Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

 

One of the striking things about Margaret Atwood is how comfortable she seems with her position. So she should be, one might contest, what with all the publication, appreciation, imitation and general acclaim.

But self-confidence is no given with famous writers, however enviable most might consider their position to be. Look at how many of Atwood’s peers (and some of her juniors) have succumbed, in middle and old age, to bitterness – enumerating the prizes or honours that have not yet been conferred upon them; whinging about the ruinous effects of technology they don’t understand; obsessing about the rivals and detractors who might threaten their pre-eminence.

At seventy-four, Atwood is no pussycat or pushover – “infuriatingly dogmatic”, one interviewer called her; “famously scary”, said another – but she does seem admirably immune to this sort of self-regarding fretfulness. And this lack of fear, though it might be interpreted by the odd journalist as arrogance, shows in her work as a rather joyous levity. Though it does deal with old age, memories of youth, late-life fame and faded glories, this collection of short stories is charged with a delightful cheekiness, as well as a full awareness of the subjectivity of notions of justice and value.

There’s nothing dogmatic about it, and although it is occasionally scary – Atwood’s affection for the Gothic is much to the fore – it’s far more often funny.

Certainly Atwood acknowledges the baggage of stored-up rancour that one can amass over the years; indeed, if this collection can be said to have a clear uniting theme, it might be that by a certain stage of life we’ve all got at least one person we would really like to kill.

But she offers bracing and brutal alternatives to letting resentment rule your life, not all of which involve literally getting blood on your hands. In one story, an eccentric, elderly writer keeps the poet who broke her heart sealed up inside the fantasy kingdom that has made her rich and famous – Atwood’s lovely acknowledgment of the way in which artists can sublimate or channel their pain into their work.

Another, linked tale has the aging poet himself experience the dwindling of his powers when the sort of beautiful young woman he would once have unthinkingly seduced instead presents him with a challenging interpretation of his own past. Elsewhere, the victim of a long-past crime ensures that her revenge is served up very cold indeed; and in a stranger tale of retribution, an unrepentant rake has a run-in with a modern-day Miss Havisham whose original mate has met a mysterious fate.

Bad behaviour also reaps strange rewards in the story of a group of elderly friends making dubious interventions in one another’s lives, but old age isn’t all jolly rule-breaking in Atwood’s world: the collection’s closing piece sees care home residents who just want to fade away in peace targeted by activists who want the elderly to quit hogging resources and “move over”.

Speculative scenarios like the latter are an Atwood stock-in-trade, of course; some of her best long-form work addresses visions of the future that incorporate her personal fears regarding our collective environmental irresponsibility. Here, her focus is less on the future than the past, and on man’s inhumanity to friends and lovers rather than the planet. But in looking backwards, and in analysing the reverberation of long-ago events in present consciousness, these stories acknowledge that there are as many perspectives on events that have been and gone as there are possible projections about eventualities yet to come.

The past, even if recorded, is ungraspable, irreconcilable, and as such, forever undead. In several of the stories, Atwood allows the same occurrences and their outcomes to be glimpsed from different points of view, while others reflect directly upon or subtly echo each other. In one, standout work, events are refracted three ways: as they happened; as they appear once transfigured into art; and as they are recalled by their various participants much later in their lives.

Titled "The Dead Hand Loves You", this is at once a vividly-imagined meditation on memory and desire; a sprightly satire on the enshrinement and over-interpretation of trashy art; and an oddly affectionate portrait of a vengeful disembodied hand. The dynamics within a group of young and sexually competitive starving artists are allegorised by one of them in a silly horror novel, written for money, which becomes first a hit and then a deathless cult. The same relationships are then revisited and reshaped, when, as an old man, the writer tracks down and confronts each of his former friends.

This story is witty, weird, chirpily irreverent, somewhat hard-hearted, and hugely insightful about what changes during a lifetime and what really, really doesn’t. It is also very clever about another theme that surfaces repeatedly in this collection: cult status, fandom and fashions in art.

Atwood has tackled this subject before – with, for instance, her portrayal of the shifting context and reputation of the artist protagonist of her brilliant 1988 novel Cat’s Eye. (Indeed, the author addresses her own legend to some degree here, by incorporating characters from her own 1993 novel The Robber Bride into the story "I Dream of Zenia With the Red, Red Teeth".) But what’s particularly interesting is her evident fascination with highly contemporary phenomena: online worlds and fantasy franchises; comics conventions and obsessive geekdom; ironic appreciation of the ‘bad’ and revisionist dismantling of the ‘good’.

Her stories visit, revisit and sometimes dwell in the past, but her imagination is alive to the preoccupations of the present and the possibilities of the future. That’s distinctly refreshing, in a literary culture that often seems preoccupied with defending itself against looming obsolescence and huffily decrying more fashionable forms.

Atwood has characters here who are close to death, dead already, unwittingly doomed or – in one memorable case – freeze-dried; but her own curiosity, enthusiasm and sheer storytelling panache remain alive and kicking.  Anyone keen to consign literary fiction to an early grave will have to deal with her first.

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