MOST SO-CALLED feminist fiction borders on highbrow soap opera. Housewife discovers her unfulfilled potential in a local encounter group, unbinds her apron and takes leave of her husband, who speaks only to his briefcase and was sleeping with his secretary anyway. The author indicts all men, and women become the dark horse champions, carrying the weight of civilization in--where else--their wombs. One of the most popular recent examples of this plot is Marilyn French's The Women's Room.
But much has changed since the brassiere-burning fringe groups of the early 1970s. Betty Friedan, in her recent book The Second Stage charged that the feminist movement had erred in promoting the superwoman myth of the last decade, when women thought that to compete with men meant they had to be men. On that assumption, women wore suits, carried briefcases and before long the birthrate went down.
Friedan called for a rerouting of the women's movement, where both spouses share the responsibilities of breadwinner and homemaker. The options become broader for everyone, and feminist women began to realize they are their own oppressors before anyone else--a notion which French overlooked.
This is the new society that Margaret Atwood strives to find in Dancing Girls, her new collection of short stories. Her vision, however, lacks the optimism of Friedan's fostering nervousness instead. At times her characters catch glimpses of a freer society, but they cannot transcend their mundane and cruel provincialism.
BUT DANCING GIRLS does not depict a war between the sexes Atwood's theme is the breakdown of human communication, where men and women address each other like creatures from different planets. Atwood's characters bitterly avoid human contact, as if under some delusion of strength in solitude and weakness in numbers. This is the generation of impermanence--of childless marriages and unmarried couples who "live together" out of inertia. The threat of nuclear war hangs over them perennially. The men and women in Dancing Girls respond not to each other, but only to their inward selves and how they might profit from someone else. In one story a man resists a women's advances by telling himself. "Not yet. I can do without it I don't need it yet."
On the one hand, Atwood's stories are feminist because the women she writes about are active, ambitious, and often independent. But her stories go beyond gender politics to the sadness and alienation that afflicts both sexes Ind criminately: women mistreat men as much as men mistreat women.
Sometimes the barriers to communication are simply those of nationality. Atwood's characters are often displaced: Americans lives in Canada, Canadians live in America. The first story. "The Man From Mars," follows the tale of a Vietnamese man seeking the companionship of a Canadian woman, Christine. Although bereft of friends herself. Christine is started by the refugee's language disability and threatened by his advances. Eventually, she has him deported to Vietnam, where war is unfolding and Atwood's ending suggests that he gets killed. Only when Christine notices the headlines of war in the newspaper does she begin to realize exactly why her pursuer had fled Asia in the first place.
In other stories, miscommunication takes place right at home, especially--where else--in bed. And this is where Atwood whips irony to a thick, using her acrid insight to turn human ambivalence on its back. In "The Grave of the Famous Poet" the narrator relates.
He bends over to kiss me. I don't want him to I think of case histories, devoted wives who turned kleptomaniac two days month, the mother who threw her baby out into the snow. It was in Reader's Digest, she had a hormone disturbance, love is all chemical I want it to he over, this long abrasive competitions for the role of victim. It's like an Elizabethan tragedy or a horror movie. I know which ones will be killed but how.
Violence becomes a current that runs through all these stories. As Atwood's characters continue to cross wires, anxiety gathers like dust in corners until it overtakes the whole room. Love and hate become diffused between lovers.
In "The Resplendent Quetzal," a couple's sole reason for getting married slips out from under them when their baby is stillborn. Each would like to have another baby, but the husband is afraid to ask, and the wife cannot transcend the anger she projects on him and her own guilt at the loss of the child. Instead they go to Mexico where she exploits his love of ornithology and sends him off chasing her imaginary birds, while he fantasizes about pushing her into the Aztec Sacrificial Well.
But Atwood does more than just rail against the ugliness of human relations. Her willingness to confront the seamy side of men and women's behavior makes her forgiving. By acknowledging human shortcomings they become less acute Ultimately. Atwood sees the elements of Elizabethan tragedy in modern life, you have to descend to the bottom of the wheel of fortune before you come on top.