In the Afterword to Stone Mattress, Nine Wicked Tales, Margaret Atwood explains that she chose the word “tales” deliberately, to differentiate from stories. A story can be a telling of an actual occurrence; a “tale” is always made up and often fantastical. Atwood visits the fantastical in several of these tales; she also mocks it pretty cruelly and she often does both at the same time. Her sense of humor is both wicked and pointed. At the same time, she touches both our minds and our hearts, reminding us again why she is one of the best English-language writers working now.
The first three stories are linked by theme and characters. Atwood studies the power of a “tale,” specifically, a series of fantasy stories set in a place called Alphinland. In “Alphinland” we meet Constance, the creator of the alternate world. Constance has been widowed a little over a year and doesn’t like to admit to family and friends that she still hears the voice of her head husband Ewan. When the story opens we see Constance preparing the townhouse where they lived for the first ice storm of the season. Ewan’s voice gives her guidance along the way. In the early pages, Atwood captures several things with uncanny precision; the stages of bereavement, the early conditions of living alone after several decades in tandem. Constance knows, for instance, that her grown children were shocked to find unwashed dishes, an empty refrigerator and cups filled with moldy tea when they came after Ewan died. They didn’t understand that while she tended him during his illness, a “meal” for her was often a spoonful of peanut butter from the jar.
The story soon moves to a contemplation of Alphinland, Constance’s creation, the source of her financial success, and her refuge. She thinks back to her first serious love, a poet named Gavin. She and Gavin lived together in the early 1960s. Constance worked at a restaurant. As well as paying the rent, she brought home free food, because Gavin was busy drinking beer with his friends and writing poetry, and couldn’t be expected to work. Atwood nails the attitudes of the early 60s, the explosion of creativity, the sexual permissiveness and the view of women as handmaidens and second-class citizens. During this time, Constance wrote and sold the first Alphinland stores. Gavin and his friends mocked them. Constance mocked them. They were silly, they meant nothing – but they had legs, and they support Constance the rest of her life. And they make her famous.
The last third of the story circles back around to her years with Ewan, and Constance’s grief undergoes a transmutation, although it does not necessarily lessen.
“Revenant” is the second story in the trio and it focuses on Gavin. This is a vengeance story to me, but there is no character who is the instrument of vengeance. Instead the author, or maybe more accurately, the story itself shreds Gavin with surgical precision. The title is well-chosen; Gavin, once a famous poet and successful womanizer is now creatively barren, bitter and completely dependent on his younger wife. He is a physical wreck and his best poetry is years behind him. A young graduate student comes to interview him, and his wife has let him believe that the student is writing about his work. Gavin’s sexual innuendos toward the student are so dated she doesn’t even understand most of them. Then she yanks the rug out from under him by her explanation that she is writing her thesis, not about him, but about Constance and the “world-building fantasy series” Alphinland.
“Dark Lady” is the third tale, and the reference to Shakespeare’s possible mistress is completely intentional. At a memorial service, three women meet for the first time. While I was engaged by the aging fraternal twins Jorrie and Tin, I felt that even they were more like actors on a stage than real people. The ending of the story is clever but I wasn’t caught up by it.
Together these three stories comprise 116 pages and it would not surprise me to see them published separately as a standalone work at some point.
“Lusus Naturae” is Atwood’s elegant take on a classic horror story.
“The Freeze Dried Groom” introduces us to Sam, who is having a bad day. His wife is divorcing him and asked him to leave. His dramatic exit is spoiled by the fact that his car has a dead battery. I felt some sympathy for Sam, but as I got to know him better it ebbed away, replaced by that disbelieving, sneaking sense of admiration best characterized by the phrase, “what a piece of work!” Sam is a low-level criminal, a confidence man, someone who, as he says, even surprises himself with what he “gets up to.” At a storage unit auction Sam is finally surprised by something outside himself. In the second unit he buys, he finds items that update, and finally top, Miss Havisham’s wedding room in Great Expectations. It’s all there; a wedding dress, table decorations, a cake and a… well, I refer you back to the title. What happens after that is completely in character for Sam, but I almost didn’t care – my mind was trapped back that gloriously bizarre storage unit.
“I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth” follows three long-time friends who are concerned about the man one of them has let back into her life. This distrust of the man is shared by the woman’s dog. I loved the voices of these three old friends.
“The Dead Hand Loves You” plays with popular fiction the same way “Alphinland” does. This time, it’s a bitter male writer whose one horror novel, The Dead Hand Loves You spawned a movie, a remake (nobody likes the remake) and a cottage industry. Again, Atwood flips between the cynical present and the free-wheeling 60s. I loved every humorous bit about the book. The sentimental ending left me surprised and a little disbelieving. I think this is probably mildly metafictional, since the end mirrors the sentimental happy ending of Jack’s book. As he says,“Maybe 1964 was the last moment when you could get away with that. Try such a thing now and people would only laugh.”
“Stone Mattress” is, on one level, an exercise in The Perfect Murder. Verna says she is taking a break from men. She has outlived four husbands, and has plenty of money for now. On an Alaskan cruise filled with men called Bob, Verna spots a particular Bob, someone from her youth. He doesn’t recognize her or remember what he did to her. Verna’s bottled-up rage fuels the story. The flashbacks to the small-town childhood and the cruelty of that small town is searing. While I had trouble completely accepting the how of what happened to Verna, I never doubted that it did happen. This is a perfect murder story and a perfect vengeance tale.
In “Torching the Dusties” there’s a lot going on – too much for me. Wilma lives in an assisted living facility. She is losing her sight and the loss creates visual hallucinations. Tiny people and animals promenade across her window sill and her nightstand. She knows that they aren’t real. We meet several of the residents, including Wilma’s dear friend Tobias. Outside the gates of the expensive facility, something is starting to happen, something a bit unsettling that Wilma, distracted by Tobias and her macular degeneration, doesn’t pay attention to at first. Atwood clearly surfs the internet, and the sentiment expressed by the group that has gathered at the gates is as realistic as it is frightening. The story progresses to a strangely, scarily beautiful ending, and could easily be the “prequel” for either The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake. I admire Atwood’s virtuosity, but was overwhelmed by the parade of character and elements here. It was just a little too much.
Stone Mattress showcases Atwood considerable skills, and her acerbic view of humanity. When Ursula LeGuin reviewed it, she called the tales, “icily refreshing arsenic Popsicles,” and I think that’s accurate. Well worth reading.