Margaret Atwood’s ninth collection of short stories (subtitled nine tales, interestingly enough) could have tied a loose thread to her third collection of short stories, Bluebeard’s Egg, if she’d chosen to call it Curate’s Egg instead of Stone Mattress. Once upon a time, a curate’s egg was considered something unredeemably bad whose overall effect was actually offset by features that could, in some lights, be considered quite good actually. Stone Mattress is by no means bad – it is just something of a hodgepodge. You get the sense Atwood had a few bits and pieces that she’s pulled together into book form without quite asking if all of these pieces sit well together (it isn’t enough that here are nine stories Margaret Atwood has written). Why is it a hodge podge? Well, that will take a couple of paragraphs to answer.
Before I started reading, I skipped ahead to the Acknowledgements to see where these stories had appeared and I discovered that ‘I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth’ was a piece commissioned by The Walrus in which established writers were asked to return to characters they had written about before; Atwood chose Zenia, Ros, Charis and Tony from The Robber Bride, a novel originally published in 1993. Not wishing to do Stone Mattress a disservice, I toddled off and read all 560 pages of The Robber Bride which I think we can safely say is a lesser Atwood. It’s the story of three friends – the aforementioned Ros, Charis and Tony – each of whom come up against Zenia (who you could view as Atwood’s Nicola Six, in that she’s a character constructed from other character’s views) and lose out in some way, with Zenia stealing men and money and causing all manner of chaos). At the beginning of the novel we learn Zenia is thought dead, having been killed in a terrorist attack. Only she isn’t dead. She’s back. Then we have about four hundred pages of back story (in which we learn just how these three ladies came to be annoyed by Zenia) and then we have a climax which is a bit underwhelming after a few hundred pages of backstory. The Robber Bride reads more like a Fay Weldon novel than a typical Margaret Atwood (there is less of the kind of dense erudition you find in her best books, I’m thinking, say, Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin and more clucky ‘women being women’ together than you normally get – think Sex in the City for the pre-Botox generation). An underwhelming novel isn’t really saved by an underwhelming short story in Stone Mattress.
‘I Dream of Zenia…’ dispatched, your plucky reviewer returned to the start of the book. The first three stories are interlinked, each one birthing the next before finally wrapping up the whole in a neat bundle. ‘Alphinland’ concerns an elderly lady called Constance who has recently lost her husband and is contending with a snowstorm (worrying about the lack of food in the cupboards, the lack of salt to pour on the stoop and the steps). She is also a famous, if derided, writer, responsible for the long-running Alphinland series, Aphinland a mythical place where Constance sometimes banishes people from her own life, such as Gavin, an old boyfriend, stored in a barrel, and Marjorie, a woman Gavin cheated on her with; ‘Revenant’ follows, and this time we hear from Gavin, now a successful poet (if those two words aren’t mutually exclusive), married to a much younger woman and having to contend with having himself organised, a diarised meeting with a young woman writing an academic piece on – of all people! – Constance inflaming his ire (or his nascent sexism, at any rate); ‘Dark Lady’ completes the triumvirate, focusing on Marjorie, albeit narrated via her twin brother, as Gavin’s two former lovers converge at his funeral. You get to ‘Dark Lady’ and you think, three stories in, oh, is this how the book is going to go? Interlinked stories! Goodie. But no. Three interlinked stories is all. The closely linked opening stories being followed by stories that don’t link at all made me wonder if in fact the first three stories should have been badged as one story separated by (i), (ii) and (iii). We then have ‘Lusus Naturae’ which is more in the fantastical Angela Carter zone Atwood occasionally inhabits, as different from the opening stories as can be – and as good as it is (and it is good – a sort of werewolf-y tale of a young woman who becomes a creature, is gradually abandoned by her family and learns to fend for herself without quite understanding that two people can lose all of their clothes and inhibitions for reasons other than transformation), you read with a eye on how it will connect to ‘Dark Lady’. The four remaining stories in the book – ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’, ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’, ‘The Stone Mattress’ and ‘Torching the Dusties’ are all as different from each other as can be (which is fine in a short story collection, it’s arguably what we’re used to but – harping on this as I know I am – those three opening stories and The Robber Bride story create expectations of connections and interleaving that are not delivered).
So what do we get in those four stories? Well, ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ concerns a dude (you can tell he thinks of himself as a bit of a dude) called Sam, whose other half Gwynneth has got sick of him and turfed him out – so he goes into work (at a sort of low rent antique shop with a sideline in forged antiquities), before heading out to an auction where he buys a few pre-agreed units of stuff (he’s basically the middleman of a drugs operation) in one of which is a dead body. Before he decides what to do, the owner of the unit appears and Sam finds himself (to paraphrase James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life) in a very interesting situation. ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’ is, in some senses, a bit more straightforward: young man on his uppers, in hock to his friends, offers to split the proceeds from the novel he’s writing four ways only for said novel to them become cash cow and writer to become somewhat aggrieved by all of the cash he is forced to cough up – cue somewhat long in the tooth revenge plot. Similarly, ‘The Stone Mattress’ is a revenge tale, this time set aboard a boat in the midst of an arctic cruise. It’s somewhat formulaic and, surprisingly for a title story, possibly the weakest story to be included. The final story seems to combine all of the elements that make the best of Atwood’s novels tick so well. ‘Torching the Dusties’ is set in a care home, we imagine ever so slightly in the future. Wilma, our narrator, suffers from Charles Bonnet syndrome, a condition that affects people who have lost or are losing their sight, where they see things that are not really there. Wilma sees small dancing figures, who perennially evade her touch whenever she makes a grab for them. Wilma spends her days engaged in a mild flirtation with an old gentleman called Tobias, who forever regales her with tales of his derring-do as a younger man – at least until the care home starts to be picketed by young people who object to those responsible for fucking up the world being cossetted and cared for. Atwood covers a lot of ground in a short space and creates a plausible situation that is dramatic and interesting. What more can you ask from a short story?
All told, Stone Mattress is enjoyable enough. Fans won’t be disappointed (and may even object to how picky I’m being). We know, though, don’t we, that there are novelists who can create short story collections at least as satisfying as their novels. Hell, Margaret Atwood has done it before. Both of her last two collections, The Tent and Moral Disorder, were easily on a par with the best of her books. The Stone Mattress isn’t quite up to the usual standard then.
Any Cop?: This would clock in at a seven out of ten if we graded such things – which we don’t, I know, but if we did. Seven out of ten.