It’s always exciting to get a new Margaret Atwood, and this one didn’t disappoint, although it’s very different from her recent MaddAddam trilogy. Stone Mattress is a book of nine short stories. Atwood says they are really “tales” and are meant to “evoke the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales.” Some of them are also “tales about tales” in that storytelling is the prime focus.
I found many of these stories moving and powerful. If I had a complaint, it’s that the middle three stories weren’t nearly as strong, or at least they felt a little uneven to me. Part of that is the expectation Atwood sets up with her first three stories, which really work together as a sort of novella. These three stories are written about the same man, from the perspectives of three different women who loved him in their own ways. I loved the way these stories showed you different angles on the same story, and I also loved how they demonstrate that some people in our lives never go away (emotionally, that is) no matter how many years go by.
These are stories about love and bearing grudges and finding forgiveness. The three stories worked so well together that I was disappointed by the fourth chapter, which seemed to go off on a completely different tangent, and I found myself looking for those characters from the first three chapters, hoping Atwood had hidden them in the story somewhere.
So I was a little disappointed by the middle three chapters, and I didn’t find too much that was unifying about them. Then I got to “The Dead Hand Loves You” and I was pulled right back in. This is one of Atwood’s tales about storytelling. It’s about a writer who, when he was young and couldn’t pay the rent, signed a contract with his roommates to give them a share of the profits of his first book. The book, a pulpy horror tale, ends up being massively successful, and this contract, which he didn’t think would be legally binding, ends up haunting his life.
After that is the title story, “Stone Mattress”, about an aging woman who goes on an Artic cruise and meets a man who did something horrible to her when she was a girl. The “stone mattress” in the story refers to fossilized stromatolite, the earliest form of preserved life on the planet, formed by layers of algae forming a sort of fossilized cushion. It will take on another meaning in this story.
There are common themes in these stories about growing older, and thinking you’ve moved on from the traumas and the mistakes in your life, until they come back to haunt you. And I think it’s true that we never quite move on from some things, even if they stopped being relevant to our lives a long time ago.
Another common theme is that Atwood’s narrators aren’t the most likeable people, yet you do sympathize with them. Verna in “Stone Mattress” has spent her life taking advantage of men for their money. Jack in “The Dead Hand” spends his life bemoaning that his friends have three-fourths of his income, yet he probably wouldn’t have written the book without the contract.
The final story in the collection was the most haunting, but with a very different feel than the other stories. “Torching the Dusties” is about Wilma, who’s living in a home for the elderly and is beginning to see little dancing people at odd moments. She realizes this is a sign of aging, and really she’s just trying to live day to day the best she can. A group of protesters has assembled outside the home; they believe the elderly are taking too many resources away from the young, and it’s time for them to go. I loved this story for Wilma’s relationship with Tobias, and her day-to-day life in the home, which is stunningly contrasted by the slow, creeping horror of what the protesters want to do.
You believed you could transcend the body as you aged, she tells herself. You believed you could rise above it, to a serene, non-physical realm. But it’s only through ecstasy you can do that, and ecstasy is achieved through the body itself. Without the bone and the sinew of wings, no flight. Without that ecstasy you can only be dragged further down by the body, into its machinery. Its rusting, creaking, vengeful, brute machinery.
Now that I’m in my 40s, and as my parents get older, I’m more conscious of how aging impacts us. My father said recently that “the elderly know what it feels like to be young, but the young can’t know what it feels like to be old.” My mother recently said that the elderly are invisible. This book reminds me of how much I don’t know about what my later years will be like.
I’ve never liked short stories in the past, but I’m starting to build an appreciation for them. In a novel, the author has a lot of room to build a story, to explain the emotions of the characters. But a short story has to have an emotional punch. An author has to be very skilled to create characters you care about in such a small space. And Atwood is a very skilled writer. These stories are full of twists and turns, but in the end they are also about people who are getting older and trying to cope with the traumas in their lives.