The Tent by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 158 pages, $18). This is an utterly remarkable book -- 35 little pieces in which poetry, fiction and essay coexist in dazzling symbiosis, of which the longest are seven pages, no more. This isn't entirely new territory for Atwood ("Good Bones and Simple Murders," for instance) but, in this case, these extraordinary miniatures are, by their very nature, paradoxical. You can only create such magical miniatures if, in their metaphoric style, they ALWAYS suggest that you're saying something huge, dealing with profundities and immensities on the run with ironic symbols and sketches. At the same time, her little parables have guts and venom a-plenty. (Their stingers haven't been removed.)
Her peers are probably Kafka (almost directly so in a piece called "Gateway") and Robert Walser, though the more obvious and easy referents are her sisters in fairy-tale twists and feminist mythology, Anne Sexton and Angela Carter.
A lot of these are about Margaret Atwood, 66-year old Canadian poet, novelist and feminist favorite so prolific, so versatile and so popular that there is at least one society exclusively dedicated to the study of her work. In "Voice" and "No More Photos" and "Plots for Exotics" and "Life Stories" and "Winter's Tales," we're in the company of a very public writer, long since anointed spokesperson for her gender, her country and her occupation whenever such media typology is needed. If it's a mirror she's presenting, she is wicked, witty and unsparing in her gaze.
But then in the volume's only poem, "The Animals Reject Their Names and Things Return to Their Origins," she plays a little Einsteinian trick and reverses time, with consequences that are simultaneously comic and cosmic and mildly awesome (as in inspiring genuine awe rather than the reflexive basement-level approval of "awesome, dude").
The traditional trouble with Atwood is that -- as with Joyce Carol Oates and, to a lesser extent, A. S. Byatt -- she is so prolific, so ubiquitous and can be made so conveniently representative, that it's appallingly easy to overlook what an extraordinary writer she is.
She is, in other words, too damn good for premature deitification.
Michael Martone by Michael Martone (Northwestern/Fiction Collective 2, 190 pages, $15.95 paper). Hilarious. You knew this was going to happen sooner or later -- some particularly cheeky and inventive avant-garde fictioneer was going to figure out that the self-written "Contributor's Notes" in the back of magazines and anthologies are, themselves, a kind of small bastardized literary form. So here's Michael Martone, born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1955 (all we can really know for sure -- other than his association with John Barth and the name of his wife Theresa) inventing all manner of "Contributor's Notes" to phantom magazines and anthologies, all of which tell highly divergent and often burlesquing versions of his own life.
He begins by telling us that all of his early work was, in fact, written by his mother "a high school freshman English teacher at the time." He ends by telling us that every time he gets a complimentary contributor's copy of a periodical in which he appears, he immediately flips to the "contributor's notes" in the back which is "in a way. . . like a party" where he once found himself with David Kaczynski, brother of the Unabomber. Along the way, we find such things as this: "In 1999, as Martone awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect" (which, my guess is, even Kafka would have found funny.)
You accompany Martone to literary parties for Syracuse University alumni (where he thinks he looks like "John Gotti Goes to College") and be with him when his photograph is taken by author photo specialist Jill Krementz -- but only because he happened to be standing next to Kurt Vonnegut.
It's a delight. Or, as Martone blurbs himself on the book's cover: "Michael Martone squares the facts about his life with the stories about his life. I found I couldn't put the book down and never wanted it to end."
-- Jeff Simon