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Electra Complex

Colourful print of a tiger against a star-filled sky

Art by Kathleen Quaintance

Sadie Leite considers the trials and tribulations of loving other people in Margaret Atwood's Old Babes in the Wood: Stories (Vintage, 2023).


‘We paint our toenails red, though we put shoes on our feet so no one will see our flashy toes. We know this toe enhancement is absurd, but we do it anyways. A tiny dead-end pleasure,’ says Nell, one of the characters in Margaret Atwood’s newest short story collection, Old Babes in the Wood: Stories. The curt ending to this line plays with the tragedy of eventual mortality. Nell speaks as a widow here, and the absurdity of hiding her spectacular toes falls into place alongside the motley of coping mechanisms which most characters in the novel inherit, despite being separated by history, magic, and chapter headings. Along with Nell, the reader comes to discover that mourning is harder than applying paint to extremities.

Old Babes in the Wood begins with ‘Tig & Nell,’ following various moments in the history of the titular characters – Tig and the previously mentioned red-toed Nell. She has not faced Tig’s death yet; instead, the couple is happily married with a relationship defined by unspoken telepathy and meandering adventures through many wooded places. Two allegorical threads tie these initial anecdotes to the end of the collection, when Nell fully adopts the burden of a widow’s title, coming to represent life’s reversal of fortune.

The first considers naive attitudes towards tragedy, particularly the insistence that tragedy is an occurrence that can only affect others. The second follows the anxiety of the human condition, in which we are prone to fumbling in the dark about the purpose of everything.

Atwood frames the second part of her collection, ‘My Evil Mother’, with this cohesive love story despite its eight stand-alone narratives. Consequently, its grounding themes – redefined old age, repeated history, unacknowledged empathy – weave the otherwise scattered anecdotes together. Witches and snails, linguists and war-veterans experience similar misfortunes to the charming Nell and Tig. It is a comforting game to thread odd characters into a knotted tapestry of understanding. ‘My Evil Mother’ twists the role of inheritance.

A mother, who might be a witch, juggles many magical tasks at the behest of her teenage daughter. However, right before the mother’s death, she reveals that these uncanny acts were to protect her daughter from the harsh world around her. Now with a child of her own, the daughter never truly knows if her mother invented the potions and flying, but she repeats her mother’s spells back to her child to construct a similar web of security. Atwood ends her collection with ‘Nell & Tig.’ Tig now occupies the back of the heading, a place where Nell can no longer communicate with him. The four ending stories depict Nell grieving her late husband.

Nell collects the stories of an older friend, François, before his death. They attempt to parse through the point of it all: a play featuring only a chair that rocks slowly to a stop, and another where, in all scenes, a cockroach climbs up and down. François’ final story, gifted to Nell, compares his open-heart surgery to lying on a billiard table that washes out to sea. An old war veteran, he can’t seem to grasp hold of his purpose, so Nell writes him into a story that ends with a happy scene from his younger years: Nell, Tig, François and a fourth friend enjoy another play on a spring day.

Retelling folktales is classic evidence of humanity’s propensity to moralise chaos by passing on stories. In ‘Impatient Griselda’ an alien helps settle the tumultuous wake of Covid-19 on earth by telling humans ‘an ancient earth story.’ There are some translation errors between the tentacled creature and the patients, like the main characters of the tale nonchalantly eating their captor. Nonetheless, the creature maintains, ‘But storytelling does help us understand one another across our social and historical evolutionary chasms, don’t you think?’ In ‘Dead Interview’, the reader descends deeper into the madness of otherworldly realms. Atwood herself is cast as a character who communicates with George Orwell through a spiritualist. Atwood lauds Orwell’s prescience of internet surveillance in his novel 1984. Like Orwell, her dystopian novels carry out tragedies inspired by historical stains. Atwood’s seeds are currently reproductive rights, global warming and Covid-19, while Orwell’s were the totalitarianisms of Stalin and Hitler. Both understand that their written worlds will (or already have) materialise in the real timeline.

Lamenting Orwell's death in a frantic scene, she calls out to him: ‘Hello? Hello? Oh, come back! Please just a little longer…’. Sanguine, Orwell replies, ‘Don’t worry. There must always be an end. As in novels. But one day at a time, eh? I did love it, the gardening.’ Atwood mentions his roses, planted in 1936, still flowering today, yet he does not hear her as he fades.

This is the melancholy paradox: some writers will never understand their legacy but must be gone for that word to carry any meaning. They cannot interact with the creations and supporters that live on without them, as he does with Atwood. The best chance she has is to pick one of Orwell’s roses and recite her poetry to the plant.

Colourful prints of a red flower and two blue birds

Art by Kathleen Quaintance

The final part of Old Babes in the Wood returns to the story of Nell, and she engages in a similar exercise as Atwood: she talks to Tig, even though he’s gone and can’t respond to her questions. For instance, she discovers a poorly-made wooden box that Tig built in high school, full of miscellaneous odds and ends from the corners of his long life. The collection is a mishap, the result of many lost things finding the same place to shelter. However, Nell considers it ‘treasure’ and asks her husband, ‘Why did you leave it behind like that? For me to find?’ Atwood uses physical substitutions for the ephemeral echo of past lives, settling the horror that comes with the loss of loved ones.

‘Death by Clamshell’ features the academic Hypatia of Alexandria, an astronomer, philosopher and mathematician whose intellectual success in 4th-5th century Alexandria brought her much acclaim. In Atwood’s revision, Hypatia narrates her death from outside of time, as if enacting what it would be like to meander the seams of a Roman ceiling. Atwood’s Hypatia is dragged naked through the streets by the Romans, who flay her alive with clamshells, gouge out her eyes and dismember her body. They murder her for ‘political’ reasons and Atwood declares, ‘Many obscure women have been done to death merely for existing.’ Hypatia’s legacy was perverted through time by history’s leading men. Atwood references Charles William Mitchell’s 1885 portrait as a telling example: Hypatia is naked, with long golden hair her only cover. And this is only a singular painting in a series of similar portrayals of her life. Hypatia’s tortuous end was painted over by the quick flick of men’s brushes. Her flayed limbs don’t make it onto the canvas.

Yet, Hypatia ponders the quandary, ‘Which is better, I ask myself, a puddle or a sunset? Each has its charms.’ She wonders if the male censor is in any way beneficial. On one hand, the world believes she died beautiful and young. However, as Atwood calls to attention, the torture of a woman, and her death by clamshell, must be recalled to hold the sexual violence of male leaders to account. Retelling someone’s story, long after they are gone, is complicated.

Atwood revisits the challenge of historicity in another story about two old friends recording their shared memories. ‘Bad Teeth’ introduces Lynne and Csilla disagreeing about Lynne’s affair with Newman Small, a man with notoriously bad teeth. Csilla believes that the spurt of passion will add drama to her book about the ‘literati scandal of 1967’.

The issue is that Lynne cannot recall ever engaging in said relationship. In fact, readers come to learn along with Lynne that Csilla is falsifying their past record for effect. Still, perhaps Csilla’s realisation ‘Why not enjoy the ride? It’s going to end sooner or later, so better go out with a tan?’ settles all. It may also help Hypatia choose between puddles or sunsets.

Adding some golden glow, with fictitious sex (amongst other things), is not so horrifying when solidifying life-stories in the timeline. However, there’s a difference between a man turning an academic’s prestigious past into painted pornography and women dramatising their own scandals.

To return to Nell’s hidden red toes, perhaps the answer lies in purposeful choice. Confronted with the void of death, of losing control over how others view your story, the natural answer is to trust the odd ends you’ve left behind and the empathy of living loved ones. They’ll get your story straight, unless it is all too heart-wrenching.

Nell’s toes argue no: she’s still a vibrant woman, despite her old age, despite her loss. Even if she keeps the scarlet flare of life to herself, she’s fully capable of settling the pain of Tig’s loss with a story that memorialises his odd collections and what that meant to her and their family. Emphasising the joy of Tig’s impact on others may be better communicated with a well-placed exaggeration. Invented sex surely matches Csilla’s character. Hypatia’s legacy rests better with a woman’s touch of magic.

For Atwood, grief is a battle between logic and pain. While the stories in Old Babes might initially dangle as threads separated by stretches of confusion, with time they weave together. Touching on a deluge of topics, the stories explore war, love, friendship, and death.

At first, they are just those things. Tig’s box is just a box, but Nell’s last thought might be the better perspective: ‘It’s a message left by Tig for her to find. Magical thinking, she knows that perfectly well, but she indulges in it anyway because it’s comforting.’ Atwood knows both readings can be true. It is both a box and so much more.

Magical thinking – or magical storytelling – exists with the freedom of poetry, of the speculative, of rewriting history with a distinct perspective. Nell paints her toes red and speaks to her lost husband – sometimes it’s easier to hide lasting mania, but sometimes it is necessary to let madness run loose.

SADIE LEITE reads English at Pembroke. Sometimes she wishes the answer to the meaning of life really was 42.


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