Atwood, Margaret. The Stone Mattress.

NY: Random House, 2014.

To my mind, Atwood is one of the two or three greatest living writers in English. In each of her novels and short stories, what she has to say is always worth hearing. And the way in which she says it will hold your attention, make you think, and make you laugh. She’s completely accessible, too, not abstract and Joycean. And this doesn’t happen by accident, as her expert critical essays make clear. I always pick up Atwood’s latest book with pleasurable anticipation, and I’ve never been disappointed.

This latest collection of nine stories opens with a set of three related tales — because that’s what they are, “tales” — that focus on characters in their mid-70s, like the author herself. (And also like me, which perhaps is why I was able to identify with them so fully. Old people tend to look all alike to young people, but we were young and wild once, too.)

“Alphinland” tells of Constance, recently a widow, trapped in a Great Lakes blizzard with only the voice of her late husband for company — and the constructed world of the title, which began as a way to make some money, writing for the pulps as a young wannabe poet in the 1960s. She was living with Gavin Putnam in those days and hanging out with other Bohemians in Toronto, and she was the object of Gavin’s first successful poems. But then a girl named Marjorie insinuated herself into the poet’s bed and Constance went off on her own, and wrote more fantasy, and invented more of her world, and eventually became a cultural icon, and very wealthy in the process. Success is sweet revenge. “Revenant” shows us Gavin the poet, also now in physical decline, living with his much younger third wife, and suffering through an interview by a bright young doctoral candidate regarding the sources of his early poetry. Except her target turns out to be not so much the poet himself as the women he consorted with. You almost feel sorry for the old bastard, who has never forgotten Constance, his first live-in lover. “Dark Lady” completes the triangle with Marjorie herself, now living with her twin brother and gleefully attending the funerals of those whom she has outlived and especially disliked. Atwood’s portrait of the two of them, especially Martin, the gay classicist brother, is beautifully done, and also very, very funny. The unexpected reconciliation of Marjorie and Constance is nicely done, too.

“Lusus Naturae,” written for a Michael Chabon anthology of strange tales, is (for me) the weakest piece in this volume. It’s a beautifully painted portrait of what a young vampire might be like if they were real people, but that’s all it is. It’s not really a “story.” “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” on the other hand, is a very Hitchcockian story about a semi-shady antique furniture dealer who buys the unseen contents of abandoned self-storage units on spec, and his discovery of an entire wedding wrapped up and tucked away — including the groom. And then the bride turns up.

“I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth” resurrects the trio of main characters from Atwood’s excellent The Robber Bride, now aging but still feistily dealing with whatever life throws at them. “The Dead Hand Loves You” is another exploration of unexpected fame in popular culture, this time featuring a young writer who was forced to sell shares in his first horror novel to his three roommates to cover the rent. Then he got famous and they all got more or less rich — but he has only a quarter of what he believes he’s entitled to. And so he sets out to rectify things.

The title piece, “Stone Mattress,” is another highly inventive yarn about getting away with murder, specifically on a cultural tour up Alaska’s Inland Passage. Finally, “Torching the Dusties” is a rather unsettling story about getting through the days in a retirement home and the possibly bloodthirsty attitudes of the young toward the old who are taking up too much space. This is another one that will especially resonate with older readers.


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