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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor