Margaret Atwood is in the first rank of literary fame and her trophy cabinet is handsomely stocked; yet she has never fully shaken off the suspicion that her politics have spoiled her writing. Despite the practised prose, delicate observation and steady-handed drip-feed of plot, there sometimes rises off the page a teacherly spirit that grabs you by the lapels and says, ‘Now listen here’. Gender relations, climate change; Atwood would probably say these subjects are more important than whether the direction of a book isn’t just a bit too obvious. And maybe she’s right.
But it bodes well for the reader that in Stone Mattress, her new collection of ‘tales’, she gravitates towards a more personal subject. In most of them, people in their seventies or thereabouts (like Atwood), often literary figures, are again confronted with the one vexed question of their youth.
For the characters in the best three tales, which together form a kind of short novel about 100 pages long, that question is a 50-year-old affair. Wispy, potty old Constance Starr is a commercially successful authoress of fantasy fiction who, in her youth, was derided (as Atwood has sometimes been) for writing ‘genre’. This derision came from the highbrow friends of her true love, a self-involved poet whom she came home to find in a passionate clinch with Marjorie, a volunteer bookkeeper with a braying laugh.
For the next five decades, Constance keeps a special hell for Marjorie in her literary fantasy world: every day at noon, Marjorie is stung by 100 emerald and indigo bees. For her part, Marjorie was soon ditched by the poet and has feared Constance ever since. When they are brought together, it’s giving nothing away to say that Constance does not come out fighting. The old hurts are re-appraised from the perspective of having little, but still a little, time left. The collection feels, surprisingly, as if the indefatigable Atwood is settling her accounts.
In another story, a commercially successful old horror author (also derided for writing genre) meets the girl who has been bleeding him white since they were student housemates. He was behind on the rent and lustful after her, so in lieu of cash half-jokingly gave her shares in the novel he was writing, The Dead Hand Loves You. It was a massive hit and she has been taking her cut ever since. He decides to murder her at last, but then — oh ho — it turns out he’s had her motivations wrong all this time; and there’s still some time in which to repair old mistakes.
This tale is part of a pulp undertone that comes up again and again, like a determined zombie. That is why these shorts are billed as ‘tales’, conjuring up bogles, beasties and dark and stormy nights. The only one that gives in wholly to this impulse — it’s about a misunderstood werewolf — is also the least successful, coming across as a cleverish conceit, and no more. But even the pulpier offerings present a perspective from life’s later years: one concerns a woman living with macular degeneration (a progressive blindness) in a nursing home. An arsonous mob of young people shows up wearing baby masks and waving placards that read ‘Our Turn’ and ‘Torch The Dusties’.
This more personal turn is all to the good, as it prevents Atwood from letting her intellect dry out her fiction. The characters and situations feel long-inhabited, naturally alive, and the voice is her best one: sharp, but also understanding, wry and humane.
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