ShrieksOut: Stone Mattress (Margaret Atwood)

       Once upon a time, I joked that Margaret Atwood could write about a walk to the grocery store in such a way that it became a dangerous, harrowing, terrifying experience that prompted readers to question every aspect of the universe. Such a walk could lead to a deep examination of every facet of the human experience, and in analyzing our collected data, we would find ourselves severely lacking. Anyone we passed on the three block walk to the store would make us hyper aware of our flaws, our shortcomings, with every mistake we've ever made reflected back at us in any accidental eye contact. The sense of alienation these (possibly) unfriendly faces would provoke would be almost crippling. I thought this was an amusing exaggeration of the way that Margaret Atwood could turn even the most mundane situations into compelling prose. However, in "Alphinland", the first story in Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood's first book of short fiction since 2006's Moral Disorder, she does exactly this.

      Early on in this first story, she asks: "But how can you have a sense of wonder if you're prepared for everything? Prepared for the sunset. Prepared for the moonrise. Prepared for the ice storm. What a flat existence that would be."

      And yet, one gets the sense while reading through these nine stories -- and indeed, any of Atwood's work -- that nothing can phase her. She is prepared to write about anything, from an old woman's walk through the snow to the store -- an adventure that rivals any of Farley Mowat's tales of the Canadian North -- to a chillingly calculated murder ("Stone Mattress"), with the same focused intensity and dry wit that are synonymous with her name. Atwood is an almost preternaturally consistent writer -- her name on the cover of a book is sort of the literary equivalent of a Michelin sticker on a restaurant window -- but Stone Mattress is particularly good, even by her standards. Atwood has quipped "I'm not prolific, I'm just old." She may not be Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but with 14 novels, 8 short collections, and numerous volumes of poetry and and non-fiction under her belt, she's certainly no slacker, and sustaining this level of quality over such a long career is an astonishing feat.

      I've reviewed Margaret's work several times (including last year's bizarre and wonderful MaddAddam: ) and I've struggled each time to describe what makes her prose so compelling. "Haunting" is an adjective that is used so often that it has lost all meaning. But there's something Atwood does that no other author can do -- she has an unmatched way of not only finding the grotesque and bizarre in life's most mundane situations, but also the much rarer and much more underrated opposite skill of finding the mundane and the ordinary within the grotesque and bizarre. The end result has a way of equalizing and normalizing anything within these pages from attending the funeral of a former lover to, well, plotting the brutal murder of a former lover.

       Granted, as brutal as some of Atwood's narrators are, those who become the targets of their ire and ill-will are rarely any better and often a great deal worse. A lot of authors tend to write the same sorts of characters over and over again, but Atwood's women have always been incredibly varied, if all somewhat damaged or on the verge of unraveling. There's a hardness and an edge to the women in this collection, most of whom fit nicely among the book's dichotomous title. A genetic abnormality leads a town to mistake one woman for a vampire in "Lusus Naturae", which gives shades of Lovecraft's "The Outsider" in the best possible way. "I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth" revisits characters from 1993's The Robber Bride and gives the very pleasant sensation of dropping in with three old friends you haven't seen in a long time -- and provides a nice respite in the middle of some of the book's darker tales. Fans of that novel, go buy a copy of Stone Mattress immediately.

        Atwood has always been able to write convincingly from multiple female perspectives -- The Robber Bride should be taught in schools as an exercise in this -- but here she employs several men with the task of narration as well. These are men past their expiration dates, holding onto life the way they hold onto their women: with cold, stubborn brutishness, attached for reasons lost in antiquity and more from capricious habit than any genuine esteem or affection. In Revenant, we see what Lord Byron may have become had he lived long enough for his famous appendage to cease functioning, as Atwood explores the link between creative and biological impotence. The Freeze Dried Groom allows us to get inside the head of the kind of man you would hear making polar vortex jokes about his wife's vagina last winter. The Dead Hand Loves You introduces us to a frustrated writer and becomes a cautionary tale of a creative "nice guy" gone wrong (Stephen King, please read this). Most of the men are weak, pathetic, and inconsequential, just like most men in real life.

        Atwood has been accused of being one-sided in her depictions of men, but there is some room for compassion here. In "Dark Lady" , the last of the three Alphinland stories (I would have read a whole novel of these), a gay poet cares for his flighty and somewhat insufferable twin sister. "Torching the Dusties" closes out this collection with a surprising and strangely touching bit of masculine gallantry (such chivalry may be the result of early onset dementia, but that doesn't matter. Remember, this is Margaret Atwood we're talking about, not Jackie Collins.) And, while we certainly sympathize with the cold blooded murder that a woman plans for her rapist in the book's title story, I think Stone Mattress is a great sampling of all kinds of pathos, in both genders, without any transparent agenda. Critics can never seem to write about women without accusing them of the ghastly crime of being women. If men seem victimized in this collection -- well -- good.

       I may be making this collection sound heavier than it actually is. In fact, there is actually a great deal of fun and whimsy in these tales, albeit of the sardonic Atwoodian kind. There's a sense of wickedness to the whole thing, and I sense that Margaret Atwood had a great deal of fun while writing these stories. There are times that Stone Mattress feels like watching an author at play, though in the vaguely menacing way that watching a cat play with a ball of string can easily lead a certain type of brain (mine, for example) to imagine the same cat rending its claws through living flesh instead of yarn.

       Atwood's voice is one of the most distinct and recognizable in contemporary fiction -- I could pick any paragraph of hers out of an anonymous lineup, even at the end of whatever bottle I was drinking that probably prompted me to think such a game would be fun in the first place. Her use of first person narration and mastery of the present tense have this strange almost claustrophobic effect of making her characters seem like prisoners trapped inside their own minds. The narrator is slave to and at the mercy of both internal and external forces and, particularly in this collection, the forces of their own bodies and the betrayals of age. And yet, paradoxically, it's precisely Atwood's iron clad control over her prose that allows her to so effectively and so effortlessly (though I'd imagine that the effortlessness is largely an illusion) make us feel like at any given moment we are able to be destroyed, whether by our own bodies or the random chaos of the world around us. The horror fan in me would love to see an Atwood-penned Final Destination sequel, though I suspect the result of such a project would be traumatizing to the viewer.

      Atwood is in possession of the same toolbox of nouns, verbs, and adjectives that all writers have. However, she keeps her tools so maintained and so sharp that she is able to apply a light touch and use two or three words when other writers might use five or six. A staunch environmentalist, Atwood wastes no paper in these tales -- every single word is important, every single word counts and has a job to do. There is nothing frivolous here. In this sense Atwood is the one true daughter of Shirley Jackson, and although she is better known for her novels, these stories show that she can do pretty much anything.

      I strongly urge those of you that are only familiar with Atwood through The Handmaid's Tale or the Maddaddam Trilogy to delve a bit deeper into the rest of her canon, and Stone Mattress is as good a place to start as any. It's a slim volume and left me desperate for more, but there isn't a weak link in any of these nine stories. By turns hilarious, terrifying, giddy, somber, gentle and brutal, there is a lot packed into this short book, and, as always, Atwood continues to prove that she is a master of all styles and genres. Rating: A


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on September 29, 2014