Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale’’ appears often on lists of the “ten books that have influenced your life.” Over the years, many have noted the way her fiction deals with current concerns in a way that is unselfconscious and penetrating. The stories in “Stone Mattress,’’ her latest book, possess that quality; they also tend to stray beyond the boundaries of realism and into the psychic terrain of the teller. Predictably amazing, this collection — eclectic, funny, vibrant, terrifying, beautiful and utterly delightful — illustrates why Atwood is a fan favorite as well as a critic’s dream.
The book opens with the linked tales, “Alphinland,” “Revenant,” and “Dark Lady,” which chronicle the saga of Gavin, a handsome poet from whose point of view the story is told, and his muse, Constance. At first she supports the young couple’s hopeful artistic pursuits by working crappy jobs and selling fantasy stories while Gavin lounges around smoking weed and writing sonnets. He cheats on her, and they break up. When her “Alphinland’’ (“juvenile pablum,” according to Gavin) makes Constance a megamillionaire he lives to regret his dismissiveness.
Years later, we catch up to Gavin, married to the last of his wives. A scholar feigns interest in his work in order to unearth details about Constance, whose fame has far surpassed his. Atwood is not above skewering Gavin’s vanity. “This idea is dismaying: having some estrogen-plumped babe a quarter of his age contort his stringy knobbled limbs while comparing the dashing protagonist of his earlier poems, replete with sexual alacrity and sardonic wit, to the atrophied bundle of twine and sticks he has become.”
However, she doesn’t play favorites. While many of the men in “Stone Mattress’’ are revealed as ego-driven, highly functioning idiots who inflate their mediocre intelligence and minor successes, often at the risk of their lives, as is the case in “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” as well as in the title story, “Stone Mattress,” Atwood is equally critical of the women who tolerate such behavior, and they often meet similar disastrous ends, moral and otherwise.
To describe Atwood’s humor as “dark” is reductive, and doesn’t adequately speak to the scope of her vision. These new stories offer piercing insight into the absurdity of human kindness and cruelty, thereby forcing the reader to reckon profoundly with these realities.
Readers of these stories will see a refined intelligence at work; the scenes are exquisite, the characters alive, even when they are speaking from the dead. Many of the characters in “Stone Mattress’’ are rendered helpless not by their deliberate actions but by accidents of chance. In “Lusus Naturae,” a story reminiscent of Frankenstein, a young girl is outcast due to a rare genetic abnormality.
Others have been irrevocably damaged by trauma from childhood, or are approaching the far-end of middle age. Made helpless by a society that has no time or space for those who have been deemed unremarkable by the loss of youth and beauty, they look back on their lives with loss and nostalgia — states for which Atwood has little patience.
These stories include such recent happenings as the polar vortex and the unprecedented, near comical rise of the fantasy genre, while also tackling overlooked social issues like age-ism. In “Torching the Dusties,” one of the collection’s most harrowing stories, Atwood details the dispiriting process of aging, and the dangerous narrowing of the world that occurs when the indignities of old age collide with the arrogance of youth.
Although Atwood’s stories rarely end happily, they are not without a reluctant, world-weary hopefulness. In “The Dead Hand Loves You,” a man marginalized by his own success is granted, in his final years, a last chance at love. “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth,” features three beloved characters from Atwood’s celebrated novel, “The Robber Bride,’’ in a story that shows the power of long-standing female friendships.
In Atwood’s fiction, nothing escapes her acute observational gaze. She makes the realities of the human condition both too terrible and too true, which somehow mutes the horror of this assessment. The stories in “Stone Mattress’’ remind us that we all live under the veil of our delusions, and it’s up to us to find the courage to lift this veil and examine what’s beneath.
Emily Rapp is the author, most recently, of “Still Point of the Turning World.’’ She can be reached at email@example.com.