Margaret Atwood – Wilderness Tips

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At its worst, Wilderness Tips suffers from Atwood’s most common flaw. Although she’s blessed with intelligence that never gets in the way of her stories, there is always a little too much distance between the reader and the characters. That’s an odd complaint, considering the book’s genre. Compare it to Raymond Carver, and Atwood has better characters yet doesn’t create as much sympathy.

It’s odd. It should be the opposite. The close look at people in all their glorious flaws should make us feel closer to them. Atwood isn’t shy of the first person narrative. Yet it’s the same case with every Atwood book – its emotional impact is always a little low compared to the intellectual side of things. Then again, there are some brilliant stories here and it’s a prime example of how realist fiction should be done. So Atwood couldn’t get around her tiny flaw here, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is so brilliant.

Short story collections can be hard to review. They’re not music albums. They’re often written over a long span of times. They tend to contain experiments and snippets. For many authors, short story collections are B-Sides & Rarities – odd pieces of prose that are interesting for the die-hard fan, but don’t go anywhere and don’t really ‘conclude’.

The latter part is important. Even if you’re a great short story writer, why are all of these stories packed together? In music albums, you often have an overarching sound connecting it all. Great albums also have good sequencing, with songs sounding better in their place in the tracklist. Wilderness Tips isn’t so good that it starts with a bangs and concludes, but it’s a masterwork of a genre. That alone is enough to make it feel like a complete work, instead of just assorted prose for the diehards.

‘Realism’ is an annoying word to use when discussing fiction. It’s also necessary, which makes it more annoying. No one actually has any access to what reality is. It’s the Map and Territory situation. You perceive parts of reality, but never all of it. So how can humans write something ‘realistic’ when they only perceive a very tiny part of reality? Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most unstable aspect with reality – humans, their relationship and how they experience the world.

Some opt for a dry, ‘nothing ever happens’ style to inform the reader it’s realistic. That’s basically a cop-out for people who aren’t imaginative enough or too insecure. The ideal technique for realistic fiction is to steal stories directly from reality itself, and always be aware every story has as many sides as it has characters. I don’t know how many of these stories are based on true cases, but Atwood’s portrayal of relationships has always been brilliant. Here, she’s in top form.

I wish I had Atwood to help with me with relationships. She never slides into strawmen or caricatures. Her men and women aren’t heroes and villains, but flawed people. Sometimes their flaws make them easy to manipulate or abuse. Sometimes their flaws lead them to abuse or be terrible to others. With great understanding comes great pessimism, though. All over these stories is disenchantment and cynicism towards the idea of romance and sexuality.

It’s not so much that Atwood is a rowdy feminist out to castrate men. Women can a lot of flak too. Many of them are attracted to married men and work on starting an affair. The crucial thing Atwood focuses on is that every relationship has two participants. It’s never one person doing things to the other. Affairs aren’t just sluts seducing innocent men, or men being pigs. Both sides choose to do it.

Some relationships are abusive, though. Some people are assholes and only them are to blame for what they do to others. In these stories we see what pessimism is truly like. The assholes are never evil caricatures, rapists in the dark or hot young gaslighters. It’s easy to understand why they do it and that includes the backstabber in “Uncles”. What’s more horrifying than the act itself is their humanity. Atwood knows evil people don’t come from outerspace, kill people for the fuck of it and get blasted by dudes with sixpacks. What drove them to that behavior can also drive her or me or you or anyone of us.

The best story here is perhaps the aforementioned “Uncles”. While Atwood’s feminism and exploration of women’s position in society isn’t huge here – women are the main characters mainly because Atwood is a woman – that story explores it brilliantly. Again, it’s about showing the two sides of things. This time it’s about the relationship with a beautiful, perfect person who’s used to approval. I’ve met those. Women who are pretty can have it very easy in life, especially if they develop a few skills. Their good looks already means people are nicer to them.

People are jealous of you when you’re successful. The jealousy is even harsher when your luck is obvious. Everyone is successful mostly because of luck, but the Beautiful People’s type of luck is so obvious it’s excruciating. We also all know that our love for the Beautiful People is what gives them their success. We’re to blame. One way to deal with jealousy is to demonize the successful, disregard their successes or assume their feelings aren’t worthwhile. They’re so successful, so who cares if we humiliate them? It mirrors things I’ve seen in real life.

There’s also enough variety in tone and prose style to prevent this from becoming variations on a style. The hard realism and theme of relationships allow Atwood to experiment with story structures and styles without causing any disconnection between the stories. It’s the most versatile I’ve seen Atwood yet. Some stories have a more poetic, somber tone to them. Others like “Hairball” have jumpy prose that’s unlike anything she’s written. Sometimes she apes Carver completely with hard, dry prose. The tone is always appropriate for the stories, too. This variety helps to reinforce the realism. People experience reality differently. If all your stories are written in the same way, you’re too narrow for reality.

Wilderness Tips is an excellent short story collection. The only flaw is the slightly disappointing closer (“Hack Wednesday”) and the distance Atwood can’t rid of. Still, at its best this is how realist fiction should be. The events are exciting. There’s always a feeling of uneasiness and unstability which define reality. People are flawed human beings, sometimes weak or evil or talented but they’re always human. The stories also conclude more than they just end hanging in the middle of things. No one writes prose like Carver, but this is where I’ll direct people if they want to understand realist fiction.

3.5 tips out of 5

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“Perfect Illusion” – The Downfall of Lady Gaga

When Lady Gaga first broke, I heard decent but not unique Pop. Then the The Fame Monster and Born This Way came and suddenly, she was some sort of icon for outcasts. Her fanbase was called ‘monsters’. The myth was, Pop was a genre with zero originality and weirdness dominated by conformists. Lady Gaga brought a revolution and made Pop accessible for the nerds, goth kids, ugly people and so forth. If you were ever bullied in school or didn’t fit in, Lady Gaga was here to elevate you.

I never bought that. Sure, her music videos featured a lot of weird outfits. They were also always sexual outfits. Lady Gaga confirmed nicely to the ‘sexy woman’ imagery. No matter how weird an outfit was, it always provided people something sexy to jerk off to. She didn’t look weird or dress weird. Her music was even worse. It was as generic as Pop can get. Lady Gaga has a nice, smooth voice with no real personality. She sang about sex, but so did everyone else. All her teasing and tough girl posturing are hardly any different than what Rihanna or Katy Perry did.

Lady Gaga isn’t just unconvincing because beneath lyrics of ‘be yourself’, she’s as conformist as you can get. Her image is misguided. She took desirable traits – strength, beauty, dancing – and wrote songs about them. What defines outcasts are undesirable traits – vulnerability, weirdness, perversion, anger, intellectualism. ‘Vulnerability’ is a key trait. Vulnerability is undesirable for evolutionary reasons. A vulnerable individuals is a burden on the pack, and we learn to hide our pain and weaknesses so we won’t get cast out of the tribe.

Artists who did sang for outcasts, or at least had such a fanbase were proud of this. Compare her to Marilyn Manson who also predicted his fame in Antichrist Superstar. His stomping anthem, “The Beautiful People”, is hateful, angry and a cry of distress. He sang from a position of weakness, of being ugly and undesired. His whole image is about that. His look is, on purpose, disfigured and often androgynous. While Gaga sang about the virtue of sex, Manson mocked us with “User Friendly” and “Slutgarden”. Manson also had a raspy, slightly mechanical voice so that every song he sang would sound odd. The newbie that is Melanie is another great example. Song like “Cry Baby”, “Dollhouse” and “Pity Party” take all these undesirable qualities and bring them to the surface. When Martinez makes strength anthems, she takes pride in admitting how vulnerable she is. Lady Gaga never does it. She’s everything we expect from a Pop star – in love with guys, perhaps girls, having a lot of sex and dancing at parties.

Imagine if the excellent “Government Hooker” was performed by Manson or Tove Lo, artists with a better sense of darkness than she. Songs like that hinted that perhaps there was a weirdo there waiting to come out. There is aggression flowing through that song, chopped vocals and a sense of dread that the sex isn’t all positive.

The new song is ironically titled “Pefect Illusion”. It describes Gaga perfectly. All my suspicions about her were confirmed. She got tired of posturing like a party girl, pretending that drinking and sex is new. So now she imitates Sia. Sia was already a pale imitation of Lady Gaga, singing with ultra seriousness, showing off her voice without a hint of emotion (“Chandeliar” isn’t about alcoholism but about Sia’s ‘awesome’ voice).

Lady Gaga looks back on the disco songs of heartbreak and triumph. She takes the sound and themes with none of the fun. The song barely has a melody or a chorus. The hook is a repetition of “It wasn’t love/it was a perfect illusion” and behind it only a banging drum. If this sounds minimalist, it’s not on purpose. You’re supposed to dance to that dull drum. Gaga sings with technical finesse, pointing out that she’s, in fact, not that hurt at all. Heartbreak may have been tough, but she can still try to impress the judges at American Idol.

Truth is, even if she brought actual pain to the song it wouldn’t be anything original. A little after Gaga came Lana Del Rey, who was sexier, more vulnerable and more dangerous. She was also a party girl, but she stared straight at the dark side of it too. If “Perfect Illusion” was the comedown from her image, she’ll just be running against Lana. That’s a race she can’t win, since Lana has a concept she develops and plays with. Lady Gaga has anthems of strengths and seriousness, like any other Pop star.

In the past, Lady Gaga at least tries to be weird. It was easy to see through, but there was effort. “Bad Romance” had scat singing. “Government Hooker” has already been mentioned and it’s quite excellent. She took influence from Latin music on “Americano” and other songs – “LoveGame” and “G.U.Y.” were unbashedly about sex. It wasn’t subversive, but it wanted to be and if you’re unfamiliar with Pop music it is attention grabbing. “Perfect Illusion” is a regression to “Just Dance”, a song so unimaginative that it becomes memorable because of that. Remember, that song had the lyrics of “Just dance, gonna be okay, dodododododo”. I love songs about dancing, but they need to be passionate about dancing.

To her defense, it’s better than her competition. If Lady Gaga tries to amaze me with her voice, she does a decent enough job. There is vulnerability in that song that’s startling and more naked than Sia. She doesn’t hide the weak lyrics. Hearing her bellow out “I can still feel blow” sounds like she’s dying to be over it. Although her singing is triumphant, there’s something very noisy about it too. Some said the song is about a recent break-up, which wouldn’t surprise me. It’s generic, derivative and nothing original but Gaga occasionally sound like she’s trying to heal herself with singing. Maybe that’s why it’s so original. It’s a vehicle for Lady Gaga to vent. At least she beats the horrifying Sia in her own game.

The Friendzone! Or: The Demonization of Desire

Unless you’ve been blessed with asexuality, you’ve had a close brush with the Friendzone. I’m sure it also happens to gays’n’lesbians, but I’m not among you. I’m in the hetero majority and so I can only speak about that experience. Also, I refuse to gender the friendzone. Since the dating scene is rigged against men by nature (Controversial statement? Different discussion), we mostly hear about how men are friendzoned. It can happen to women, too. Nothing about being a female protects you from rejection. So for the rest of this post I will refer to the parties as Rejector and Rejected.

All the narratives you hear about the friendzone revolve around one principle. It’s the demonization of desire. Both parties refuse to acknowledge the other party’s humanity, needs and existence. Both can’t imagine someone exists with different wants. So they demonize them.

The Rejected’s narrative:
“I was a great person. I was kind and nice. They didn’t choose me because I was good enough. They only like assholes. They deserve to be with such assholes for not choosing me. The fact I was nice and kind and worked hard means I deserve romance. I know what’s good for you because…?”

The Rejector’s narrative:
“You didn’t want me! You only want sex! If you really loved me, you’d sit there and be happy for being rejected and that I found someone else! Besides, it’s impossible that you really love me. You can only want sex and that’s why I didn’t choose you. I know what you really want because…?”

Notice the pattern?

Rejection hurts our pride. It tells us that we’re simply not good enough. Sadly, romance and sexuality don’t make sense. They’re not a meritocracy with clear guidelines and ways of improvement. Getting thinner or funnier or more confident won’t necessarily win you the person you want. Rejection is a failure you cannot learn from.

So the only way to deal with this fog is to deny it. It’s always easier to deny failure, to deny other people’s success. When you’re in a system that has no set rules what can you do? You can’t quit on sexuality, so you simply distort it for your own advantage. You say to yourself that you’re actually good. You didn’t win the person because the person was at fault. They weren’t good enough to realize how amazing you are. You end up removing their desires and wants from the equation. Their desire is considered invalid simply because you are not what they desire.

Notice the language I ended up using. ‘Winning the person’, as if it’s a prize.

Of course, nobody owes us romance or sex. Even if we could control attraction, we wouldn’t owe anyone these. These aren’t things you give someone. Romance is something you create together. Sex is something you do together. You cannot remove the other person’s wants from the equation. The moment you do, you’re no longer interested in a relationship.

Another thing the Rejected forget is that the world is full of people they don’t want. They’re so invested in their “I am rejected” position, they cannot see all these people they wouldn’t be in a relationship with. Take a walk outside and you’ll see at least 20 people. How many of these attract you? In your school, how many of the attracting sex you wanted a romance with? There are plenty people you’d reject too. You simply don’t have the opportunity yet.

Now, let’s move on to the other side.

All things being equal, it’s better to reject than be rejected. You haven’t put in any effort. The main thing you get from rejecting someone is that at least one person wanted to. Overall, you’re in the position of power. You’re given a door and you can decide whether to enter it or not.

But a person who wants a relationship with you isn’t an offer you can refuse with no consequences. You’re not offered an object, but a person. Nevertheless, we don’t really like to reject people. Hurting other people is no fun. If those who rejected were good friends of ours it hurts even worse. Guilt is no fun. If hurting those we love was easy, people would commit suicide more often.

One way of dealing with guilt is to sweep it under the rug. If rejecting someone weighs too much on your consciousness, just write the person off as not serious. They only wanted sex, after all. That doesn’t count (Sex isn’t a psychological need, remember. Only SmartPhone apps make people happy). All the effort they put into courting you was just a scheme! It’s also impossible for a person who only wants sex to have good intentions. They must only care about their own pleasure and be selfish in bed.

See what’s happening here? You turn the Rejected into a demon, a person who’s out to hurt you. You spin-doctor their desires as if their invalid. When was the last time you were rejected and took it like this? What makes the desire of the Rejected so invalid?

It’s easier to reject someone once we minimize and dehumanize them. They’re already not sexually attractive. So we just think that they only care about themselves, that they only treat us as a reward and we are the victim. Someone dared to want us sexually! If wanting sex is so bad, why do Rejectors later have sex? Could it be the desire of a sexy person counts more than the desire of a non-sexy one?

The same desire we demonize in the Rejected we have, too. You will also only want sex from some people, or put effort into being liked by those you’re romantically attracted to. If your feelings are valid enough that you’ll act on them, why is the Rejected’s wants invalid?

There’s irony in the tough-guy talk of “Get over it! Nobody owes you sex! I thought you were my friend!”. Just as nobody owes you sex, nobody owes you friendship. If a person doesn’t want friendship – if they’re interested only in romance or sex – they’re allowed to quit. After all, you would break off a relationship you wouldn’t want, either.

There is a solution to this that’s simple in theory but difficult in practice. The solution is to not pick sides. We should accept that both desires are valid. It’s okay to only want sex. It’s okay to not want a friendship and only a romance. It’s okay to only want a friendship with romance.

Sometimes, how we view people isn’t how they view us. When two people want different things from a relationship, it doesn’t work and it’s time to rethink it. Love confessions are such a moment. The two parties should first off recognize nobody is being immoral by wanting something. Then, if both aren’t willing to settle just walk away.

Yes, rejection hurts. Yes, it hurts to lose a friend who wanted more. It’s okay to get angry and listen to a lot of loud music. You need to be aware there’s something a little beyond your anger. We should find ways of overcoming rejection and the guilt not by pointing guns at the other party. Relationships don’t always fail because of one party.

It’s difficult, but not impossible. I stayed good friends with a woman who rejected me and I don’t regret a second of it. It was difficult, but even through the anger I knew that it was her choice and there wasn’t nothing morally wrong about it. That’s life. Rejection happens, but we cannot move from it unless we acknowledge that it hurts, and that it’s done out of malice.

 

The Tatami Galaxy

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A common misconception is that being experimental makes your work inaccessible. Too many experimental works got this reputation, and too many people now think difficulty is praiseworthy. It’s as if jumping through 50 hoops somehow increases the value of 20 dollars. It may increase perceived value, but that’s not the same. It just means your mind distorted the real value so you won’t feel bad about wasting time.

Difficulty can’t be the main aim of any piece of art. Art is a way to communicate ideas. The reason we seek these experimental/non-traditional/avant-garde methods is not because of their difficulty. These new approaches are meant to enhance a story, to shed new light on the same ideas. Experimentation shouldn’t draw you away from an anime, it should make you curious and involved in it.

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Tatami Galaxy is a perfect example of an anime that’s both experimental and, at the same accessible. It follows a non-linear narrative, whose structure has significant meaning. The characters all look weird, but that’s only makes them more lively. The characters themselves are weird, but people are weird. All their quirks aren’t there just to make them different from one another, but related directly to their personalities.

Jougaski’s love for a doll is directly related to how he’s an idol for women. Akashi is cold and intelligent, but it doesn’t help her when moths are around. Ozu is a scumbag, but even scumbags like him can love.

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The way they are drawn is also important to their personality. Anyone who thinks character design isn’t important has no business watching anime, with Tatami Galaxy a strong argument for the importance of character design. The designs are expressive for their personalities – Jougaski looks perfect, Akashi is pretty in a low-key way, Higuchi looks both absent-minded and too wise to care. Look at the shut eyes and the small smile. It’s right between a wise master and an oblivious buffoon.

The designs are both cartoonish and realistic at the same, and that’s whole approach of the show. It manages to be realistic by being cartoonish. Too many times we see attempts at realism by being ‘low-key’, like in Mushishi or Texhnolyze. In order to be ‘realistic’ you first have to ask yourself what is the reality your story is about. Then you seek methods, techniques, and cues that make us believe in your reality.

Life is weird, but college life is especially weird. It’s not a matter of life and death, but it’s a constant chase after an ideal. Even outside college, the dream of a life of constant partying, joy and excitement is common.

In the age of social media, this theme of ‘rose-colored life’ is more common. People often post only the good stuff and inflate them. We follow celebrities more closely than ever. Sometimes celebrities rise out of that social media. As a satire of that desire, Tatami Galaxy is dead-on.

It’s not so much about choices, because whatever Watashi chooses the results remain fairly similar. It’s also not about some big philosophy about Destiny and Fate, because every time Watashi fails it’s in different ways. The reason he fails so much is because of his desire. This dream of the rose-colored life is his undoing.

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Whether it exists or not, the anime doesn’t answer. It shouldn’t, since easy answers have no place in a great story like this. What it asks us to do look beyond our huge ambitions. The vivid, wacky art style is meant to portray a reality that’s varied, full of weirdness and ups and downs. Notice how the colors constantly change. Life can’t be ‘rose-colored’. It has too many colors.

The message is, thankfully, not just ‘enjoy your life and be thankful for it’. As I said, there’s no room for easy answers in stories that ask questions. Failure is a running theme and the anime is aware you can’t avoid failure and how painful it is. Characters who should lead ‘rose-colored life’ don’t lead them. Jougaski has plenty of things that make him ‘not a real man’. Hanuki may be a sexy, fun woman but she still falls into bad relationship. Ozu may be cunning, but he can also fall apart when loves takes over.

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All the colors, weirdness, and personification of a sex drive only lead to one conclusion. Life is a mess. You can enjoy it not by stop aspiring. You don’t even need some sort of ‘mythical balance’. The world is full of things, of Ozu’s who will knock us down and Higuchi’s who will babble nonsense. It’s about trying to enjoy it despite all these things, to sort out the mess and find what fits you. You can be life-affirming without being shallow

Some have pointed out that the monologues can be too fast. At first it’s annoying, but it quickly dies down. Watashi still talks pretty fast, but the monologues become less dominant and slightly slower. It was easy getting over.

The Tatami Galaxy is worth all the hype surrounding it. It manages to be so many things at the same time, and never losing control. It’s realistic without being dry. The narrative is experimental, but in a meaningful way rather than an obscure one. The character design is weird, but it’s for expressive purposes. For all the reputation it gained as an ‘intellectual anime’, it’s so accessible I’d recommend it to anyone, even people who aren’t into anime.

5 tatami rooms out 5