher. Both are selective and intended to introduce readers and scholars to Margaret Atwood rather than to provide a comprehensive or prescriptive guide to secondary resources. This is a companion, after all, not a comprehensive or annotated bibliography. In the spirit of companionship, it offers tips and wise counsel on contextual reading: David Marshall on celebrity and power, for example, or Susie Orbach on the anorectic's struggle as metaphor.
Howells describes the individual articles as 'chapters,' justifiably suggesting a unity of logic and direction. For despite the widely divergent voices and topics addressed, despite the insistence on the multiplicity of Atwoodian personae and the range of her work, one persistent refrain emerges: the significance of Atwood's role as chronicler of our time. Atwood's ability to reflect and reflect upon the present moment becomes the topic of a wide variety of the chapters, even those dealing ostensibly with future and past tenses – as, for example, Howells's own discussion of Atwood's dystopic and speculative fictions, or Mumbai scholar Coomi Vevaina's musings on Atwood and history. David Staines reminds us that writers seem startlingly prophetic not so much because they look to the future, but rather because they look to the present when the rest of us are still stuck staring into the past. The idea is Marshall McLuhan's, but by applying it to Atwood, Staines manages to answer a question that has nagged Atwood scholars: what accounts for Atwood's success and popularity?
The book also profiles new avenues of research. Germany's Reingard Nischik is right to say that Atwood's stories have been overlooked. Nischik explores them through the lens of gender relations but also suggests multicultural and environmental issues as topics for future inquiry. Humour is another topic that often falls through the cracks of Atwood scholarship; hence Dvorak's contribution is very welcome. Charting new territory, Branko Gorjup counters the critical [End Page 449] insistence on dualism in a discussion of Atwood's poetics and Nischik identifies the Baudelairean influence on the prose poems of such literary 'sports' (to use Alastair Fowler's terms for texts that don't fit into neat generic categories) as 'Murder in the Dark,' 'Good Bones,' and 'Bottle.'
Precisely because it sheds light on some of the hitherto dimly lit corners of Atwood's oeuvre, readers will want more. What of Atwood's own artwork, for example, and the way it comments on the texts for which it was created? What of the other genres in which she has worked – libretto, screenplay, and script? What of the palimpsests and translations of her work into other...