By Tom De Haven
Updated December 16, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Good Bones and Simple Murders

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  • Book

When, just in time for Christmas, a serious novelist like Margaret Atwood (The Robber Bride) publishes an overpriced, fit-in-your-hand hardcover book with some pen-and-ink drawings (by the author, naturally) and plenty of white space on heavy-stock paper, you know for certain, ladies and gentlemen, that she’s made it into the exalted ranks of the ”celebrity writer.” And Good Bones and Simple Murders is her holiday gift idea — a motley collection of fictional riffs, prose poems, and fractured fairy tales. None of it, however, especially brims over with goodwill toward men. Or toward women, either, for that matter.

In a cycle of comic (well, semicomic) monologues, Atwood revisits all the gender crimes and misdemeanors that animate her major novels, paying fond attention, as usual, to accomplished villains. But instead of creating characters, this time she relies exclusively on easy archetypes and slapstick caricatures. Here’s Cinderella’s stepsister whining about her lousy reputation: ”As for the Prince, you think I didn’t love him? I loved him more than she did. I loved him more than anything. Enough to cut off my feet.”

And here’s a fairy-tale witch justifying her taste for boiled girls and boys: ”Those children were left in the forest by their parents, who fully intended them to die. Waste not, want not has always been my motto.”

And now here’s Hamlet’s mom Gertrude having a long-overdue talk with her mopey son: ”I think it’s about time I pointed out to you that your dad just wasn’t a whole lot of fun. Noble, sure, I grant you. But Claudius, well, he likes a drink now and then. He appreciates a decent meal. He enjoys a laugh, know what I mean?”

Sounds like Garrison Keillor, doesn’t it? Or Saturday Night Live on a really lame night?

The good news is that none of these shticks lasts for more than a few pages. The better news is that sometimes, particularly in a series of mock-sociology lectures, Atwood really connects. In ”Simmering,” the best of them, male and female roles are suddenly reversed, and men, with wild abandon, take to the kitchen as they once took to the football field. Suddenly a man’s status is ”displayed by the length of his carving knives,” by how sharp he keeps them, and by whether they’re ”plain or ornamented with gold and precious jewels.”

But that caliber of inspired clowning comes far too infrequently. For the most part, the humor and the feminist satire are strained and obvious, borrowed and blunt. And from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, you’d expect a lot more acid. Does Atwood really imagine that she’s going to startle anyone by pointing out that ”the female body” is used to sell ”cars, beer, shaving lotion, cigarettes, hard liquor”? Or that ”magazines for women have women’s bodies on the covers, magazines for men have women’s bodies on the covers” ? Jeez, Louise. Betty Friedan was saying that 30 years ago.

As a stocking stuffer, this isn’t coal — not quite. But, still, you could do a whole lot better. A couple of good CDs, maybe? C

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Good Bones and Simple Murders

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