I was recently lucky enough to get my hands on Margaret Atwood’s newest collection of short stories, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. Atwood is one of those contemporary authors who is so revered and so prolific that my “to-read” list is never short of a few of her titles. Having never read any of her short fiction, I was excited to bump this particular book to the top.
Stone Mattress is expertly arranged, its first section containing a set of three, interconnected stories, with each subsequent work linked to the rest through a slow, thematic unfolding. Her meditations on the body—gendered, aging, and dying—represent Atwood at her best, and the consistency of her candor and humor carries across a wide variety of tones and generic conventions.
Stone Mattress’ exploration of the body begins vividly with its first set of tales. In “Alphinland” an aging fantasy author named Constance Starr reflects on her past loves, their indiscretions, and the vindication she’s found by trapping them in her fictional worlds. The subsequent two stories feature these lovers as narrators in their own rights—a man who reclaims his story from an empowered, successful female voice, and the Other Woman whose “own star faded” as Constance Starr’s rose. This trilogy, like the rest of the the anthology, hinges on a sort of aggressive reflection on the characters’ pasts, making them stories of aging that are anything but tragic or passive. Despite opening on a quiet but troubling account of Constance mourning her late husband, the stories have verve and wit aplenty. They blur the line between fiction and reality, and the mortal and immortalized character, in a recognizably Atwood-style that is both playful and subtle. Add to this the ongoing theme of creative production, and the “Alphinland” trifecta makes for an amazing hook for the collection at large.
For the most part, Stone Mattress is less on the speculative side of whatever generic spectrum you might draw of Atwood’s works. The stories do vary, though—more in plot and content than in theme—and a story reflecting on the cruel, lost love of a poet might be followed by a pastiche about a werewolf-like creature escaping her childhood home. This is not the kind of short story collection you struggle through, weighed down by the stories’ similarities or the constancy of voice. It is cohesive enough to feel like a finished work, but dynamic enough to keep you turning pages.
Easily my favorite of the collection is its last story, “Torching the Dusties.” With its suggestion of strangely-rooted political turmoil, and its protagonist’s haunting—if medically explainable—visions, “Dusties” is on the further end of the collection’s speculative spectrum. Its protagonist, Wilma, sees plenty of odd things during her day-to-day tenure at an assisted living facility—half-blind and with Charles Bonnet’s Syndrome, she finds comfort in the festive, energetic sprites she sees dancing at the edge of her vision. However, it is what she doesn’t see—a mob of “real people, younger people” wearing baby masks and gathering at the gate of her home chanting “our turn”—that threatens to change her reality. This story, like many of the others in Stone Mattress, asks questions about society’s treatment of gender and age, but it is particularly creepy and particularly sinister in its conclusions. It was perhaps the only story in the collection that I wished had been developed into a longer form.
While I wouldn’t say this collection is “for” or even aimed at an older audience, I do think that older folks are likely to appreciate Atwood’s nuanced perspectives. Aging in Stone Mattress is not just a matter of retrospection as it’s often presented in other media, but of attempts at justice, battling inevitability, and death as an aggressive but unpredictable threat. Aging, in Atwood’s estimation, is exciting and dangerous. At the very least, the stories in this collection are exciting and dangerous, as much as they are introspective and complex. If you’re new to Atwood’s omnibus, I’d recommend starting with something more consistently speculative. However, fans of her work aren’t likely to be disappointed in this collection.
Stone Mattress is available now from Knopf Doubleday.
Emily Nordling is a writer and reader living in Chicago, IL. She thrives primarily on tea, books, and social justice.