There are not always clear answers in the “Burning Questions”; indeed, Atwood points out that the essays are really just “attempts” at answers and not necessarily all that anyway. “Fiction writers are especially suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous,” she notes. “The purpose of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.” Although this volume is squarely on the nofiction shelf, he shares his novels’ aversion to absolutes. These 65 short pieces are generously punctuated with question marks.
Read them and you’ll probably be struck by Atwood’s sensitivity and moderation. Criticizing our “infinity fantasies” as climate change becomes increasingly visible is hardly controversial. To assert that “the hard-won rights of women and girls that many of us now take for granted could be snatched away at any moment” seems indisputable after the passage of the “Texas Heartbeat Act”. Many readers today would agree that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is not specifically “a ‘feminist dystopia’, except insofar as giving voice and inner life to a woman will always be considered ‘feminist’ by those who think women shouldn’t have those things.” As the world caught up with her work, Atwood became a popular seer figure; despite the sci-fi trappings of some of her books, she seems to discern the world as it really is. About a lot of things, she was right.
Readers’ delight in “Burning Questions” may be proportional to the delight they take in Atwood’s warm, scintillating tone. She can’t resist an amusing comparison; she likes to appear distracted; it is erased. It can get squeaky. Anyone who has won as many awards and sold as many books as Atwood runs the risk of false modesty by calling themselves “a mere scribbler…a snooper in matters I don’t know much about.” Sometimes there is condescension in it; in one essay, she adopts an alien persona to show “earthlings” how to avoid totalitarianism – not cute.
Nonetheless, the breadth of the book and the insight of its writing testify to the reading and thinking of a long life well lived. There are a few good axioms worth repeating: “It is one of the functions of ‘horror’ writing to question the reality of unreality and the unreality of reality.” “Each of our technologies is a double-edged sword. One edge cuts as we want, the other edge cuts our fingers. She writes about an amazing array of things: trees, zombies, nursing, censorship, #MeToo. She assesses writers as diverse as Rachel Carson, WG Sebald, Alice Munro and Stephen King. She enjoyed “Kung Fu Panda”. Range is not a problem.
But some parts seem destroyed. It pads and digresses; what could be a sentence becomes a paragraph. The goofy coins look like waiting words – calling Tiny Tim’s death “cry”, for example. And some plays reek of early drafts – within a few pages, Shakespeare and his plays are described as slippery as eels.
This may be forgivable, or inevitable, given the demands of Atwood’s time. In a short humorous essay titled “A Writing Life”, she lists the things that have made her difficult to write recently, at the end of which one realizes that the whole article is a smokescreen for her own execution. According to her testimony, she has produced an average of 40 plays per year over the past two decades, which means that the 65 selected here were chosen from over 700 applicants. During this period she also published half a dozen novels, a few collections of short stories and two collections of poetry.
What is lost in Polish is perhaps compensated by the impression of direct access to his thoughts and feelings. “The Marvelous Doris Lessing Has Passed Away” is a vivid example of an opener that captures both the spontaneity of commission and genuine emotion.
Atwood lamented, in an earlier collection, that “book reviews lean a little towards Consumer Reports”, and indeed this The word limit only allows for a glimpse of what makes “hot questions” both challenging and frustrating. It’s certainly a sleazy rather than a straight read. But he’s a mindless reader who doesn’t look for the flashes of brilliance and insight that shine among the most everyday pieces.
Charles Arrowsmith lives in New York and writes about books, movies and music.
Essays and occasional pieces, 2004 to 2021