The stories in Margaret Atwood’s 1977 collection, Dancing Girls and Other Stories, are fashioned out of bleak, difficult to work with (and sometimes to read) material. Streets, animals, relationships, weather, food—you name it, it’s cold, barren, hard. There is very little to explain why the characters in these stories go on living, except that they are human; and so like most of us, they go on despite the deadening routine and indignity, the horror of life.
This is one of the strengths of the stories: the characters feel real; the situations possible. So it is no surprise that the characters are neurotic and sometimes completely out of their minds. In one of my favorite stories (“The Sin Eater”), Joseph is a therapist who, despite apparently poor therapeutic skills, attracts a following—perhaps too much of one. His technique when a client isn’t talking is to talk on about himself until the client gets bored or figures out “that you aren’t paying him so you can listen to him talk about his house plants, you’re paying him so he can listen to you talk about yours.” He often asks client if they like him. The narrator, a former patient whose name we never get, dreams of dining on Joseph’s sins with Joseph in a surreal diner. She attends his funeral—after Joseph literally (and, of course, metaphorically) falls out of his front yard tree and dies—with another former patient and meets all three of his wives, one of whom wants to know if she’s one of the “loonies.”
Other characters include a college student with paranoid delusions, a farm wife planning for the apocalypse, and a stalker—all developed with a skill that draws the reader into the characters’ neuroses in ways that recall Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I could feel their struggles and knew their fears, even as I could not always understand; but, then, I don’t really expect to understand other people’s neuroses, not to mention their psychoses.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of these stories is the state of relations between men and women. The people in these manipulative, destructive relationships can’t communicate and often willfully misunderstand each other. The relationships either end or continue forward into an interminably slow torture of ineffectuality and non-connection. As befits reality, the situation is worse for women than for men, but not that much worse.
There are no easy answers in or for these stories. Full of grim, desperate loneliness, crafted by a skilled writer in top form, they are—like poems—condensed and powerful, clear and graceful; they create images that haunt.