The Book: “Wilderness Tips” – ‘Hairball’ (Margaret Atwood)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

51DJ9PHE37L.jpgNext book on the shelf is Wilderness Tips -a pretty much universally spectacular short story collection. One of my favorites of her stories is in this collection – it’s called “Hairball” … and that’s what I’ll excerpt today. This story is a major freakout. It might be her angriest story – and yet it’s also one of her funniest. Atwood never goes the expected way … This story is a RAGE (and it makes sense that our narrator is a managing editor of a magazine that she originally wanted to call “all the rage” – but that name was nixed – it’s now called “The Razor’s Edge”) – “The Razor’s Edge” is a hip edgy Toronto magazine (which is a joke in and of itself, at least in Atwood’s caustic view) – and in its pages are columns about S&M clothing, photo layouts of sex toys, reviews of avant garde performance art pieces, edible condoms, you know – the point is to be as confrontational as possible. Kat loves that. She prides herself on her hard-ness, her cynicism – and the fact that people are “shocked”. By what she writes and by who she is. She has no earnestness. She scorns sincerity. She is on the cutting edge. The story opens, though, with something completely “sincere” – meaning, there is no way to put a cynical spin on it. She has an ovarian cyst removed. The cyst is the size of a coconut. She asks the doctor if she can see it. It is huge. A huge hairball. With fully formed teeth stuck in it. She is mesmerized by it. She puts it in a jar of formaldehyde, takes it home, and puts it on her mantel. She likes the thought that it will shock people. She refuses to believe that she herself is shocked. That her body produced such a monstrosity. The “hairball” takes on a kind of personality – it sits on the mantel, and she talks to it, confides in it … she stares at it, hypnotized. Meanwhile, she continues on as though nothing has changed. As though she has not been altered in some way by this surgery … as though she is not now missing something. Her boyfriend is a dude named Ger – (she re-named him – Kat didn’t like his real name) … and Ger is freaked by the hairball, and … well, the story comes to an inevitable conclusion. Or – it seems inevitable once you reach the end. I never saw it coming but as it unfolded, I started laughing … Of course. Of course that is what she would do. Kat’s “rage” up to the point of the story was a pose, a cynical “world-weary” pose – in a rage at propriety, bourgeois values, her own country and its pretensions. But once that hairball comes out – Kat starts to discover what real rage is.

Great story. Here’s an excerpt.

Excerpt from Wilderness Tips – by Margaret Atwood, “Hairball”

During her childhood she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillow-cases. By high school she’d shed the frills and emerged as a bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped-denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail. It was also unusual. In England you had to do something to get their attention, especially if you weren’t English. Safe in this incarnation, she Ramboed through the eighties.

It was the name, she still thinks, that got her the interview and then the job. The job with an avant-garde magazine, the kind that was printed on matte stock in black and white, with overexposed close-ups of women with hair blowing over their eyes, one nostril prominent: the razor’s edge, it was called. Haircuts as art, some real art, film reviews, a little stardust, wardrobes of ideas that were clothes and of clothes that were ideas – the metaphysical shoulder pad. She learned her trade well, hands-on. She learned what worked.

She made her way up the ladder, from layout to design, then to the supervision of whole spreads, and then whole issues. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. She had become a creator; she created total looks. After a while she could walk down the street in Soho or stand in the lobby at openings and witness her handiwork incarnate, strolling around in outfits she’d put together, spouting her warmed-over pronouncements. It was like being God, only God had never got around to off-the-rack lines.

By that time her face had lost its roundness, though the teeth of course remained: there was something to be said for North American dentistry. She’d shaved off most of her hair, worked on the drop-dead stare, perfected a certain turn of the neck that conveyed an aloof inner authority. What you had to make them believe was that you knew something they didn’t know yet. What you also had to make them believe was that they too could know this thing, this thing that would give them eminence and power and sexual allure, that would attract envy to them – but for a price. The price of the magazine. What they could never get through their heads was that it was done entirely with cameras. Frozen light, frozen time. Given the angle, she could make any woman look ugly. Any man as well. She could make anyone look beautiful, or at least interesting. It was all photography, it was all iconography. It was all in the choosing eye. This was the thing that could never be bought, no matter how much of your pitiful monthly wage you blew on snakeskin.

Despite the status, the razor’s edge was fairly low-paying. Kat herself could not afford many of the things she contextualized so well. The grottiness and expense of London began to get to her; she got tired of gorging on the canapes at literary launches in order to scrimp on groceries, tired of the fuggy smell of cigarettes ground into the red-and-maroon carpeting of pubs, tired of the pipes bursting every time it froze in winter, and of the Clarissa and Melissas and Penelopes at the magazine rabbiting on about how they had been literally, absolutely, totally freezing all night, and how it literally, absolutely, totally, usually never got that cold. It always got that cold. The pipes always burst. Nobody thought of putting in real pipes, ones that would not burst next time. Burst pipes were an English tradition, like so many others.

Like, for instance, English men. Charm the knickers off you with their mellow vowels and frivolous verbiage, and then, once they’d got them off, panic and run. Or else stay and whinge. The English called it whinging instead of whining. It was better, really. Like a creaking hinge. It was a traditional compliment to be whinged at by an Englishman. It was his way of saying he trusted you, he was conferring upon you the privilege of getting to know the real him. The inner, whining him. That was how they thought of women, secretly: whinge receptacles. Kat could play it, but that didn’t mean she liked it.

She had an advantage over the English women, though: she was of no class. She had no class. She was in a class of her own. She could roll around among the English men, all different kinds of them, secure in the knowledge that she was not being measured against the class yardsticks and accent-detectors they carried around in their back pockets, was not subject to the petty snobberies and resentments that lent such richness to their inner lives. The flip side of this freedom was that she was beyond the pale. She was a colonial – how fresh, hoiw vital, how anonymous, how finally of no consequence. Like a hole in the wall, she could be told all secrets and then be abandoned with no guilt.

She was too smart, of course. The English men were very competitive; they liked to win. Several times it hurt. Twice she had abortions, because the men in question were not up for the alternative. She learned to say that she didn’t want children anyway, that if she longed for a rug-rat she would buy a gerbil. Her life began to seem long. Her adrenaline was running out. Soon she would be thirty, and all she could see ahead was more of the same.

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6 Responses to The Book: “Wilderness Tips” – ‘Hairball’ (Margaret Atwood)

  1. Jon says:

    Oh god. “Her adrenaline was running out.” A life lived on adrenaline. Wow. As if the whole thing were balanced on the edge of driving at 5000 mph or nothing. Can’t imagine what the come-down would feel like. And apparenly neither can Kat–given what she does ultimately with the hairball. In that sense, I think you’re absolutely right about just how untapped (and unexamined) her anger is. Which is also what makes Atwood’s take on Kat’s progression from a Laura Ashley-wearing girl to mean-spirited, head-shaven editrix especially layered: we know, even while reveling in the ironic and perversely celebratory descriptions of Kat’s maturation into someone not-to-be-fucked-with, just how morally dubious the whole enterprise is. And we get this not only in the content, but even at the level of syntax. Brilliant. There’s no stopping her–Atwood–when it comes to skewering media forces, especially the magazine industry. Ha! Of all days to come back to your site! Thanks for posting! (and thanks for giving me a copy of Hairball way back when!) (way back when!)

  2. red says:

    Jon – Yay, I am SO glad you showed up for this one – I immediately thought of you when I went to post this story. Also that insane party at my house where all the women ended up shrieking in the corner about our gynecological issues as all the men cowered in the background. hahaha remember that?? And we were talking about Hairball, too. Like: IT HAS TEETH IN IT!

    And yes yes yes with your comment about how “dubious” the whole enterprise is. Like – Atwood is being bitchy here, but not TOO bitchy. We are IN the world, but we are also commenting on it.

    You get the hint with the casual phrase “Take-back-the-night jeans” that Kat is kind of along for the ride – she’s not REALLY a “take back the night” girl … and Atwood doesn’t skewer the Take back the night movement … but in that one phrase, she certainly skewers the dilettantes. If you know what I mean.

  3. Jon says:

    Hairballa Dentata: yes, I think (if I’m remembering correctly) that it was like being at an orthodox Jewish wedding party in reverse…where all the women on one side were whooping it up about their life-and-tooth-force-giving organs while the men sat like sullen matrons on the other side of the room, wondering what would happen later that night when everyone went home and turned in.

    But, yes, Atwood’s bitchiness. She’s so good at indulging it while simultaneously detaching herself from it. And I think she gets especially strong mileage out of that posture in stories and essays or interviews, where the length of the piece is just about how long we might tolerate the tone before possibly becoming flattened or enervated by it. I don’t think, though, we could take it for the length of a novel–and of the ones I’ve read (Handmaid’s, Cat’s Eye, & Bodily Harm), there are long stretches where the irony is put (rightfully) on the back burner.

    Still, with the repetition of the word “it” in a line like “It was all photography, it was all iconography. It was all in the choosing eye,” how could you not admire her for the verve with which she rides the edge of both playing up and debunking the world of her story.

  4. red says:

    //life-and-tooth-force-giving organs //


    I remember we were all screaming about giving birth, and hairballs, and there was some big conversation about our assholes – literally – and the decibel level got louder and louder – and you guys suddenly were like teensy pipsqueaks huddling in the corner of the room.


    And awesome point about the ironic detached tone. Yes – there are long sections in Handmaid’s Tale when she drops it … and out comes the heart, the warmth, the loss – all of that human stuff. And Cat’s Eye – fuggedaboutit. Great book. Perfect modulation of this thruout – especially since she goes back and forth between eras of her life – middle age woman, 9 year old girl … the voice changes too.

    Great stuff.

  5. melissa says:

    I’m currently re-reading Alias Grace to prepare for reading Cat’s Eye for the first time….

  6. red says:

    Oh man, melissa. I’m almost nervous to hear your response to it. And also excited – that you’re about to read it for the first time.

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