Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Stone Mattress: Nine Tales," by Margaret Atwood

I have always thought, as have so many others, that the great Margaret Atwood is a powerful writer in complete command of her writing. I so appreciate her pointed explorations of political and social issues, especially those regarding gender (see, for example, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Cat’s Eye,” both brilliant modern day classics). I also admire the way she cuts through nonsense. There is a bracing tartness to most of her work. And I just plain enjoy her work. I read almost everything she wrote until she started writing in the science fiction/fantasy vein (from “Oryx and Crake” onward); as readers of this blog may remember, that is not a genre I enjoy, even when produced by great writers such as Atwood. So I was happy to read her recent collection of “tales”; although there is an occasional bit verging on fantasy or magic, as the word "tales" might indicate, these stories are not predominantly in that genre. And what stories! The book is titled “Stone Mattress: Nine Tales” (Doubleday, 2014), and it is a joy to return to the competent -- no, brilliant -- writing of this great writer. (And I -- a former Canadian -- have a special pride in the work of this Canadian writer.) Several of the stories deal with old age; although Atwood herself seems ageless, she will be 75 this month, and I assume she draws (creatively and indirectly, of course) on her own thoughts and feelings as an aging person. The final story, for example, “Torching the Dusties,” is chilling in its portrayal of what could happen when some people believe that the old should be forced to step aside to make room for the young. Another story on the theme of age, “Revenant,” is a devastatingly negative portrayal of an aging male writer who, long past his artistic prime, is still extremely sensitive about his reputation and his ego. (I can't help wondering if Atwood had a particular writer in mind!) One story, “Alphinland,” tells of a writer who has created a fantasy world in her books, one which is extremely popular and makes her rich and famous (or relatively so), although it allows others to look down on her because what she writes isn’t, in their view, real literature. Readers will of course wonder if Atwood is describing her own situation here, when she turned to science fiction. The other stories have various themes and topics, all with a bite; imagine, for example, the threat of danger that the main character thrives on when he meets the woman whose storage unit he has just bought sight unseen (a la "Storage Wars" on television). Hint: the title of the story is “The Freeze-Dried Groom.” Each of these stories is highly original and highly satisfying.

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