Scientists have recently proved that separate particles may exist in a uniquely coupled state. Actions affecting one photon, for example, immediately cause change in another, even though the two may be situated at a great distance. Einstein derided this hypothetical phenomenon as “spooky action at a distance”. Contemporary physicists describe it as “quantum entanglement”. Margaret Atwood calls it a short story collection.
In Stone Mattress, Atwood, one of the commanding figures of contemporary literature in English, takes the same collection of narrative particles and sets them spinning across time, space, genre, character and milieu. Its nine “tales” are at once broader than a gathering of short fiction and something less than a novel: more a series of chronicles that begin to leak into one another, gradually revealing the shared creative source from which they come.
In the opener, “Alphinland”, an elderly, newly widowed and highly successful writer of fantasy fiction finds herself home alone during an ice storm. C.W. Starr – or Constance – has coped with the death of her loving husband by cleaving to their home and to his belongings. She even hears his voice in her head, providing advice and admonishment from time to time as she ventures to keep herself alive when the power goes out.
But it is her first love about whom we learn most. Gavin is a poet of some reputation who Constance first met as a naive young woman. Their affair, which blossomed among the bohemian bars and coffee houses of the pre-hippie Yorkville area of Toronto, was based on her willingness to work to support the sardonic young talent, as well as her pliability in bed. He behaved poorly and the relationship ended suddenly, though she has retained a protective affection for him ever since.
The two following tales are explicitly linked to the first. In “Revenant” we meet Gavin, now elderly too, trapped by his far younger third wife into a meeting with a graduate student whose interest in him is secondary: C. W. Starr and her alternative worlds are now the meat and potatoes of contemporary research in the academy. And in the third, “Dark Lady”, we meet the woman, Jorrie, whose affair with Gavin was the cause of Constance’s initial break with the poet.
In each story the empathetic weighting of readers’ attentions is differently apportioned. And in each case a rapprochement of sorts with the past is either ventured or refused. Forgiveness is a virtue whose efficacy increases in proportion to the distance of the events to which it is applied, apparently. Vengeance, however, has its more immediate charms and these are not always resisted in subsequent tales.
By now, the framework is established. Atwood writes of quartets, of triangles, of couples and solitaries obliged to adjudicate on some past malfeasance by a lover or friend. She writes of bad or weak or self-involved men and the power they wield over young women. Then she reverses the current of power and reveals the former “hormonal puppets” in all their sad desuetude.
Atwood also drops into this vat of sharp-edged contemporary realism tinctures of fantasy, Gothic horror, fairytale, even metafiction (one story revisits her 1993 novel The Robber Bride, itself a retelling of a tale by the Brothers Grimm). Yet the parameters of her concerns retain stubborn commonalities: old age, mainly, which the author writes about with humour and anguish. Her explorations into the intrinsic shittiness of males of the species do not preclude appreciation of the gentle affection or pure bodily passion some of them inspire. Sometimes, though, she just lets rip.
The title story introduces us to Verna, who was raped as a 14-year-old debutante by Bill, the big guy at their high school. She dragged herself out of the gutter of teenage pregnancy and made a life for herself, mainly via the enriching deaths of her several husbands. When they meet again by chance on an Arctic cruise many decades later, she gives the widower opportunities to recant his ways. When he fails her tests, she bludgeons him to death with a stromatolite, or “stone mattress”. A fossilised version of the oldest form of life on Earth is used to avenge the first crime to which Verna, and so many of her gender, are subjected.
This is ground zero, the point where biology reflects a violent striving whose iterations dully repeat over the millennia. But readers are also given a canny and comic masterclass in the ways in which genre, traditionally the handmaid to serious “literature”, may provide a more lucid and economically powerful explanation for human behaviour. If modern patriarchal society regards speculative fiction as an escape from a mature reckoning with “reality”, Atwood’s career has explained that refusal in feminist terms, where realism is that vision of the world laid down by men.
It is of a piece with her generosity of spirit that Atwood nonetheless acknowledges the imperatives that drive the connection between the sexes. Instead she concentrates on the justice and the care we finally owe to one another, however far apart we have drifted. We may be victims of biology, she writes, but it is only through biology that we rise above animal circumstance and are able to practise those moral and aesthetic gestures that redeem us.
As Wilma, ancient heroine of the volume’s final story, observes:
You believed you could transcend the body as you aged … You believed you could rise above it, to a serene, non-physical realm. But it is only through ecstasy you can do that, and ecstasy is achieved through the body itself. Without the bone and sinew of wings, no flight. Without that ecstasy you can only be dragged further down by the body, into its machinery. Its rusting, creaking, vengeful, brute machinery. AF
Bloomsbury, 288pp, $25.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 18, 2014 as "Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress".
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