How do you evade a rampaging crocodile? By zigzagging as you run, according to Margaret Atwood, since crocodiles, apparently, struggle to navigate corners. It’s a piece of wisdom she imparts in passing in one of the essays in her latest collection. To be clear, the burning questions of the title are less to do with crocodiles and more concerned with those issues “we’ve been faced with for a century and more: urgent climate change, wealth inequality and democracy in peril”. The most serious questions of all, then. Still, the crocodiles are indicative of a sensibility that prevails throughout: droll, deadpan humour and an instinct for self-deprecation that saves the work from grandstanding or piety.
The novelist’s essay collection has become a curious genre in recent years. Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie periodically produce them to fanfare, but really there’s no reason for us to expect writers of fiction to be qualified to comment on fact. For every writer that proves themself a stylish and smart observer of reality, another dismays us with windbaggery and vanity. Atwood’s essays luckily escape that, but they do have the whiff of a publisher capitalising on the odds and ends that litter the successful writer’s desk – the keynote speech here, the guest lecture there. Still, there’s something cheerfully game about how politely Atwood thanks her hosts for their invitations to speak at the “Carleton School of Journalism and Communication”, “the Charles Sauriol Environmental Dinner” and the “Department of Forestry’s Centennial”. She’s both gracious and tongue-in‑cheek about the grandeur of these occasions.
This is Atwood’s third volume of essays since 1960. It begins in 2004 and runs into 2021. As a summary of the travails of the millennium thus far, it’s a fair guide. She writes through the aftermath of the twin towers attack, the Obama years, the financial crisis, the Trump era, the #MeToo movement and the Covid-19 pandemic. There’s not a word on the double Booker stooshie of 2019, but there are other personal reflections, on the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and the death of her husband, Graeme Gibson. Here, Atwood is generous and unguarded – exactly what you would hope of her.
Some of the most interesting essays are about other writers – such as Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and author of the landmark environmental science book, Silent Spring, whom Atwood reveres. Canadian women get particularly tender consideration. In a piece on LM Montgomery, Atwood sensitively directs our attention not to the incorrigible, redheaded Anne of Green Gables, but to the unbending and overlooked Marilla who adopts her. Her 2008 essay on Alice Munro is the best thing you’ll read on the Canadian Nobel laureate. Munro, she explains, is not Chekhov, but Cézanne: “You paint an apple, you paint an apple over again, until this actually familiar object becomes strange, luminous and mysterious; yet it remains only an apple.” Exactly so.
But Atwood doesn’t always stick to the script. When PEN International invite her to reflect on “the writer as political agent”, she demurs “because I don’t believe that writers necessarily are political agents”. To insist on such a thing “breaks the bond between the writer, such as me, and you yourself, Mysterious Reader”. Still, the question of how we write literature in the face of catastrophic climate disaster is a burning one. “The arts are not something separate from us, to be taken up and discarded at will … We are hardwired for them, you might say.” This isn’t an answer, but it is a pledge to keep looking for stories equal to our desperate situation.
Sixty years since her first essay collection, Atwood seems here to be handing over the reins. “I’m an icon,” she says, and “once you’re an icon you’re practically dead, and all you have to do is stand very still in parks, turning to bronze as pigeons and others perch on your shoulders and defecate on your head”. It’s a characteristically dry remark, but it’s also a passing of the baton to “the post millennials” whom, she observes, will be soon in charge. “Let’s hope they use their power wisely. And soon,” she writes. Meanwhile, Atwood remains frank, honest and good company.