31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 7: “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood

May 7, 2015 by · 1 Comment 

From Stone Mattress: Nine Tales

Stone_Mattress_Margaret_AtwoodThe issue of the Toronto alt-weekly NOW Magazine that hit newsstands on April 2, 2015, featured a cover profile of Canadian writer Andrew Pyper, who had just published his seventh novel, The Damned. The profile began in an odd way. Susan G. Cole, NOW Magazine’s books and entertainment editor, led by essentially slamming Pyper for writing what amounts to a ghost story: “Andrew Pyper pisses me off. Really, I just want to shake him. He’s one of the best writers we have: vivid images, page-turning narratives, complex characters. He writes so exquisitely, you wish he’d just settle in and write a conventional novel. Do us a favour – get real and stop wasting your time on genre fiction.”

This distinction – between genre fiction and what Cole refers to as “conventional novel[s]” – continues to hang around, like a particularly nasty chest cold, though it is getting harder and harder to draw as more and more writers insist on eliding it. Colson Whitehead’s most recent book, Zone One, is a zombie novel, as is All-Day Breakfast, the latest from Canadian writer Adam Lewis Schroeder, who has to this point confined himself to the apparently more respectable genre of historical fiction. (Cole singles out Helen Humphreys for praise as the kind of writer she wishes Pyper would emulate, apparently unwilling to admit that historical fiction itself represents genre writing.)

Never mind that Pyper has forged a lucrative career over the better part of three decades by insisting on the artificiality of exactly these barriers. Suggesting that writers who practice their craft in the areas of genre fiction are “wasting [their] time” immediately discounts at least some of the output of such diverse figures as Henry James, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Angela Carter, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, John le Carré, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Elmore Leonard, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ian McEwan.

Not to mention Margaret Atwood. Pyper actually does reference Atwood in response to Cole, a comment Cole calls “provocative.” But it isn’t provocation: it’s a simple fact. Atwood’s most famous novel, after all, is The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist work of dystopian speculative fiction. Her recently completed MaddAddam trilogy of novels also constitutes spec-fic, this time with a healthy dose of environmentalism added to the mix. And the author’s upcoming novel, The Heart Goes Last, is also set in the near future.

In fact, the further on Atwood gets in her career, the less interested she appears to be in writing what Cole dismisses as “conventional” fiction. In his review of Atwood’s 2014 story collection, Stone Mattress, the critic Jeet Heer noticed this tendency, positing that before The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood “spent her main energies mastering and exhausting the possibilities of realism,” while thereafter “realism would become a minor chord” in the author’s work.

Atwood herself notes that the pieces in Stone Mattress are not stories at all but, as the subtitle attests, “tales.” This is not an arbitrary distinction. Atwood is deliberately staking out a position outside the confines of social realism, aligning herself instead with tellers of fabulous tales – Scheherazade and the Ancient Mariner, or Robertson Davies, whom Atwood quotes as saying, “Give me a copper coin and I will tell you a golden tale.”

None of the nine entries in Stone Mattress constitutes a work of realism; “Lusus Naturae,” commissioned for Michael Chabon’s anthology McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, is an all-out allegorical fairy tale.

In terms of genre, the title story could reasonably be considered a work of noir fiction – it is a revenge tale, albeit told from a feminist perspective that is typical of its author. Its central figure, Verna, is a murderer. Or, to be more precise, she is what is colloquially known in crime novels as a “black widow”: a woman who marries men in a series and bumps them off one by one. Verna is careful to note that all of her victims die of natural causes, she merely helps them along, by leaving a double dose of medicine at bedtime, or offering “tacit permission to satisfy every forbidden desire,” such as unhealthy food or too much booze. She entices them into sexual congress, knowing full well that their hearts or their arteries won’t be able to take it. Viagra, Verna says, is “a revolutionary breakthrough but so troubling to the blood pressure.”

Also on display here is Atwood’s unique brand of acidic humour, something critics – most of them men – have castigated her for, but an aspect of her writing that devotees recognize and appreciate. It is a strain of humour that stretches back at least as far as the 1971 poetry collection Power Politics, which includes the brilliant four-liner “You Fit into Me”: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye // a fish hook / an open eye.”

Sure, there is a strong element of nastiness in all this, but the viciousness is rarely misplaced in Atwood’s work. Consider what sets Verna off on her homicidal career: when she was a teenager, she was date raped, an experience that left her pregnant and a pariah. More than fifty years on, Verna encounters her rapist on an Arctic cruise; he doesn’t recognize her and tries to hit on her, she responds by forging a plan to kill him.

Verna’s plot to kill her assailant is also pure Atwood: the cruise ship is to make an unexpected stop at an area replete with stromatolites, “the very first preserved form of life on this planet.” A scientist explains to the vacationers: “The word comes from the Greek stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for stone. Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome.” One such fossilized cushion becomes the weapon with which Verna bludgeons her rapist to death, following which she carries the rock back on board the ship for the other passengers to admire and, not incidentally, get their DNA on. “She’d read a lot of crime novels,” we are told.

Atwood, too, has clearly read a lot of crime novels, to say nothing of novels in any number of other genres. Though some devout science fiction aficionados have charged Atwood with being an interloper – a literary writer merely pretending an affinity for so-called lower genres – Heer points out that “[t]his accusation is refuted not only by the sheer volume of Atwood’s genre output, but also by the way sensationalistic plots have manifestly invigorated her work.” Atwood’s affinity for genre writing is evident in the joy she seems to glean from it. And why shouldn’t this be the case? It’s all a form of storytelling, after all. How could anyone presume that this was somehow a waste of time?


One Response to “31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 7: “Stone Mattress” by Margaret Atwood”
  1. Very refreshing. Someone should tell literary agents to stop asking what the genre is. Like “upmarket women’s fiction that may appeal to YA” Ug. How about “Its a really good story.”

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    Stephen Davenport