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.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high