If there’s a mood common to the stories in Margaret Atwood’s new collection, Wilderness Tips , it’s archaeological — things keep getting dug up: The well-preserved body of a sailor, dead 150 years, frozen in the Arctic tundra (”The Age of Lead”); the well-preserved body of a pagan-sacrifice victim, dead 2,000 years, buried in a Scottish peat bog, who becomes the symbol of a faded affair between a woman and the archaeologist in charge of unearthing him (”The Bog Man”); a hairy tumor, big as a coconut, excavated from the body of a 35-year-old woman who preserves it in formaldehyde and then vengefully sends it, gift-wrapped, to the wife of her editor and lover, who has just fired her (”Hairball”).
In the best story, ”Isis in Darkness,” a Toronto coffeehouse, circa 1960, complete with espresso, aspiring poets, and pale, mournful folksingers, is dug up in the memory of Richard, a middle-aged professor. He had been one of the aspiring poets, and he fell in love with a beautiful woman who called herself Selena and whose poems were not the usual bohemian howls. Selena eludes her admirer’s courtship, and he settles for a conventional marriage with a librarian and an academic career in which he writes studies of ”cartographic imagery in John Donne” and similar deadly stuff. He has guiltily given up writing poetry: ”He had a paunch and a mortgage, a bedraggled marriage; he mowed the lawn, he owned sports jackets. He should have been living in an attic, eating bread and maggoty cheese, washing his one shirt out at night, his head incandescent with words.”
Selena reappears twice, briefly, at 10-year intervals — in 1970 as a successful poet in trouble, in 1980 as a ”short, thickish woman in a black trench coat” who is going to pieces. With his own academic life in ruins, Richard devotes himself, after her death a few months later, to gathering up the pieces: ”He will only be the archaeologist; not part of the main story, but the one who stumbles upon it afterwards, making his way for his own obscure and battered reasons through the jungle.”
The boggy territory that Atwood digs into here is the Country of the Middle-Aged, which is surrounded by a wilderness of loss but whose chief export for the time being is wry comedy. Even the stories that don’t quite work are full of shrewd and funny observations. Most of Atwood’s middle-aged compatriots are women, often alone, and in their voices every modulation of complaint against the advantages still enjoyed and employed by men can be heard, but the voices aren’t shrill. There’s no suggestion that the crooked timber of male and female humanity can be hammered into ideological straightness. Lost youth, lost lovers, thickening bodies, even the incurable toadishness of men can be examined with archaeological detachment. The only impenetrable darkness that surfaces is in the implication that our civilization, like the lead-poisoned sailors of 150 years ago, is being slowly done in by something that can’t be identified. And who will dig up the archaeologists? A