Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2021

Wilderness Tips (1991) #2, by Margaret Atwood

Over at Buried in Print, it’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month a.k.a. #MARM, and I promised another venture into Artwood’s short story collection Wilderness Tips (1992).

‘Hairball’ is a deliciously spiky story.  I should have read it last week  because it would have matched the opening lines:

On the thirteenth day of November, the day of unluck, month of the dead, Kat went into the Toronto General Hospital for an operation.  It was for an ovarian cyst, a large one. (p.41)

The cyst turns out to be benign, and Kat, who likes to make an impression, keeps it in a jar of formaldehyde on her mantelpiece.  She calls it Hairball.

It isn’t that different from having a stuffed bear’s head or a preserved ex-pet or anything else with fur and teeth looming over your fireplace; or she pretends it isn’t. (p.42)

Her squeamish lover tells her that she has a tendency to push things to extremes, to go over the edge, merely from a juvenile desire to shock, which is hardly a substitute for wit. 

But that is exactly what attracted him to her, and what prompted him to lure her from London to a new job as a magazine editor.  Ger (short for Gerald and pronounced Gare to rhyme with dare and flair) is scouting for someone who could make readers believe 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. (p.45)

Kat has reinvented herself multiple times to suit the changes in women’s role:

During her childhood she was romanticised Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases.  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.  (p.44)

As you’d expect, she doesn’t fit in, in England.

She had an advantage over the English women, though: she was of 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 her back pockets, 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, how 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. (p.46)

But now she is thirty, she is tired of her upmarket job that comes with a downmarket pay packet, and she’s fed up with the way the English don’t acknowledge winter and refuse to install pipes that don’t burst in the freeze.  So she goes back to Toronto, and seduces Ger, unzipping him in full view of the silver-framed engagement portrait of his wife that accompanied the impossible ball-point pen set on his desk. 

Despite Ger’s promises, the editor’s job comes with constraints she doesn’t like. She tries to convince the board to change:

“It’s simple,” Kat told them.  “You bombard them with images of what they ought to be, and you make them feel grotty for being the way they are.  You’re working with the gap between reality and perception.  That’s why you have to hit them with something new, something they’ve never seen before, something they aren’t.  Nothing sells like anxiety.” (p.49)

These days, it’s called FOMO, Fear of Missing Out.  Whatever it’s called, the board isn’t interested.

Before long, five years have gone by and she is dismayed to discover that she might not mind having a husband, a child, and a house in the ‘burbs.

As the time to reinvent herself again arrives, she finds a splendid use for Hairball…

She has done an outrageous thing, but she doesn’t feel guilty.  She feels light and peaceful and filled with charity, and temporarily without a name. (p.56)

What kind of woman will she be now? Back in the 1990s, feminism didn’t have an answer for her.  Atwood is a feminist, but she’s also realistic about the pitfalls…

Title: Wilderness Tips
Cover image: The Little Deer, by Frida Kahlo
Publisher: Virago, 1992, first published 1991
ISBN: 9781853813955, pbk., 247 pages
Source: personal library


  1. OK, I *need* to re-read this collection!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha!
      Somebody told me how good this one was, and now I know it’s true.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Well I’m hooked, I need to know what she does with the cyst!!


  3. Whenever she’s asked about feminism, Atwood is always clear to put forth her definition, which paraphrased is something like “well, it depends what you mean by ‘feminism’ and then she follows up with her commitment to equality. When I was younger, I found her stance a little baffling, because every book of hers that I’d read seemed clearly feminist to me, but enough time has passed, since, that I’ve witnessed and experienced enough feminists criticizing other feminists for not holding identical opinions to theirs, and so I’ve come to understand her reluctance. Or, maybe I’m not as much of a “joiner” as I used to be. LOL I’m so glad you wrote about this one, because I always get it confused with another title (and I don’t even think it’s in this collection) and now I have it straight again. So glad you’re enjoying them.


    • The definition of feminism has always been a bit fraught, but now there’s this thing about first wave, second wave, third and so on…
      I have never bought that nonsense about high heels and spending money on makeup being empowering, so I’m definitely not that kind of feminist and I bet Atwood isn’t either..


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