Yet another masterpiece from Atwood
WITH writing that is daring, original, eccentric, grimly jesting, Canadian author Margaret Atwood has forged a long, diverse, endlessly selfrenewing career. She is a poet, novelist, essayist and short-story writer. Her most recent novel, MaddAdam, brilliantly concluded the bleak and comic trilogy in which she imagined a dystopian near future. Her new short-story collection, Stone Mattress, is subtitled Nine Tales. As she writes, they ‘‘owe a debt to tales through the ages’’. They are infused with both preternatural happenings and a clear-eyed observation of human folly.
One tale was generated by a magazine invitation to revisit characters from an earlier work. Thus I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth brings back Zenia and her ‘‘friends or dupes’’, Ros, Charis and Tony from Atwood’s 1993 novel The Robber Bride. And, as she says, there are tales behind tales. The Freeze-Dried Groom reminds us of the ruined wedding celebrations of Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and the lock-up garage of Silence of the Lambs.
There are recurrent motifs in these tales: portraits of authors and of retirement homes, literary festivals and vampires, Tennyson’s poetry and the loss of husbands, ageing and revenge. Stone Mattress opens with three cunningly linked stories in which connections between characters across generations are revealed surprisingly and sympathetically.
The first, Alphinland, refers to the fecund fantasy world created — to popular acclaim and commercial success — by a woman who writes as Constance W. Starr. The word elves sounds in the title and Aphidland is what her former lover, poet Gravin Putnam, enviously calls these works, but Constance had in mind Alph, the sacred river of Coleridge’s Kublai Khan.
The story begins in an ice storm: ‘‘the freezing rains sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant’’. Constance is widowed, but her late husband Ewan in- Stone Mattress: Nine Tales By Margaret Atwood Bloomsbury, 288pp, $35.99 (HB) structs her on coping with the storm. He had lectured in architecture, or in courses now named ‘‘Theory of Constructed Space’’ and ‘‘The Contained Body’’. Constance is the creator of magical, dangerous spaces — ‘‘dungeons, moors, iron cages, drifting boats’’. Atwood moves dexterously between these imagined realms and Constance’s memories.
In particular Constance thinks of the 1960s, when poets met in the Riverboat coffee house in the Yorkville area of Toronto when it was ‘‘morphing … from white-bread quasi-slum to cool pre-hippie hangout’’. Here she was betrayed by Gavin’s affair with the adoring Marjorie. Both women would claim to be the muse of his sonnets. Constance plots a fate in Alphinland for each of them. Gavin is parked in a deserted winery. Marjorie is ‘‘immobilised by runic spells inside a stone beehive’’. The denizens of Constance’s magic kingdom ‘‘understood gallantry, and courage, and also revenge’’.
Atwood, of course, has the power to set them free, so in the two following stories she gives us an ageing Gavin in Revenant, tended by Reynolds, his much younger third wife, and Jorrie (once Marjorie) in Dark Lady, as she prepares for a final encounter with the living and the dead in company with her gay twin, the classical scholar Martin. Atwood turns her poetic and playful gifts to dashing effect, inventing obscene redactions of Martial epigrams by Martin (‘‘Why not emulate the strumpet?’’) and Gavin’s last poem (‘‘Maria skims the dying leaves’’).
Atwood’s conviction of the power of her inventions, however strange they are, never falters. In The Dead Hand Loves You, another revenge story that begins with a joke, a dare and then a contract that bedevils an author’s life, she does not allude to but makes up a masterpiece of pulp horror fiction. This is the story of the title and it establishes the cult fame of Jack Dace. He too will be pestered by fans