Reviewed by Victoria Best
She may be 74 but no author could be less little-old-ladyish; time has not dimmed her writing that is red in tooth and claw. My first Atwood novel was The Edible Woman, which I read when I was 19. Even then I remember wondering how I could laugh my way through something so disturbing. Atwood has focused her considerable powers on dystopian fiction for the past few years, but now she’s back with a new collection of stories based firmly in the 21st century that displays all her trademark wit and cunning.
Stone Mattress is a collection of nine tales, the first three forming a kind of triptych about a writers’ group in sixties Toronto. Constance W. Starr, recently widowed, muddles through an ice storm and its attendent difficulties by following the orders that seem to come from the voice of her lost husband in her head. Many years before her marriage, Constance was the girlfriend of would-be poet, Gavin, a man who mocked her genre fiction writing while happily prepared to live off its income. Atwood has some playful fun here with all parts of the literary spectrum. Constance’s fantasy world of Alphinland with its ludicrously-named characters like ‘Milzreth of the Red Hand, or the blank-faced Skinkrot the Time-Swallower, or Frenosia of the Fragrant Antennae’ is subject to the same teasing as Gavin’s erotic poetry that includes such gems as “My Lady Licks My Plate”. At the same time over-zealous graduate students hover around, ready to turn the least innocuous crumb of biographical knowledge into unnecessary dissertations. The weird world of writing and publishing is just a backdrop, however, for the more lasting and intense dramas of love, loss and revenge that actually engross the protagonists, even if only in their imaginations. Fiction simply provides another arena for fantasy recompense (and a pretty good one at that).
For the vast majority of the characters in these stories are elderly, dragging the bleeding carcass of their past behind them. The bulk of the narrative often concerns the back stories that brought them to their current state. For instance, in ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’, the writer of a famous piece of pulp fiction plots to kill his student roommates who obliged him to contract out the profits of his novel to them when he couldn’t pay the rent. They have greedily kept the agreement up throughout their lives. In the title story, ‘Stone Mattress’, a woman enjoying a cruise with an eye out for a new husband recognises the man who raped her when she was 14 and plots her revenge. The stories are fascinating because you simply couldn’t guess at the secrets hidden in the characters’ pasts if, say, some sadist took the book out of your hands three pages into the start of a tale. Being old doesn’t make Atwood’s protagonists any more predictable; all you know for sure is that at their age, they don’t care what they say and they really don’t have that much to lose.
The eyes of the old are a good way to look at the strange excesses of the present, however. ‘Things are getting out of hand,’ Tony (yes, from The Robber Bride making a repeat appearance here) thinks to herself. ‘The crazed weather. The vicious, hate-filled politics. The myriad glass high-rises going up like 3-D mirrors, or siege engines. The municiple garbage collection: Who can keep all those different-coloured bins straight?’ And in one of my favourite stories,’ Torching the Dusties’, the residents of an old people’s home watch in horror as a band of rageful protesters systematically cut off the supplies and picket the staff before laying waste to the home: the ‘Our Turn’ movement is ‘aimed at clearing away what one of the demonstrators refers to as “the parasitic dead wood at the top” and another one terms “the dustballs under the bed”.’ Atwood taps into the fears about – and the fears of – an ageing population in her inimitable way.
There’s also a strong steak of B-movie horror. In one story a dodgy antiques dealer finds a lock-up containing a frozen bridegroom alongside all the trappings of a wedding that never happened. In another, a pitiful child watches her parents fake her own death. There’s never a dull moment in this collection, and Atwood remains as incapable of writing a dull sentence as she ever was. The plots are fun and wacky, the characters flawed and vengeful, and the writing is strong, supple and full of insight. One old lady cannot resist the promises of anti-ageing creams, ‘despite having worked in advertising herself, a vocation guaranteed to take the bloom off ornamental adjectives.’ A young man reminds himself to fake a little self-mockery in front of a girl he fancies in case ‘she might think he was pompous and cocksure and full of himself. Which he was, because at that age you have to be that way in order to crawl out of bed in the morning and sustain your faith in your own illusory potential for the next twelve hours of being awake.’
What more is there to say? Margaret Atwood, doing what she does best and doing it with verve and panache and dark, biting wit. A treat.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.
Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress (Bloomsbury, August 2014) 978-1408857168, 288 pages, hardback.